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.