by Emily Sweeney

The Boston Globe

September 19, 2002

The ”boom, boom, boom” of bass emanates from the speakers of souped-up cars, vibrating their windows, like the resounding pulse of city life. Tucked away on Dexter Avenue, just outside Watertown Square, is a state-certified school that teaches students how to put together these stereos on wheels.

But Ritop School for Mobile Electronics has caught the ear of a national antinoise group, Noise Free America. The organization, founded in 2001, put the Massachusetts Department of Education on its ”Noisy Dozen” list last month, criticizing it for licensing a ”boom car academy.”

With chapters in 14 states, Noise Free America makes it a mission to lobby elected officials to reduce noise from lawn blowers, video arcades, nightclubs – and radios.

”Boom cars, like vehicles with `loud pipes,’ are intended to create attention and annoy people,” said Ted Rueter, a California political consultant who founded Noise Free America. ”Boom cars are destroying many neighborhoods across the country. They are making people sick and depressed.”

Joe Boston, Ritop’s director, said the school turns out professionals who can install stereos, alarms, monitors, and other technology in cars. He pointed out that Noise Free America considers movie trailers to be a type of noise. (The group’s Web site describes those film previews as ”thunderous.”)

”We don’t train guys to go out there and make noise. It’s not about noise,” said Boston. ”We just don’t go out and `boom, boom, boom,’ all the time.”

Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the commonwealth licenses all proprietary schools, but does not evaluate their courses or endorse their content.

”People have stereos, and they have to be installed,” said Perlman. ”We make sure these schools are not fly-by-night operations, and that the buildings are up to code. It does not mean we endorse what they teach.”

Rich Inferrera, owner of Rich’s Car Tunes (located next door), started Ritop in 1985. The name was an acronym for Rich Inferrera’s Team of Professionals. Today Ritop attracts students, most 18 to 21 years old, from across the country and as far as Japan. Graduates of the eight-week program go on to work for employers like Best Buy, Tweeter, Circuit City, car dealerships, and LoJack.

When Boston talks about his school and the students, his rhetoric is reminiscent of Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of a high school principal who worked to improve students’ performances at a dilapidated inner-city school in the 1989 drama ”Lean on Me.” Listening to Boston talk about Ritop, one could forget that this is an auto school.

”I won’t allow anyone to fall through the cracks,” said Boston. ”We’re very serious here.”

Students split their time between classroom and shop. The school has a computer lab and a small library, and stacks of ”Car Audio” magazines sit on the table in the front lobby. The shop area is stocked with tools of the trade: a drill press, table saw, rulers, and band saws.

Like most of Ritop’s recent crop of students, 20-year-old Matt Druin found the school while surfing the Web, at his home in Dayton, Ohio.

”There were a number of other schools to choose from, and I thought Ritop would be the best. Most of the other schools are four weeks at the most,” said Druin, who wants to open his own shop one day. Now he is contemplating installing stereo equipment in his 1990 Honda Civic.

Jeff Baker survived a major car accident four years ago, but that did not stop him from working on cars and signing up at Ritop to learn the tricks of the trade.

”It’s a lot harder than I thought it was,” said Baker.

A friend got him into it when they were both at Assabet Valley Regional High School, and he found Ritop on the Internet.

”The way I am, if I have a job, I have to have a job I like doing,” said Baker. ”I like putting stereos in. There’s always something you can do to make it better.”

But Mark Huber, of Noise Free America, who lives in Richmond, Va., said Ritop teaches skills that bring more noisy stereos onto the streets, which he considers a civil rights violation.

”Where I live, those boom cars are shaking buildings all over the place. I can’t violate their noise with my silence. I can’t hold a conversation, I can’t listen to the sounds of nature,” said Huber. ”There’s a whole culture surrounding these cars, and it’s very misogynist and overtestosteronized.”

Open up a copy of Car Audio, and you will see ads with scantily clad women gripping shiny amplifiers or leaning on cars. But Boston steers Ritop away from that image, and he laments that the industry is viewed that way by some. Few women have attended Ritop, he said, but one of his goals is to attract more to the trade and to this school.

One of those few women to attend Ritop is Brianna Matthews of Athol. Her boyfriend, who works at Audisee Electronics in Athol, sparked her interest in mobile electronics, and she read about the school in a copy of Mobile Electronic magazine. Matthews completed the session that ended Aug. 30.

”[Being the only woman at Ritop] was very strange at first,” she said. ”But then everyone gets to know each other, and it wasn’t much different that I was a girl.”

Matthews has a silver 2002 Honda Civic with a Kenwood Excelon head unit, MTX speakers and MTX Thunder 8000 subwoofers, and a Memphis Belle 5-channel amplifier that she drives back and forth to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she is pursuing a degree in nutrition. She did not install the equipment, but now she knows how.

Now she has a job at Audisee, which helps pay for her college tuition. After she completes her undergraduate degree at UMass, she plans to enroll in medical school or graduate school for a doctorate.

She listens to the haunting chants of VAST, an electronic rock band, during the one-hour commute from her Athol home to Amherst.

Kenny Nguyen, 19, of Worcester, finished his Ritop training at the same time as Matthews. Last semester they worked on a 1989 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL.

He has a light blue Acura Integra that he experimented with in his driveway and garage, putting in the CD player and speakers himself. Now, he wants to add an enhanced security system.

When he stops at red lights, he says, he lowers the volume of his CDs by Jah Rule and DJ Matrix.

”I love the bass,” said Nguyen. ”But I always turn music down, especially for elderly people, because everyone has different ways.”

Globe Staff correspondent Emily Sweeney can be reached at [email protected].