When we lived in the Alphabet City part of the East Village in New York City our apartment building was located one block away from a fire station and two blocks from a hospital. Having on-duty firemen and working doctors and nurses as your neighbors was a great comfort in a dangerous city, but one of the requirements of having such close proximity to first responders was dealing with the continuous caw of sirens 24 hours a day. 

It didn’t matter what time of day it was — there was always a siren blaring — and whenever anyone called me on the phone we’d have to wait for the sirens to die down before we could begin talking. If we had an extended conversation that meant we might need to pause every couple of minutes or so to let the next siren finish its cry into service. Since that time I have found it fascinating how sounds define our surroundings. When I think of all the places we’ve lived, it is the sound — and the smell, but that’s another story — that best connects places to memory:

Washington, D.C. – Eastern Market:
We lived near a busy bus stop. 24 hours a day buses would squeal their brakes and then belch plumes of black soot into the air and into our ears and lungs.

New York City — Columbia University:
Bongo Man played a set of six bongo drums tethered together by twine. He started at 6 am and played all day until the sun set. He pounded the same beat over and over again from his small cardboard stage on the sidewalk below our apartment building. He never played a tune. Others graduate students that lived in our building would open their windows and drop water balloons on Bongo Man to make him go away. He never went away.

New York City — 26 Cornelia Street:
Rob, our upstairs neighbor, worked at night and worked out with weights during the day. All day. The clank of iron against his floor and our ceiling was enough to drive any sane person mad. He was not delicate when he put his weights on the floor. He dropped them. Hard. On our heads. Her was impervious to any idea his dropped weights translated into thunder on our minds below.

New York City — Alphabet City:
We heard the song of sirens all day and all night. Impatience waits for no siren so we also always had the sounds of honking horns bemoaning the drivers who would not make room for the emergency vehicles as well as those who protested the right-of-way of emergency services trying to scream down the street.

New York City — The North Bronx:
Few know that for many years the North Bronx was a forest and not an asphalt urban core. The Bronx was a garden refuge from the rest of New York City. Only in the last 40 years or so has the “asphaltification” of the Bronx found steam and production. There are still pockets of 100-year old trees in regular Bronx neighborhoods if you know where to look. In one building in which we were living and managing, our neighbors behind us had a “pocket” of trees and boulders and land. They had all kinds of animals: It was a farm in the North Bronx! We discovered peacocks are not friendly or quiet. Peacocks are easily offended and when you bother them by doing nothing at all they make a howling/screeching sound that irritates the dead in their caskets and raises demons from graveyards. Peacocks were made to be seen, not heard!

Jersey City — The Heights:
The caterwauling of the Parking Enforcement scooter horns are loud enough to be heard inside buildings. That loud roar is necessary to penetrate glass and bedrock to alert people inside their homes to get outside and move their parked cars so the streets can be cleaned. The horns are peppery, loud — immediately recognizable in the most horrible way — and they equally punish the law abiders, the car-less and the careless! These defining sounds create context for a life lived in the urban core and they become common touchstones for memory and shared recollection. From now until forever — and no matter where I choose to live — every time a siren wails I will involuntarily hear it as a cry for help in New York City.

44 Comments

  1. Did you ever get used to the sounds?
    I had a friend in “Philly” and every time we talked there were sirens in the background. So used to the sound, my friend barely even noticed it anymore.

  2. Hi A S!
    I loved your question yesterday. Too bad it went unanswered! Those kinds of commenters are like Snipers. They lurk in, take a shot, and you never hear from them again.
    I was never able to get used to the sounds. I’ve been wearing earplugs at night for 18 years! I have extremely sensitive hearing so that’s probably why all those sounds grate on me.
    My friend Mary, a New Yorker by birth, sleeps with the windows open all-year round so she can “hear the sounds of New York” beneath her window. If she travels outside of New York City she can’t sleep! She misses the sirens and the roar of traffic!

