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.