Ali Rosado, bike messenger, considers Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest attempt to muffle the noisy city. He's standing on the corner of 57th Street and Broadway at midday and he's not hopeful.
"Oh, man. The mayor's -- "
BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP! A crosstown bus narrow misses Rosado, a reporter and three elderly ladies.
" -- crazy. No one can shut -- "
WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! The burglar alarm on a nearby pizza delivery car has gone off for no apparent reason.
" -- this city up. I grew up here and you can't sleep. This place is nuts."
DRRNNNNNNNNNNNNG! A pneumatic drill fires up and molars begin to vibrate. Rosado hops on his bike, waves and sails into downtown traffic.
These dulcet sounds of summer in the city are very much what Bloomberg (R) had in mind when he declared a war on sound last week. His highly detailed 45-page proposal would allow police officers to issue fines for everything from 180-decibel industrial strength construction generators to Chihuahuas that yip more than five minutes to the Mr. Softee ice cream truck that lets that jingle go on just a bit too long.
Noise, the mayor explained, is driving New Yorkers batty. During the month of May, residents called in 1,000 noise complaints per day.
"Noise disturbs our sleep, prevents people from enjoying their time off . . . and too often leads to altercations," the mayor explained. "These complaints are not frivolous."
New York City forever flirts with sensory overload. There is the screech of four subways pulling into a station at once (100 decibels or so), the clangor of fire engines-ambulances-and-police cars (95 decibels), the banging of the sanitation truck on its appointed rounds (85 decibels as workers compete to hurl cans back on the sidewalk) and the whirr of helicopters ferrying very important people to very important meetings (110 decibels). None of this takes into account the city's 9.34 million cell phones and the drunken howls of the 3 a.m. inebriated.
But trying to put a sock in this is another matter.
"New Yorkers are a noisy bunch," a Queens councilman, James F. Gennaro, acknowledged at last week's news conference. Then he turned to the mayor and offered to make his own contribution to a quieter New York by "giving two less speeches per week."
"It's a start," Bloomberg replied.
The quest to find a sleeve of silence is as old as the cacophonous city. In the 17th century, wealthy Dutch burghers complained of sea-shanty singing drunks carousing along the docks. In the 19th century, Manhattanites went to City Hall to seek relief from the incessant screams of touts, and the loud tooooooooooooooot of whistles as a dozen steamboat companies vied for passengers to travel up the Hudson River.
In October 1929 -- as the stock exchange pitched into free-fall -- the city's health commissioner found that the city's noise levels were having "evil effects" on the collective nervous system and deputized a Noise Abatement Commission. Not that it really accomplished much. In the 1960s, Shea Stadium opened in Queens and quickly claimed the distinction of being the nation's noisiest baseball stadium. (It seems the surveyors had neglected to calculate that the air-lanes into LaGuardia Airport passed directly overheard.)
Today midtown Manhattan is -- by popular acclaim at least -- the loudest real estate in the United States.
"The city is the noisiest it's ever been," said Laurie Hanin, executive director of the city's League for the Hard of Hearing, and a resident of an apartment complex in Queens, where the base-line on her neighbor's stereo has been known to bring her to bolt upright at 4 a.m.
"Whether that can be backed up with research, I don't know," Hanin said. "But do you doubt it?"
There's no real counterargument here, other than to note that some of these thousands of decibels comprise the city's aural texture. It is what prompted Hart Crane to write of "buoys that clang like churches" and Allen Ginsberg to see a "giant city awake in the first breath of springtime, Waking voices, babble of Spanish, street families radio music floating under roofs . . . "
It's the child who lies awake by an open window on a humid night, the thump of conga drums pulsating in the park below.
"Keep New York quiet? C'monnnnnn!" Joe Bermudez, 57, is incredulous. He drives his public bus from Greenwich Village up through midtown to Washington Heights a dozen times a day and sometimes he can barely hear himself think. "People come here for the noise. You just have to learn to sleep through it."
As one walks east across Manhattan into Loisada -- the Lower East Side -- talk of the mayor's pursuit of silence can seem almost perverse. At the Jacob Reiss Housing Projects last week, all was abuzz with preparations for the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which is arguably the noisiest procession of humanity in North America. Even the police regiments swing noisemakers and blow whistles.
Marcus Martinez, 19, leans against the hood of his black Camaro, which has a Puerto Rican flag stretched across the front hood. The hip-hop on his radio is not set at an exceptionally discreet level. He shrugs. "New York is a noisy place -- that's why I like it."
Around the corner, Emily Vasquez, grandmother, Puerto Rican and very proud New Yorker, sits in a lawn chair on Avenue D and East 7th Street. She is not very happy with her city's billionaire mayor just now.
"Bloomberg, tell you the truth, he belongs in an insane asylum," she said. "What does he know about noisy? He lives in a mansion."
The city's sounds are like music to her. What about, you ask, the car alarms? Or the music PLAYING REAL LOUD? The dogs barking? The buses idling? She shakes her head.
"Omigod, I love my city and I sleep fine. You don't like it, go to Connecticut."
At this, an infant relative, Gregory, raises a wail. She leans in close to his face and wags her finger. "Stop crying, nino, or this crazy mayor is going to give you a ticket!"