  3. Hi David,
    Great post!
    Your post made me think of the sounds I’ve heard at the various places I’ve lived.
    Fort Knox, KY: Helicopters buzzing around day and night. I was young when we lived here, so it was never anything that seemed abnormal or strange.
    Picatinny Arsenal, NJ: Taps every night at 6 p.m. during the summer when we’d spend all day at the Officer’s Club pool. We’d get out of the pool, salute the flag, and wait for a cannon to fire a shot every evening.
    Denville, NJ: A volunteer fire station’s 6 p.m. siren. If we were outside playing when the siren sounded, we needed to start going home.
    3rd and Kingston, Bloomington, IN: Sounds of someone singing extremely bad kareoke every afternoon. The singing was so bad and so loud one day that someone from across the complex yelled at the person to be quiet. It didn’t work and inspired the aspiring singer to get even louder. Other sounds from the student ghetto were loud guys drunk-talking after keg parties and lots of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
    Valparaiso University, the former University Park Apartments: Living in VU student housing brought back memories of Fort Knox. Porter Hospital was two blocks away and University of Chicago UCAN helicopters would land and take off from the hospital’s roof.
    Now that I’m paying the utility bill, I sleep with the A/C on and a fan to provide “white noise.”

  4. Chris!
    I love your “Sounds Stories!” You reminded me of growing up visiting my grandfather in North Loup, a village of 400 people, in the middle of Nebraska. There was a “steam whistle” that would sound every day at 5 am, Noon and 5pm and the entire town was built around that sound:
    You woke up for the day at 5am.
    When the Noon whistle sounded you stopped whatever you were doing and had lunch for an hour.
    At 5pm you went home from work. Period.
    That whistle was also the call to arms if there was an emergency in town. If it was 8pm at night or 1am in the morning and that whistle sounded every man in town above the age of 16 put on their clothes and ran to the local volunteer fire station to get on the truck to go see what was wrong.
    It’s interesting how your life is surrounded by helicopters! I know what you mean about the Life Flight helicopters at hospitals. At UMDNJ the WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP of that helicopter flying in with someone critically ill on board always makes me stop and think for a minute what’s wrong and if I should be getting on a truck somewhere to help! Those helicopters and that sound they make and their purpose is something you never forget.
    I love white noise! I prefer to create my own with the radio, TV, itunes and BB7 all playing at the the same time!
    😀

  5. Hi A S —
    Yes, I grew up in a lily-white neighborhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was entirely silent. No music. No kids shouting. No basketballs bouncing. I also lived in the basement so I was even deeper into the silent ground.
    I have not been able to re-create that hometown silence since I left. It was so quiet there you could hear the “residual hum of the earth” that some scientists believe is the remaining verifiable reverberation of the earth when it exploded into creation.
    Ear plugs help a great deal. I still can’t take the THWUMP of a bass line from a passing car or from a neighbor’s stereo. It vibrates me deep inside in a really uncomfortable way.

  6. The place where I work is close to Methodist Hospital in Merrillville, so I sometimes hear the UCAN helicopter over there.
    Our big power utility also sends up helicopters to patrol their lines and their helicopter sometimes lands within a mile or so of my office, as well!
    The office building is fairly silent though — I have a fan in my office and the buildings heating and A/C system keeps things very quiet as it pushed air through the building. Or, maybe I just don’t hear helicopters anymore.
    I remember going home early on 9-11-2001 and hearing the fighter jets patrolling the skies of the Chicago area.
    My house is right under one of the major flight paths, so it isn’t unusual to hear planes making noise as they approach Midway or O’Hare, but it I knew the sounds of the fighter jets were abnormal.

  7. Hi A S!
    Yes, that’s what I mean. The sound of the bass is fine when you hear it with the other parts of the music — it’s when you can’t hear the music and all you feel is the traveling bass THWUMP — ugh! — my insides!

  8. I wonder if the people who own those stereos are somehow wired differently as they sit right next to the speakers nodding along to the music while I can be a few cars down and have a vomit inducing sensation.

  9. I think, A S, if you’re right next to the music you’re fine. If they sat where we sit they’d be sick, too. The key, I think, is to always be the “producer” of the bass instead of the neighborly recipient.

  10. I have always been a country girl – I have only managed one year of city living out of 49.
    At the moment the sounds that define my life are the sound of water – the stream that runs ten foot from my door – the sea which I can hear on both the still summer nights and in the height of gales in the winter – birdsong – and insects buzzing in the summer sun – not forgetting the sound of the computer that keeps me in touch with the real world beyond my rural idyll.

