Listening to New York is like listening to the BBC. Just as every last news bulletin or cricket score on the World Service always sounds to me like the same sentence repeated over and over ("I'm a British person"), the message of New York's metal machine music is a constant reminder of the city itself. YOU ARE HERE says the jackhammer to the car alarm. And when you love this HERE as much as I do, the disturbances are less disturbing.
Often, the racket enchants. I mean, have you ever heard the L train screech to a halt, performing the first two glorious notes of Rhapsody in Blue? The hourly sirens stopped bugging me after my Red Cross CPR instructor enumerated the statistics about the chances of surviving cardiac arrest, so now every ambulance screaming to and from St. Vincent's Hospital has the reassuring rhythm of a heartbeat. Even those damn kids at the elementary school across the street, whose recesses make the whole block sound like the apocalypse with jump rope, have grown on me to the extent that I've come to think of them as those darn kids instead: Such scamps to bounce their basketballs off my stoop during my phone interview with Steven Spielberg so that his answer to a question about cinematic heroism is drowned out by ker-thud, ker-thud, ker-thud. Plus, free entertainment. Last year I heard the new Eminem album in its entirety simply by walking down Canal Street on consecutive Saturdays, eavesdropping on the stereos of gridlocked cars lining up for the Holland Tunnel.
My affection for New York's hubbub is proportionate to my obsession with not adding to it. Being quiet is a civic virtue here, and, unlike the noise outside--the idling garbage truck, those tiny dogs with the big barks--the noise I make inside is something I can control. If I moved back to the quiet Montana college town where I grew up and I wanted to feel like part of something larger than myself, I might have to pitch in at the food co-op or volunteer to weed the bike trail. Here, if I want to feel like I'm making my town a better place, all I have to do is towel-dry my hair. Every morning that my deafening blow dryer remains unplugged is a gift of tranquility to the five apartments within earshot of the open window. I'm not much of a do-gooder, so I relish these little selfless sacrifices, cheerfully watching my wet head drip polka dots onto the morning paper, knowing that the guy across the air shaft is still asleep.
4E, especially, has no idea. My downstairs neighbor probably cringes every time I turn on the blender, possibly resents the wheels on my desk chair. But he is clueless about the lengths I go to on his behalf: That I take off my shoes the split second I unlock the front door, that shopping for slippers I chose the ones with the softer sole so as to minimize my clomping, that I paid extra for a quieter air conditioner, that I won't vacuum the rugs before noon, that I glued felt pads to the feet of an ottoman, that if I accidentally drop the remote control onto the hardwood floor I will dive to catch it as if it's a grenade that fell into my foxhole, and that the last time I couldn't sleep and watched the Elvis '68 Comeback Special at 3:00 a.m. I did so wearing headphones on the off chance that 4E wasn't in the mood for that great rendition of "One Night" when all the women shriek like maniacs at Elvis, sweating and smirking in his black leather suit.
When I have overnight guests from out of town, especially the house dwelling rock 'n' rollers from Seattle accustomed to stomping around their own living room in combat boots while blasting Kraftwerk records and bouncing tennis balls on the floor at their scurrying cat, I print out the manifesto of golden rule noise control I keep in my computer and then draw little maps in red ink with arrows pointing to the locations of all the headphones. Then I hover over their entire visit like the spectral librarian in Ghostbusters shushing their every move.
My last houseguest, a Midwestern suburbanite whose backyard deck is the size of my entire apartment, complained, "How can you live like this, censoring yourself, stacked up on top of all these other people?" Then he tied me up in a chair so he could put his shoes back on and tap dance up and down the hallway to the tune of "Don't Fence Me In." Give me land! Clackety clackety clack!
I know the appeal of that, the ballyhooed American dream--out there, nowhere, among nobody and no one, just you and your sky, you and your fields, you and your god. Which is all fine and good as long as the sun never sets and you never read In Cold Blood. Because once you read Truman Capote's Kansas death trip, after dark every pine cone swaying in the wind sounds like a couple of murderers staking out your quiet little house, your quiet little house surrounded by so many acres that your closest neighbors will never hear you scream.
As for me, I'm sticking with the original American dream, the Puritan one circa 1630, the one which John Winthrop--the original Massachusetts liberal and John Kerry ancestor--called the city upon a hill, the one in which we labor and suffer and mourn together and will of course call 911 the second 4E yells for help.
The fact is that being a considerate neighbor is kind of fun and a tad religious. It gives a lot of meaningless everyday tasks a sense of purpose and meaning. To tread softly around a city of clangers makes me feel alive among other people who also are alive. As Ray Charles was blaring this morning on a Penn Station loudspeaker, "It's a mean old world if you have to live in it by yourself." Also blaring was an announcement that the 8:05 Metroliner to Washington was boarding on track 12. Unless it was track 5. Sure is loud in there.
Sarah Vowell is the author of The Partly Cloudy Patriot and the voice of the teenage superhero Violet Parr in Pixar's The Incredibles.