Sunday, August 30, 2009

Living with Noise

I sometimes sit at our desk and look out the unusually large window that provides views of Broadway, a large playground tucked next to the base of an even larger apartment development, 135th Street, the 1 Train tracks emerging from the ground. Sounds of machinery and traffic from the street are constant: the wrenching, guttural growl of motorcycles with mufflers removed, the raucous clatter as potholes throttle the chassis and contents of cargo trucks, the hard clangs of metal smashing against metal as subway cars roll over the 1-Train elevated tracks.

Hearing these sounds I often feel the iron, steel, concrete, asphalt; there can be an almost brutal physicality to the sound. The clang of the subway tracks buzzes against my teeth. I sometimes have morbid daydreams in which I imagine the trucks that barrel (seemingly all too fast) down Broadway losing control, smashing into other vehicles, people, street lamps, steel wrenching against bone. Horrid visions, I know. I experience the street sounds as a demented sonic reincarnation of the modernist conception of the city as an entity of machinery, metal, constant motion.

There are other ambient sounds too. My wife and I sometimes hear the yells and whoops of Friday- and Saturday-night revelers. Then there are the vibrations which emanate from our floor on random late mornings or early afternoons - bass vibrations of reggaeton, merengue, salsa. As in any apartment building, I might hear an occasional bit of yelling in the hallway, a snatches of families arguing may reach me through the bathroom vent or the other side of a wall.

Considered cumulatively, these sounds can sometimes grate on me. I grew up in a residential and relatively quiet sections of Queens. The major instance of "noise pollution" was the intermittent airplane passing overhead (my parents' house is underneath a flight route for LaGuardia Airport). There might be an oil or delivery truck now and then - but no subways, very few motorcycles, no bus brakes hissing and squealing. The few years I spent in North Carolina may have weakened my ambient sound tolerance. Friends and relatives asked me if the quiet was unsettling or disturbing to me, as a city boy. I had to admit that it was a noticeable change at first, but a pleasant one, similar to the aural "breathing room" you might suddenly feel when a refrigerator that has been cooling its contents suddenly shuts off and you are left with a palpable moment of quiet.

Most of the sounds, I realized soon after moving into our current apartment, are simply out of my control. Am I going to call up the MTA and tell them that their buses make too much noise? Will I campaign for prohibiting commercial vehicles on Broadway? No. And I don't begrudge the weekend debauchees their good times (I've been known to seek those out myself now and then). I wouldn't think of complaining to neighbors or the super about loud music - it's played during waking hours, and, given my predilection to occasionally blast free jazz, soul, or even a nice loud Mahler symphony, I'd probably be throwing stones from my glass house.

A visit from the building superintendent last week informed us that, perhaps without realizing it, my wife and I are throwing a few stones. Tenants in the building have been complaining about the noise our dog makes when we walk him through the lobby. Apparently some have also been uncomfortable with the often feisty (and, admittedly, sometimes annoying) manner of our small terrier/chihuahua mix. He may weigh 15 lbs., but his bark weighs at least 50.

For a couple days after the visit from the super, I stewed with insult and indignation. Scenarios of confrontations with the super and other tenants played perpetually in my mind. "Hey Gerry [our super], I know our dog barks but I can't exactly sit him down and tell him he needs to stop. But neighbors who stuff the garbage chute with poorly-tied trashbags until it's overflowing and the hallway stinks CAN help it - why don't you get on their case?" "Oh, my dog can walk. Why am I carrying him through the lobby? Because some people in this building think he's a ferocious beast."

In an effort to calm myself down, I became philosophical about the whole thing. My retaliatory feelings reminded me of Ralph Ellison's classic essay "Living With Music." In this essay, Ellison describes a battle of sounds in his apartment: when noise from the street and especially the sounds of a singer practicing got to be too much for Ellison to bear, he decided to fight back with a little sound of his own, blasting music on his stereo system in response to loud vocal exercises from the singer in his building. Reading over Ellison's essay helped my state of mind a bit.