  11. David, brilliant post!
    The first thing I missed here in spring was a “cuckoo!” That was my spring special in India with different kind of gorgeous Mayflowers!
    Have you ever got a chance to mimic a cuckoo? It’s fun! The more you mimic its sound, the more it gets excited and keeps on “cuckoo-ing” on an extremely high pitch!
    Last summer I stayed in an apartment next to a fire station. I was in a hurry while arranging a place to stay; I didn’t even notice that it had a fire station and a bar very close by till I spent my first night there.
    I was extremely tired after moving/packing/unpacking in my summer apartment and was sleeping like a log until the siren hit me. I had no clue what it was and thought it was a fire alarm.
    My room was pitch dark, I jumped out of my bed, took a turn (to be precise, wrong turn! :D) to reach the living room thinking that I had to evacuate and eventually reached to the restroom after bumping a few boxes. Finally found out the light switch, came out of my room to the lobby, couldn’t find a single soul and then got assured by my famous “logic” that probably there was a lesser chance to be burnt alive as it seemed the whole apartment was sleeping very peacefully.
    I went inside but couldn’t sleep. In fact I didn’t sleep well for those three months.

  12. Hi Katha!
    I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real live “cuckoo” and now I feel I must!
    I feel for you living next to chaos for a summer. You quickly learn a firehouse never sleeps and a bar never really closes.
    😀

  13. You are quite right!
    While staying in my summer apartment one night I got up around 2:00 am with a heavy thumping on my door. I looked through the eye-glass and saw my next door neighbor was standing there with a lost look in his face.
    Before I could open my door I saw his roommate grabbing him and dragging him to their room. I went back to sleep being assured that it was a “Charlie Chaplin” case! 😀
    I never liked living in a city with busy traffic and all (Its interesting when I see I spent most of my life in cities!), my hometown can be called a village and I still remember its serenity.
    We used to have lots of rock-pigeons at our home and watching them taking off and flying high was another beautiful experience!

  14. Never answer a “heavy thumping door,” Katha!
    😀
    I’m not big on the sounds of The Big City, either. It’s noise pollution to me.
    Love the pigeons story though, at least on the East Coast, they are a real problem. They carry disease and are proven unhealthy for pregnant women to be near…

  15. Interesting post. I thought about all the places I have lived in the city. There are various aspects that I liked about each place. But everything I disliked involved the noise: traffic, inconsiderate people overhead, couples fighting at 2 am, etc.
    I moved to the suburbs two years ago. One of the things I love is the quiet – from human activity. The crickets and frogs are quite loud but that noise is welcome music to me. Several of my neighbors moved here from the city and they complained about how loud the frogs and crickets are!
    David, I laughed about the peacocks. The first time I heard one, I was a kid in a rural farming area. It sounded like someone yelling “help! help!” over and over. Since sometimes kids fell into abandoned wells and other holes that that had been covered or grown over, my brother and I searched for a while before we discovered a nearby farm had acquired peacocks. ugh.

  16. I think you’re right about the ‘burbs, Antoinette — they are looking better and better to me as time goes on… it might be a smarter choice to find a quiet place to live than to keep putting up with the noise burden of The Big City.
    I agree the “country” is loud! There are lots of critters out there having conversations all night long!
    Peacocks are shifty. They go from beautiful to howling in an instant. Who knew?!
    😀

  17. Katha’s “thumping door” reminds me of an incident from college days.
    I was driving home after working late on a weekend night. Since I was still hyper from working, I decided to take the long way home to get relaxed and unwind.
    t was summer, but the evening air was cool and I found driving in the middle of the night on a quiet road with the windows down was always relaxing.
    As I was driving, I came upon a car that was parked in the middle of the road. A person was standing near a wooded area next to brand new condominiums. I could see lights in the trees and thought it was strange.
    I decided to stop since the car was blocking the way and I recognized the person looking in the woods as a woman who had gone to my high school.
    She was trying to help another woman whose car had veered off the road and into a tree. The woman who had crashed was trying to run away because she said she had to get to work.
    She was confused by the accident and had blood running down her face.
    While the alumna from my high school tried to keep the other woman from wandering away, I went to a nearby condo and knocked on the door to ask to use the phone since cell phones weren’t common when this happened.
    The guy who came to the door refused to answer and told me to go away.
    I told him to call the police because there had been an accident up the road, or to call the police to get me to go away.
    The door never opened, but he said he’d call the police.
    A few minutes later — it seemed longer than that because of the excitment — a police officer arrived with a fire truck.

