An All Too Quiet Place

An All Too Quiet Place
Illustration: Angelica Alzona

When I log off work today at six, I’ll shuffle over to my window where I’ll anxiously check the time over and over again. For the next hour, I’ll wait, listening to the quiet music of New York during lockdown: birds chirping, trucks wheezing in the distance, a tinkering wind chime. Finally, at seven, the horrible tranquility will be drowned in a sea of noise as the whole city comes roaring back to life. For a few, glorious, unhinged minutes, my neighbours will stick their heads out windows, venture out onto decks, bang on pots and pans, and, above all, shout “WOOO!” in honour of New York’s healthcare workers.

And I’ll be right there with them, screaming “WOOO!” with my neck craned out into the evening air. I know I’ll do this because I’ve done it almost every day for months.

There’s no set time that we stop “WOOO!”-ing. Most nights, I’ll go until I make eye contact with someone across the yard, instantly breaking the spell. In that moment, I’ll remember that there aren’t any healthcare workers in particular we’re celebrating ” the nearest hospital is a mile and a half away ” and that a round of applause, like practiced in Spain during lockdown, would probably be a more respectful way to honour the people on the frontlines. But ultimately this orgiastic football holler isn’t for them, it’s for us. The silence, you see, is unbearable.

The constant noise that gave New York City its texture is gone. The warm laughter of teens smoking weed on stoops has cooled. The cheerful train conductor whose routine always fell flat on a tough crowd (“Hold your breath ” we’re going underwater! Just kidding!”) is now just a fond memory. Even the honking taxis have fallen silent, replaced by the occasional, disconcerting ambulance wail. A city full of people who speed-walk through crowds yakking on headsets like Hollywood agents has become one where residents listlessly amble down footpaths carrying grocery bags. The inescapable din of 8 million people was a neighborly sound. I miss them.

When I first arrived in New York, the city felt like an attack on my senses. Nine years ago, my then-girlfriend and I moved from a sleepy street in Providence, Rhode Island to an apartment over one of the busiest restaurant corridors in the Lower East Side. The hazing started early, but we could handle a simple bed bug infestation. It was impossible, however, to foresee the savagery of the New York City Department of Transportation.

The daily 4 a.m. jackhammering started a few months into our lease. The first night, my girlfriend sprinted downstairs in her PJs to scream at the construction workers. She returned, a half hour later, with a miserable look on her face and two pairs of fluorescent earplugs. It could’ve been worse: Some residents over the Brooklyn Bridge construction site wouldn’t sleep for years.

By the end of the year, though, I hadn’t just acclimated to the sounds of the city, I was addicted. I found this out when my girlfriend and I went backpacking in Montana’s Glacier National Park. We walked out of the park’s tiny airport into a silent world under a dizzying, unfamiliar sky. Having stupidly expected the airport to have a cab stand, we ended up catching a lift from a truck driver who moved his gun to the side of the trunk to make room for our backpacks. On the tense ride, he told us that two bears had already mauled tourists that month, insisting he take us into the park himself. If we’d bothered to look it up beforehand, we would’ve known that our trip lined almost perfectly with the peak bear activity in Montana.

After park rangers showed us an instructional video on how to Mace grizzlies and play dead, we practiced our only real defence, which was to clap and scream “HEY BEARS!” (The park shop was fresh out of bear bells.) In the end, we spent just two nights in the park, loudly speculating on bear whereabouts, yelling at invisible bears, and clapping until our palms went numb. Venturing out into the scat-littered camp site to pee at night felt like a potentially deadly gamble, so we stayed in our tent with full bladders and uneasy dreams. Back in New York, we discovered the clamor of Penn Station wasn’t so annoying anymore.

The perks of noise were suddenly obvious. Loudness in the woods means you’re not going to get eaten by a bear. Loudness in the city means you’re not going to get trampled, robbed, run over, touched, or shoved onto a subway track. People who are not loud: pickpockets. People who are loud: the lady who tells you you dropped your money. The quiet drunk throws up on you. The loud drunk warns you of his presence from the other end of the subway platform. The average noise level on a New York subway platform is 86 decibels, about as loud as a garbage disposal. On my commute, I haven’t heard a guy bellow “eyyyy I’m walkin’ here!” once, but cries of “SORRY,” “PLEASE HAVE MY SEAT,” and “CAN I HELP YOU?” are familiar parts of the MTA soundtrack.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the camaraderie shared by New Yorkers navigating the ear-splitting noise. I used to see it every morning at the Essex-Delancey street subway station, where announcements were impossible to make out over the crowds, the trains, and the cowboy blasting “Stairway to Heaven.” Since the F and M trains make the same stops but travel on different levels, commuters have to decide whether to stand on the upper or lower platforms, guessing which train will come sooner. But rather than take the win (and enjoy some much-needed elbow room) if their train arrived first, I watched with delight as commuters formed symbiotic packs at the top and bottom of the stairwell, one group signalling to the other to come, come now, the train is here!

Noise makes you a New Yorker, a loud person. Whether you start out hawking haircare products on the street or screaming drink orders at a nightclub, making it in this city requires raising your voice. If you want to eat, you’ll have to yell what you want on your sandwich. If you want to go to another bar, you’ll have to shout this desire to your friends. If you see a person convulsing on the street, nobody will pick their heads up unless you make some noise. And if you want to stand up for tenants’ rights or in solidarity with union workers, congratulations, you’ve got to cause a disturbance.

When I started writing this essay, I would take anything to drown out the horror movie soundtrack of tree branches swaying in the wind. A passing biker gang or truck blasting hymns could qualify as the highlight of my day. Now it’s embarrassing how small my desires were. In recent weeks, a new sound has started filling New York’s streets at night, a voice demanding change that’s bigger than me or the city whose noise I dearly miss.