Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

Sound and Suffering

Near Times Square in New York City in 2013 (Zoran Milich/Reuters )




The sound that this onomatopoetic representation attempts to capture is, as you might expect, the sound of drilling. It comes from the apartment above mine, which is being renovated, but it gets rebroadcast inside my head.

Once men left home to work. Ralph Kramden drove a bus, Chester Riley riveted wings, Abe Lincoln split rails. Now in the neoliberal utopia men and women stay home and telecommute. But if home is in the city, then workers at home are subject to the noises of the city.

These are many and various. Least disruptive, surprisingly, are the sounds made by masses of people in the street. Every Good Friday the congregation of the neighborhood Greek Orthodox church marches around the block, playing Chopin’s funeral march. Every so often there is a parade, blue and red flags waving, for a free Tibet. And much more often than that, the high school next door releases its scholars for a fire drill (or because some prankster pulled an alarm). These manifestations, as the French call them, can be confusing at street level, but 13 floors up they are no louder than the melancholy long-withdrawing roar of the sea of faith.

Ambulances and fire trucks, on the other hand, are true noisemakers. So they should be, to cut through traffic on their missions of mercy. Since there is both an engine company and an emergency room within strolling distance of my apartment building, I hear the everyday heroes who work from them so often that I no longer hear them. They are a figure in the sonic wallpaper. I have been on phone interviews with out-of-state radio stations whose hosts suddenly ask, alarmed, Is something the matter? No, just those old lacrimae rerum. N.B.: They say that the European alarm sound — eh-ah, eh-ah, eh-ah, the braying of a mechanical donkey — is more effective in signaling to motorists where an emergency vehicle is coming from, the better for them to clear a path for it. But patriotism and familiarity wed me to the all-American eeeeYAAAyeeeeYAAA. It is the true eldritch note of panic (the first hundred times you hear it).

What else? I have never heard gunfire myself. I had friends who used to hear it regularly, pre-Giuliani time, in their apartment uptown by the great Episcopal cathedral (not fired, to be sure, by the Episcopalians themselves). And my trainer was recently training a client in an other-borough park, one side cute brownstones, the other public housing, when they heard three sets of popopopopops. My trainer recognized that they were coming at two different frequencies, neither of them the frequency of a Glock, the police department’s pistol. Some business dispute then. His client whipped out her smartphone and checked an app for real-time urban disorder, on which she saw a report of the exchange of fire they had just heard. Progress. We have no such excitements where I live, not even in the school.

We do have the authorities, hovering over us in helicopters. There are helicopter tours of the harbor and the rivers, helicopters you can fly to the airports or the summer beaches. What I hear mid-island are the almost stationary choppers, reporting I assume on traffic bottlenecks. They hang like malignant dragonflies, kdkdkdkdkdkdkdkdkdkd. From a distance, against a blue sky, they all look black. In the Nineties black helicopters were the bugaboo of militia-trending wingers. I knew a crazy lawyer who had a client who claimed to be surveilled by one. “I looked up,” said the lawyer, “and there it was.” I hope he made better arguments in court. He should have come to my place.

So, back to my drilling. Drilling is not the only sound renovators make. They start in the morning, with heavy, it sounds like sweeping, and the scrape of myriad particulates. Then there is the hammer chorus, little ones for delicate work, big ones for breaking down plaster walls. Think of them as urban woodpeckers, petite and Jurassic. Then there is the small drill, like a dentist’s, weelll weelll, always followed, by no popular demand, by its gigantic giant-sized companion drrrr-ilililil.

I can work through anything; I once had an officemate who played The Ruins of Athens and the “Turkish Rondo” as we wrote editorial paragraphs. But my wife is a psychoanalyst who sees patients in her home office. She digs deep, but not with a drrrr-ilililil. I asked the renovators whether they could hold off with the big guy until a time certain. They said (I think: English was their nth language) no. I asked the super of the building whether he could induce them to do so. No again. The explanation is not far to seek. Deadlines and quality control are set by the landlords, whose concern is to flip apartments as fast as possible, with as many tenants (read young tenants) per unit as crammable. Under the city’s rent laws, new tenants allow for markups; under the conditions of modern life, young tenants have just come from dormitories, so what do they care about living cheek by jowl? 



There it goes again, sharp as knives, faithful as love. The cannon and the church bells at the climax of the “1812 Overture” are famous, but also noteworthy is the jackhammer in “Summer in the City,” a shorter but equally evocative piece of music. That jackhammer is now over my head.

We have two sound machines in our bedroom, one for each side of the bed, that electronically imitate waterfall, fireplace, ocean, meadow, train, city, rainfall, brook, meditation, or white noise. They are fine for muffling average city sounds, worthless for this. We have little yellow squeezy things you can pinch and stuff into your ears, which are somewhat better than worthless. We also have noise-reduction earmuffs — same degree of worth. If I use the earmuffs and the yellow squeezy things together I almost block some sound.

Easier to go out for coffee.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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