  18. Hi David,
    Very true.
    If it isn’t buckshot, someone might let their pitbull out.
    There’s usually no reason to pound on someone’s door, unless their house / apartment is on fire.

  19. Hi Chris!
    Yeah! Pitbulls! Now that is a breed I do not understand.
    I’m so glad we have cellphones now for emergencies. They truly are a lifesaver — especially with the Emergency GPS capability built into many new phones.

  20. Hi David,
    People are stealing pit bulls so they can put them into dog fights.

    When someone stole Michelle Bentley’s pit bull puppy from her backyard on Christmas Eve three years ago, she didn’t file a police report because she didn’t know if officers would ever find the dog.
    Bentley and her dog, Reaper, were reunited last week after the animal was rescued from a Gary firefighter’s home in connection with a possible dog-fighting ring.
    “We let him out in the backyard and when we came back he was gone,” Bentley said. “It wasn’t difficult for them to get him. He was a friendly dog.”

    Pretty soon, if things work out, we will have our cell phone, GPS and entertainment system inplanted in our brains. 🙂
    Predicts Sen. Hillary Clinton:

    At the rate that technology is advancing, people will be implanting chips in our children to advertise directly into their brains and tell them what kind of products to buy.

  21. I probably would’ve opened the door even if I was aware of the potential danger, but I guessed my neighbor was drunk enough not to know what he was doing.
    Moreover, I didn’t see any sign of him being hurt/injured/bleeding which would require immediate help…
    And his friend was quick enough to push him to the right direction!
    The funniest thing was he apologized to me in the morning saying; “my roommate told me I pounded on your door last night…extremely sorry…etc. etc.” 😀
    If I ever have to pound on someone’s door I would hope they will let their ‘German shepherd/golden retriever/labs” out instead of pitbull – those are easy to get along with!!!

  22. Chris!
    The pitbull stories are terrible. When they are bred from puppies to kill each other it is awful.
    I agree with Hillary! Implantation won’t be far away. It’ll start in the arm and slowly move up the body into the brain and it will be started as the “Realest” form of “Real ID” in the name of Homeland Security!

  23. My relatives in KY who live far away from the sheriff’s station have a black lab who is friendly if he knows you, but is a guard dog who will scare away strangers.
    Speaking of RFID chips
    The stolen pit bull was identified at the animal shelter by its implanted ID chip.
    If we implant chips into kids, it might cut down on kidnappings or reduce the chance of lost passports or eliminate the need to issue plastic drivers’ licenses that can get lost.
    They could put RFID readers into “red light cameras” to capture terrorists and scofflaws!
    The FDA approved human RFID implants several years ago:

    The Food and Drug Administration has given final approval to Applied Digital Solutions to sell their VeriChip RFID tags for implantation into patients in hospitals. The intent is to provide immediate positive identification of patients both in hospitals and in emergencies. Doctors, emergency-room personnel and ambulance crews could get immediate identification without resorting to looking for wallets and purses for ID. If, for example, you had a pre-existing medical condition or allergy, this could be taken into account immediately.
    The Federal Drug Administration has approved a final review process to determine whether hospitals can use VeriChip RFID tags to identify patients. The 11-millimeter RFID tags will be implanted in the fatty tissue of the upper arm. The estimated life of the tags is twenty years.

  24. I have a god gifted capacity to get friendly with any dog (I am talking about real dogs, not those bonsai-dogs like pug, daschund etc. – I can’t handle those) under the sun in 2/3 minutes.
    My longest record was a couple hours to be friendly with my friend’s Doberman.
    I had a German shepherd back home, we got him when he was 17 days old, and I lost him when he was 12. He was one of my best friends. I’ve never met an intelligent, expressive, graceful, friendly, compassionate and loyal dog in my life.
    He was pure, no mixed breed, his parents were guards for a renowned steel factory and used to participate in shows.
    Pop (that’s what my dog’s name was) was very easy to get along with as long as someone is not taking anything out fro our house, he wouldn’t let anyone take anything out of our house even if it was a spoon!
    Pop was another best experience in my life!

