Music on My Mind
Never Too Old

In Search of a Quiet Afternoon

Last Saturday afternoon, Crabby Old Lady and her friend David spent a delightful two hours at a preview of a new play, Dirty Tricks, which stars Judith Ivey as Martha Mitchell.

After the performance, on what was a perfect, crisp fall day, Crabby and David settled in at an outdoor café to discuss the play over iced tea and lemon tarts. Just as Crabby was launching into what she intended to be a brilliantly nuanced critique of Ivey’s performance, she was interrupted by the deafening roar of 50 motorcycles blasting by the restaurant at full throttle.

The hellish noise brought Crabby’s train of thought to a full stop. So great was the blast of unmuffled engines that she could feel her blood pressure spike, and she let loose a string of unprintable epithets that were, fortunately for the café guests at neighboring tables, lost in the din.

This, of course, is not an isolated incident. Unnecessary noise, in decibels high enough to cause both permanent injury and "mere" annoyance, is everywhere today. Just as the U.S. is bent, through the incessant marketing of cosmetic surgery, on turning every old person into a grotesque parody of his or her youthful self, it is also intent in filling every quiet moment with noise.

Inventors of sirens for fire trucks, ambulances and police cars have made a science of creating screaming wails that Crabby suspects cause more heart attacks than the emergency vehicles are racing to treat. A visit to any large European city reveals humane sirens, easy on the ears, that still serve the purpose of freeing up traffic without breaking eardrums. Why don’t we have them in the U.S.? Crabby wants to know.

Crabby Old Lady is always amazed, when she visits other American cities, at how relatively quiet even rush-hour traffic is. In New York City, all drivers believe leaning on their horns will unblock an intersection and true to the nature of the town, more than three seconds of immobility is cause for horn rage.

No one is going to change New York driving habits any day soon, but more pleasant-sounding horns would go a long toward making the city more civilized. And truck horns? Who decided a bigger vehicle needs a louder horn? What is the point?

Since 9/11, New York has added a new noise source – helicopters. The rule here is that no flying machines may cross over Manhattan; they are confined to the rivers and bay. But the powers that be, since our 2001 tragedy, in the name of security, now allow helicopters to fly over and worse, hover at low levels even in primarily residential neighborhoods. When there is an event such as the Republican Convention or the visit of a foreign dignitary, give it up. A conversation even inside one’s home is no longer possible in a normal tone of voice.

Indoor noise pollution has reached intolerable levels in recent years. No store owner, even the local deli guy, believes we want to shop without music blasting our brains. Crabby is certain some marketing researcher has determined – erroneously – that we spend more money if we can’t hear the price when we ask. Crabby walked out of Macy’s about a year ago when, as she entered, the music was so loud and raucous, it felt like a punch in the gut. She hasn’t been back and has now found other sources for the kinds of purchases she’d been making at Macy’s for three decades.

Even movie theaters, which for all of Crabby’s life played quiet, background music in the dim auditorium prior to the start of the film, are now an assault on the senses. Screaming announcers promote local stores and exhort viewers to answer stupid trivia questions.

Many restaurants, even expensive, elegant ones, are little better. The music is frequently so loud, two people cannot converse quietly across a table. Asking for it to be turned down is a sure way to rotten service.

The inventiveness of noise polluters is astonishing. Last week, Crabby found a whole new annoyance in an elevator. The car pinged – loudly – as it passed every floor. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. For 53 floors. She seems to recall that this was once called Chinese water torture.

And don't tell Crabby to get an iPod. She still believes music is for enjoyment, not filtering out noise.

There is no escape today from the insult of constant, loud, irritating, painful noise. Research shows that noise pollution is a serious public health problem causing, in addition to hearing loss: headaches, stress, fatigue, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart and digestive problems, immune system problems, aggressive behavior and learning problems in children.

Isn’t that enough to cause legislators to make a course correction in our headlong rush to fill every cell of our brains with sound every moment of the day? Or maybe it's a conspiracy to keep us so distracted we won't notice the serious problems our nation faces - including noise pollution.

Crabby Old Lady isn't looking for total silence. She would, however, like to be able to enjoy the normal, small pleasures of life without the ceaseless assault on her tender, aging ears.