Then I got to thinking about what kinds of noises and sounds are permissible in an apartment building. Now I have to tell you that we are the only pet owners in our building (as the super reminded us). This we found out only after we moved in. It immediately caused us some anxiety. We had been concerned about what tensions might arise from our being the first pet owners in the building, and now it seemed our concern was warranted. The body language and manner of more than a few of our neighbors has told me that they are unnerved, annoyed, perhaps scared, perhaps even disgusted by our dog. Then there are those tenants who see the pooch and do not become alarmed, who let him gingerly approach, his ears folded back, and sniff their legs, perhaps even give him a quick pat on the head, and find that his barking has ceased.

Perhaps the question becomes more broad - which kinds of tenant practices are tolerated, and which are censured? Were I to take a combative stance about the situation, I might begin to call out neighbors whose children are screaming in the stairway (which often causes my dog to bark). I might complain about tenants consistently littering the hallways and stairways with bits of food, containers, wrappers. It could me my own version of what Ellison called "fighting noise with noise."

But for now, my wife and I carry our dog through the lobby. It not only prevents any possibility of him tugging at the leash, trying to approach a neighbor to disable them with a ferocious sniff or lick. It also keeps him quiet - I think he might feel a bit emasculated by being carried. He certainly cannot convince himself that he's leading the walk if he's in our arms. So, at least for a while, maybe the noise that will best sound my indignation at having my dog preemptively criminalized is the deafening clamor of no barks at all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crowds (Gentrification in medias res V)

In case you thought I'd forgotten about the photo essay...

Incident at 135th Street & Broadway
Early morning, 26 July 2009

Motorcycle Gang Based in Harlem
(corner of 125th Street & Broadway)

p.s. I never did find out what occurred at the corner of 135th St & Broadway on the night of July 25th/morning of July 26th; one possible explanation, though I have a hard time believing it caused all the police vehicles, is this:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on Lateness

In the natural cycle of plant life, the middle of summer could be considered the moment of fulfillingness, the zenith of an arc that begins its ascent with the buds of early spring. In New York City, this zenith comes at about the middle of August. The days are not as long as they were in July, and they seem overripe. On a recent afternoon, the August sunlight made the red bricks of buildings especially deep. The green of leaves on trees, now no longer the sprightly, lush green of late May, looked more burnished. The sun, humidity, and lack of wind conspired to produce a stillness of atmosphere. Owing to concerns which had produced in me a certain mood, it only took a slight shift in my perception, a minute adjustment of my interpretation of the information conveyed through my senses, to feel in this August afternoon not the muggy but pleasant laze of summer in full swing, but a certain fatigue in the atmosphere. It was as if the balminess of mid-summer was revealed to be a facade with a depth of torpor lying underneath.

* * *

The news of Rashied Ali's passing on August 12th hit me with eerie force. Death had already been on my mind, as at that point I had been attempting to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for my grandmother's passing. The news of Ali's death felt like metaphysical print-through, a pre-echo of another death that my family knew was imminent.

* * *

The common link I could find between the deaths of Rashied Ali and Jean Somoroff was that each inspired in me feelings of regret. As Ali had been a close friend of one of my research informants (whom I consider a friend), I immediately thought of the encounters and conversations that might have been. I would never get a chance to tell him, in as composed and graceful a way as I could muster, that Interstellar Space, his album of duets with John Coltrane, was a reference point in my life, an example of what I love about and why I can believe in "free" jazz. I would only be telling half the truth if I didn't admit that I also thought about how it wouldn't be possible now for him to add his own memories, knowledge, and wisdom to my dissertation research - a selfish kind of regret.

Some of my first thoughts after learning of my grandmother's death could be seen as regrets about my selfishness. Jean Somoroff had a life-long (as far as I knew) love of dogs. Since my wife and I got our dog in early 2007, she had heard about him. Once she moved into a nursing home in March of 2007, I began promising her that we would bring Bobo with us during one of our visits. I told her we would bring him when the weather was warm, so that she could sit with him outside the home for a while. Since we were living in North Carolina, there admittedly were not many chances for us to bring Bobo along for a nursing home visit, as we usually left him in NC when traveling north to see family. When I moved back to New York City in late 2008, I assured her that now, when the weather was a bit better, we'd bring Bobo so she could finally see him. But I never got around to it.

