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.


Beth said...

The adults who bark at the little guy make me the most annoyed. Each time someone does it, I come closer to just saying, "Barking is normal for dogs; I don't know what manner of brain damage signifies in humans." But, you know, the saying, "If you can't say something nice..." So I just wish warts in particularly uncomfortable places on them.

Brooke said...

I saw a gazillion Bobo-sized dogs in Paris and no one seemed offended by them. Of course the dogs were probably oppressed by the French doggie fashion industry. There must be a better choice than humiliating walks through the lobby past garbage-strewing revelers and sinking into depression over heartless objectification by designers.