My train howls its atonal cry every morning at 7:59. A woman argues with her dog groomer, trying to squeeze Wiggles in this afternoon. A couple that I predict will soon break up laughs, pretending everything will be fine. A gaggle of 30-somethings chirps about Emily’s birthday party. I turn the volume on my podcast higher, trying to drown them out. Trying to let the soothing words of Guillaume Erner on Les Matins lull me into an hour of silence. I don’t care that the cake wasn’t gluten-free and Emily had a fit. I don’t care that Wiggles will have to wait until next Tuesday to get his nails clipped. All I care about is the fact that no one respects the rules of the quiet car. Or as I like to call it, the “Please shut up” car.
I’ve managed about 15 minutes of blissful unconsciousness before a doorbell-like MTA notification wakes me when the train has pulled into Grand Central Terminal. Commence noise anew. Newspapers folding, iPhones regaining Wi-fi, alarms going off like an emergency. (You know that iPhone alarm that sounds like the countdown to a deadly detonation? Just, why?) I am the quiet amoeba, pushed in a pulse of motion by my commuting counterparts to where I’m supposed to go.
I was the 10-year-old who kindly asked her parents to please turn down the TV.
Hitting the street is like surfacing on a stormy sea. I’m blasted with a wave of barrier-breaking sound: taxi-drivers leaning all of their childhood traumas into their horns, flatulent buses groaning. Hundreds of people in animated conversation with their handheld devices, looking like they’re about to self-destruct. A yipping dog, the lady giving out Time Out New York to no one who wants it: “Get your free Time Out Time Out Time Out!”. I need a time out.
The noise of New York City, while the bane of many quiet citizens’ existences, is one of its signature features. And according to Ben Wellington of The New Yorker, the only thing louder than the noise in New York City is “the sound of New Yorkers complaining about it.” Even through my distress, I suppose it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one on sensory overdrive whenever I walk through the city’s more sonically active neighborhoods. I do what I can to help myself out. I avoid Times Square. I attempt to drown out every sound in my path by repeating the mantra in my head: “Please shut up.” I think, if I believe it strongly enough, the world might just listen.
I was the 10-year-old who kindly asked her parents to please turn down the TV. I was the teenager who read books on Saturday nights and the only undergrad in the library at 7am every Sunday. But even in those early days, every attempt I made at seeking silence was met with disappointment. My parents would not turn down the TV any lower or it would be on mute. Since my sister played her cello incessantly, the house was never quiet enough for me to read with full comprehension. The library was filled with lip smackers, heavy breathers, snifflers, and sneezers that drove me to near-insanity. And for some reason, it never crossed my mind to try earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. I didn’t want to adapt to a noisy world. I wanted the noisy world to adapt to quiet, old me.
But I wasn’t going to lie to myself. I quickly realized that finding quiet was an impossibility I would have no choice but to accept. Considering my chronic allergy to noise, it would seem irrational and just stupid of me to pursue a life in New York City. But New York City, with all its chatters, honkers, screamers, and jack hammerers, chose me.
My grandmother, who had lived in New York City for a very long time, once asked me if I would ever consider living here. “No,” I said. I blamed the dog shit streets, the overabundance of sweaty people, and especially the noise. But she told me that the culture was enough to negate all of that—Lincoln Center, MoMA, The City Ballet. These were the forces louder than noise. I could live without culture, I thought, if only I had silence.
A city’s breath is its noise.
Yet years later, I knew I couldn’t accept anything but this city. From the overture of La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera to Sara Bareilles’s opening line at Radio City Music Hall, I realized my grandmother had been right. This city was totally worth it. The sounds, while sometimes harsh, can be beautiful if you take the time to listen.
Pursuing a life of silence is pursuing a life of loneliness. New York City without its noise is no city at all. It’s a barren place with no people, no culture, no life. How else would I know if my coffee was ready unless an enthusiastic barista called out my name in an octave-defying soprano? How else would I know I was about to walk into a rogue biker unless a kind stranger screamed, “Watch out!”? The noise is here to sometimes annoy us, but mostly, to protect us. A city’s breath is its noise. And if you listen closely, it can sound like music.