I want to live in the layers
On Stepping Softly Out of a Noisy Life
In the 1970s, I was growing up in Forest Hills, New York, in a two bedroom apartment in a fourteen story building the color of a pencil eraser; it was directly across the street from the Long Island Railroad tracks, and when trains went by — which they did at all hour of the day and night — my building shook a little bit. If more than one train barreled past on the express track, things would fall off my bookshelves.
I was attending sleepaway camp in the summers back then, and I had a lot of friends from leafy Long Island and New Jersey suburbs who stayed overnight so that we could do New York-y things together with my parents. I also had a lot of English counselors, and they would sometimes stay with us before flying back to the UK after the summer was over.
The trains would rumble past; the building would shake. If I was awake, I would roll over and look at my friends sleeping on the pullout trundle bed, and they’d be staring at the ceiling, their eyes open wide.
How do you sleep with this noise? they would all ask. And I would say, while the dog snored on the floor next to me, What noise?
I never heard it. Before she married my father, my mother had lived with my grandmother in the building directly across the courtyard, and their living room window looked straight down onto the tracks. She never heard it either.
There’s a famous scene in a 1977 movie by a now-disgraced filmmaker; in it, the main character (played by the filmmaker) remembers back to his childhood in 1942 Brooklyn, where he and his parents lived in a house directly beneath the first drop on the Coney Island Cyclone. Every time the rollercoaster went by, his house would shake, making it impossible for him to eat his soup.
The overdubbed line, paraphrased: My psychiatrist said that living underneath the Coney Island rollercoaster caused my nervous temperament.
It’s like the answer to an SAT question: the rollercoaster, the Long Island Railroad, the shaking buildings, the wide-eyed overnight guests = the screaming parents, the dangerous girl’s bathroom in middle school, Watergate, the cocaine-addled community, the frisky male schoolteacher, the cocktail hour that gets aggressive after the first martini, key parties, Son of Sam, the neighbor’s heroin addicted son who offers to relieve you of your fourteen-year-old virginity during a dinner party.
All of it: noise.
Grow up in a noisy world and you will lead a noisy life. I don’t know if this is entirely true. But what I do know to be true is this: grow up in a noisy world, and you will eventually stop hearing the noise. It will be reduced to a low, dull hum. A buzz. Your body will acclimate to the aural, constitutional assault, and out of self-defense, will grow accustomed to it. Fast forward: you will run the risk of being forever attracted to noise — the chaos and the drama — because it will be your normal. It is what you know; it is how you grew up. It is in your DNA, like eye color.
Noise translates to the expectation and acceptance of chaos as homeostasis.
As you get older, noise will take on different manifestations: frenetic jobs that require you to keep twenty plates spinning all at the same time, for which you receive disproportionately tiny recompense. An overstuffed home, filled with papers and Beanie Babies and things you don’t even know you own. Dealing with health insurance. Clothes you haven’t worn in twenty years. Shoes that make your feet bleed. Relationships with friends built upon a foundation of subtle rage and gossip. Relationships with family members built upon a foundation of ancient furies that you accept because, they tell you, blood trumps emotional terrorism. Romantic relationships that are ensnared in perpetual shouting, anger, financial or sexual deception. Food cooked disrespectfully and in haste, and incinerated. Professional relationships built on coy smiles, bad-mouthing, and schadenfreude.
In other words, noise translates to the expectation and acceptance of chaos as homeostasis.
And when you realize this — if you realize it — you will have to learn how to hear again, how to experience noise differently, how to find peace in a chaotic world. You will have to learn how to walk through life like a baby just beginning to toddle.
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