* * *

Jean Somoroff was, in general, not a woman who felt a need to sugarcoat her views. When my parents brought her down to North Carolina to celebrate her ninetieth birthday in the fall of 2006, she said with a smile, "Now I'm old, too old." It was the first time she had seen my apartment (before it became the home I shared with my then-girlfriend/now-wife). The number "90" brought home the idea that my grandmother was born in a different world, and I teased her about that, knowing she could take it. I seem to remember her admitting that she didn't quite understand the world any longer, that it had more or less passed her by. Perhaps this is only an apocryphal memory.

Whether or not she voiced the opinion, I'm pretty sure she did feel a bit like a stranger in the early 21st century. She remained, until her last two years in the nursing home, a fairly avid follower of current events. She never took much to technology, and I think I might have briefly tried to explain the Internet to her. I wouldn't have asked or expected her to understand what I was doing in graduate school (it only makes sense to me half the time), though coming of age as a Jewish American in South Philadelphia (back when South Philly was an Italian and Jewish ghetto) during the Great Depression, she had an inherent respect for higher education for its own sake.

I realize how different our worlds were when I think about how baffled she would be had she ever listened to Interstellar Space. Even if she would have been able to hear or understand my words during her last week, it would have meant very little to my grandmother to know that a great jazz musician from her neck of the woods who was some eighteen years her junior had passed away.

* * *

On days I spent with my grandmother during the summer, we would often walk over to 108th Street, the commercial thoroughfare that was one long block from her apartment building. From the age of about five to nine or ten, these walks would combine a number of activities: she would run errands at the supermarket, the cleaners'; we would stop off for me to get lunch at a pizzeria; sometimes we might stop in the toy store where she would spoil me and buy me a Matchbox car or action figure of my choosing.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have grown up near two pizzerias that both served great New York pizza. I associated Joe's, the one on 108th Street, so strongly with my grandmother that the few times during my childhood when I might stop in for a slice with my father the whole situation felt a bit odd - not bad or disconcerting, but just notably different than usual. During one of my visits with my grandmother, when I was perhaps six years old, she told me, "You're getting old enough to order the pizza and pay for it yourself. Go ahead, you can do it! You know what to say." And, sure enough, I did. I asked for "one slice to stay, please" and handed $1.10 across the counter to the cook whose face I knew so well. It was my first monetary transaction.

* * *

If I reach very far into the recesses of my mind, I can touch one of my earliest memories of being with my grandmother. I must handle it carefully, lest it flit away like a frightened bird. I cannot force it to the surface of my consciousness, but if I reach slowly and gently and then wait patiently, the memory fades in. Typical of early-life memories, it is not so much of an event as it is merely an image. But this is a memory-image whose visual contours are invested with other sensory information and with the weight of emotion, which itself seems outside the boundaries of sense. I'm lying on her bed with a bag of ice held up to my lip. I see the dresser in her bedroom, the quilt on the bed, the plain white of the walls. I'd been running around in the playground just across the street from her building and had fallen on my face, bruising my lip. I was perhaps three years old at the time - the tears came freely, and my fall seemed like a catastrophe, the injury to my lip a major setback. The context, the story, is bolstered by only the faintest of images. It is the image of myself on her bed that remains more vivid. The pink of her bed and the blond wood of her dresser feel safe in my mind's eye. I cannot recall her words of comfort that afternoon, but their feeling, their resonance, is somehow contained in these colors in a kind of mnemonic synesthesia.

* * *

It's been eight days since my grandmother passed. It was two days after her death before I could really cry for her. I cried for the minuscule geography to which her life was limited at its end, confined first to a building, then to one floor, and finally to one small room; I cried for the loss of verbal ability in a woman who knew nothing if not how to talk; I cried because the woman who had an almost never-ending supply of food and snacks whenever family visited her (and this well into her eighties) lived with barely any appetite during her last two years. It was two days after her death. Earlier the same day I had noticed the exhaustion at the edges of a mid-summer afternoon.