Hurrah! Somebody else shares my opinion!! One of life's great luxuries is quietness. I would pay more for a quiet home than almost anything else - I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that was 5 minutes walk from the shops but in a cul de sac on the edge of a quiet valley, so I got used to very little noise (except birdsong) quite early in life. I find most public places too noisy by half - "background" music which makes conversation impossible is my current pet hate. And when you ask for it to be turned down, there is so much eye-rolling indignation before they turn it down 0.00001 decibel that it's hardly worth the effort. I am always thrilled to find myself in a restaurant with NO background music. My husband, much as I love him, is also a culprit. When he wakes up on a weekend the first thing he does is to go downstairs and turn on the TV, so you can hear a spaghetti western/cartoon/travel programme from all over our tiny house. This would be bad enough if he were actually watching - but often he then walks off to take a bath and leaves the TV blaring!! There is nothing that is guaranteed to annoy me faster...

But what I find the most amusing is that this is almost a carbon copy of my mother's reaction to unwanted noise. It's official: I have become my mother!!

And here I thought as my kids age that when they left I would miss the noise. I have a 6 year old whose life mission is to talk incessantly. He has the art of language. With four TVs in the house there is always one on even when somebody isn't watching. The kids can't walk without banging on something or into something. It's amazing how much noise a 50 lb kid can make. In fact he successfully competed with the fourth of July fireworks. Yep it's amazing how much noise kids can make...

Wait maybe this should have been in your previous post about "Music on my Mind". I'm sure that all this noise will be remembered as music when my kids are gone.

Take Care

I agree wholeheartedly! Thanks for this post.

Even though I love Regis and Kelly, I watch them while I have breakfast and then shut the TV off, go into the den and give my full attention to the newspaper.

I too have walked out of a store when the music is blaring, may like what they are selling but not the noise.

You just got over a cold, that could make you more sensitive to noise at this time. When I am tired or not feeling well I like it quite.

Low lights, soft music and a dish of Butter Pecan ice cream, now that sounds good.


It had not occurred to me that bikers across the country are not uniformly considerate. Here in Kansas, the unmuffled motorcycle is an anomaly. I do, however, agree that there is entirely too much noise in daily life. I, as you and Millie have done, have walked out of places of business and movies due to the high noise levels.
I habitually (for the past 25 years) carry a good set of earplugs with me at all times. I have sets stashed in our cars, etc. My family and friends are accustomed to my quirkiness and no longer give me a hard time about wearing ear plugs at dinner. As I am subject to migraine, you can imagine that sensitivity is increased when an attack is in the offing.
As to larger vehicles's needing louder horns: I believe that they do. In general, the larger the vehicle, the more it weighs and the longer distance it takes for it to stop. This moves the distance of concern forward for that vehicle's driver.
Anyway, I would vote (with you) for the European style sirens.

Wholeheartedly agree! And I don't think it's just the crabby age thing. Most people, if you ask them, object to the public noise which assaults us (it is most definitely an agressive assault) everywhere. But they just don't bother to complain about it. As in so many other areas of life, we all feel powerless. Like the "Slow Food" movement, an Anti-Noise Pollution movement might actually make a difference: department stores, restaurants, cafes, pubs,etc. which advertise "We Are A Noise-Free Zone" (or words to that effect) would, I'm sure, be very successful. Now that there are No Smoking areas because of health risks, why can't there be something similar for over-the-top noise, which also damages our mental & physical health? Anyone want to start a movement? I'll join it!

To me, quiet is the sweetest sound there is. Not long ago I drove from Florida to Virginia, a non-stop 14-hour trip, and never turned the radio on. When I told my sons this, they were astonished. The thing is, I love just paying attention to the world, and to what my mind is working on. By comparison, what's on the radio seems like pathetic, irritating bullshit.

Cop Car's explanation for trucks having louder horns makes sense, but there is another solution for cities. Crabby remembers a little, French car from her youth called a Renault. I had two horns: city and country, the latter being much louder.

How hard could it be for truck manufacturers (and autos too, for that matter) to include this little enhancement...

In these last few years Miami's traffic has become unbearable. There's a jam wherever you go. Thankfully, people are curiously considerate enough to avoid unnecessary honking in traffic.

I have noticed one annoying trend, however. Young people have taken to purchasing the type of horns used by semis and installing them in their SUV's, startling the hooters out of anybody next to them, who is caught entirely unexpectant of such a powerful blast when it comes. It's hard to imagine how the use of those horns on street cars isn't illegal!

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