City Soundscape

New York is blue sky through grey steel, grey sky through grey steel, urine-funk, garbage-funk, cigarette smoke-funk, and endless, endless sounds from millions of people living and striving and near-expiring all on top of one another.

Of course out and about there’s the noise of traffic: so many angry, impatient drivers quick to lay on their horns and slow to get up off of them. There are conversations in all kinds of languages, some I’ve never heard before. There are people asking for help, reciting for help, selling for help. Emergency sirens wail and obnoxious people subject us all to the music from their phones and stereos. High heels clip clop. A shuffle-murmur emerges from the friction of bodies rubbing against themselves and against others as they push in and out of the subway and around one another on sidewalks.

Despite living in the outskirts of Manhattan, there’s plenty of noise in my neighbourhood too. I spend the average day in my apartment, and my morning used to be heralded by the little birds who live outside my window. Their cheerful songs made me happy, and they reminded me of the cooing pigeons that soothe me on lazy afternoons at home. Now I hardly hear them. Instead, my alarm is the pounding of a jackhammer, forcing its way deeper and deeper into the earth. Road construction started a few weeks ago, and though I walk by the site regularly, I couldn’t tell you what it is they’re doing. Some days, before the crew gets to work, before the sky has even properly started to lighten, I hear garbage trucks or snow plows creaking and groaning on their rounds.

The construction continues through the morning, 6 days a week. In addition to the jackhammer, I hear drilling, the warning beep of reversing machinery, the clang of metal against metal, rocks and dirt piles being scooped and dumped, men yelling at one another, and the steady rumble of their vehicles. My windows face the street, so to escape the intensity of the noise I work in the living room.

That isn’t an altogether quiet place, however. After the morning construction noises have died down the neighbour on the other side of the kitchen wall, Spanish Evangelist, blasts Christian network television in the afternoon. I recognise the sound of prayers fervently prayed, sickness rebuked, blessings bestowed, and the majesty of God proclaimed, even though it’s entirely in Spanish. Something about the character of this kind of television seems to remain the same, regardless of language. At other times, Spanish Evangelist listens to gospel radio, so loudly I can hear the ads for exercise regimes and insurance agencies in addition to every lyric of Kirk Franklin’s and whoever else.

Evening falls, night comes, and I often feel my ears and cheeks burning from the discomfort of listening to Pleasure Hunter on the other side of my bedroom wall enjoying riotous sex. Really there’s no time of day that I can be assured safety from these sounds. In the broad daylight, I gather up whatever I’m doing and run from my room; in the minutes before sleep, I fumble groggily for earplugs. As glamorous as sex is portrayed in the media, as much as people seem to enjoy watching others having sex on television and in movies, being a silent witness is something entirely different and intensely discomfiting.

My upstairs neighbour Professional likes to walk around in heels for hours at a time, which aside from being confusing – where are you not going? – disturbed my visiting friend from sleeping in the morning. A mysterious outside neighbour has recently picked up the habit of honking their horn for 6 to 10 seconds at a time in the hours between 10pm and 6am. Two nights ago it was so bad, on and off for several minutes, that I heard other neighbours yelling SHUT UP! and the less polite SHUT THE F** UP! in protest. Thank you, I knew I couldn’t be alone. Then there’s the clichéd Partier neighbour below me, whose music drowns out all thought, much less anything I was playing, and makes my legs shake.

My ears have been assaulted by all these unwanted noises lately. It feels like there is always sound, never sanctuary. I guess that’s what the park is for.

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