  25. I’m glad you have a good rapport with dogs, Katha! That’s a wonderful thing.
    I think it’s harder to lose a beloved pet than it is a human being. Animals — except for most cats — are the embodiment of unconditional love.

  26. In fact, you can call an animal lover. I love cats too. They are a bit self centered though, don’t really care much about the surrounding but still I love them.
    It’s funny the way I got Pop. I was never a difficult kid to handle. But I was 3/ 4 years old when I wanted a wolf after seeing its picture. The very ‘look’ struck me. My parents were finally able to negotiate it and got me a German shepherd.
    I love watching birds but I can’t handle birds in cage – I feel suffocated for them. It drives me nuts!
    My personal experience says if you are close to nature, and animals that makes you more open, compassionate and generous as a human being.

  27. I used to be more hyper about the idea of someone know where I am at all times, but “they” already know, or can know, if they want.
    Now, I’m desensitized.
    Cell phones can be used to track people, as the Italians did to two CIA agents. My IPASS keeps the Illinois Tollway paid and up-to-date about my whereabouts when I’m driving on their roadway. There are cameras that are linked into the state police that monitor the roadways.
    I don’t really care anymore, since if they want to find me, they probably can already figure out where I am!

  28. Chris!
    I agree! Everything we do is not being logged into a database somewhere and, perversely, that’s a good thing for those of us who lead legal lives because if something awful happens and we are wrongly accused, we’ll just go to the NSA and have them call up our database profile to prove we were really sitting in front of a computer writing a blog comment when the crime happened!
    :mrgreen:

  29. Most of the video and other data isn’t stored by the government, and if it was, there’d be too much for anyone to do anything meaningful with it.
    I’ve heard that cameras that keep track of traffic don’t record anything.
    And, there’s a police camera at 5th and Broadway in Gary that isn’t connected to anything, according to a Post-Tribune report. The only way for the police to monitor what the camera is watching is to park a police car and watch via a Wi-Fi connection on a laptop computer because the camera isn’t linked to the police dispatchers.
    I’ve also read that in Chicago, the police cameras are seen as sign posts directing people to neighborhoods where they can get what they want.
    We can have a ton of electronic survellience, but it only works if there are enough interested people keeping an eye on everything. I don’t think there’d be any realistic way to keep an eye on everyone and not have the whole system become so backlogged that it would stop working effectively.
    If we saw the development of a some Dept. of Big Brotherhood, it would most likely be a make-work place filled with people just getting a paycheck.

  30. Chris!
    I think you’re describing a new idea: “inert technology” — where we have the means to watch you but only if we have someone who cares enough to interpret what the camera trained on you is showing!
    Technology is best when it runs itself until some critical event happens and a human is needed to decide what to do. The gunshot technology you mentioned a while back is an example of sentient technology that really works!

  31. It’s said that those who use right side of the brain are cat lovers – I wonder how true it is –
    http://www.angelfire.com/wi/2brains/right.html#cha
    Dogs in general have much more room for other people in their heart; they are a little bit better team player than cats. That’s how I look at it!
    I would love to have Pop in the four corner, but the only problem of having him is I don’t have very good photos of him. Let me see what I can do!
    And thanks for letting me know about the book – I didn’t know about it. I will definitely read it!

  32. I’m with you on the difference between cats and dogs, Katha!
    Your link is interesting.
    Love to have Pop in the Four Corners. We’ll hold thumbs you can find some images you like!
    Oh, and not to ruin the book for you — but to help set it up for you — the reason the caged bird sings is because she sings for freedom . Maya Angelou, a brilliant Black woman and author — connected slavery and the black experience to birds captive in cages. It’s a wonderful, telling, book.

  33. You are not ruining the book, I would have enjoyed reading it even after someone relays the whole book to me!
    After Toni Morrison, I enjoyed reading Bell Hooks, the first book I read was “Teaching to Transgress” – and a couple more books after that, I just loved it.
    Thanks for letting me know!