At the Dawn of Something Bad
At 7 a.m. an awful humming is giving me a headache. I stagger out of bed, wander into each room, bend my ear to the bottom of the bathtub, open the front door and lean outside–and even check out the basement. But nothing changes, the pulsating sound coming from every direction.
I throw on my blue jeans, grab my cell phone, and head out the door.
The village streets are deserted, many of the empty homes owned by city dwellers who arrive in a flash only to vanish a day later. Old cars are parked in some of the driveways. Other houses, with their carefully maintained facades, seem to be vacant shells, suggesting a backdrop for a film about American life in the 1950s.
The hospital down the street resembles a small industrial plant—and as I approach I realize it’s a likely source of some of the trouble. A flatbed truck and another construction vehicle are parked in front with their engines roaring, but their cabs are empty; not a soul is around. A lone security guard is standing nearby, puffing slowly on a cigarette. Hoping not to evoke undue suspicion—nor be mistaken for a prostitute roaming the streets in the early hours–I have to remind myself that I have every right to be here at daybreak, investigating the cause of this ungodly noise. I see he is smiling.
I suddenly realize he used to work as a cashier in the liquor store owned by his sister, and briefly at the drug store. “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t recognize you in that uniform,” I say. “What are they doing?”
“Yes, they have to keep the motors running,” he shrugs, gesturing toward the empty trucks.
“Are those spools from the diesel generator?”
“No, that’s in back of the building—it’s a really old one.”
I sometimes wonder if the hospital uses this “backup” generator on a regular basis. Around 3 a.m. I am often overwhelmed by smoke and diesel exhaust and then the low, booming sound begins.
And the morning breezes bring smells that suggest medical waste, of rotting cotton, gauze, or worse.
Sometimes with the sweet suffocating smoke smell late at night—I feel I need oxygen. The deck table is coated by a fine black dust—not dirt, but cinder. There are black fabriclike fibers on the furniture inside the house.
I am not sure how they compact the hospital waste—whether they burn, cart, or microwave it–and have no idea whom to ask. The EPA assigned me a case number many years ago but I never heard from them again.
When you are standing near the hospital, the steady drone of its central air system creates a rising cacophony—echoed by a piercing whine from the refrigeration unit of a nearby fish market.
“Why do they have to run the motors if no one’s in the trucks?”
“Yes, they have to keep them on,” he repeats—this is becoming a cat-and-mouse game.
“I hear that Brewer’s Marina has been dredging Stirling Creek–so they can cram more yachts in.”
“No, the dredging is being done for the village.”
A bold new “Waterfront Revitalization Program,” whose concrete details have yet to be disclosed is now ready and about to be rubber-stamped in Albany and hustled past the EPA. In any event, zoning changes will soon transform the neighborhood into a light industrial area–to better serve the needs of all the weekend sailors pouring in—a private world that disembarks from its yachts on summer weekends to chow down at hyped-up local restaurants seldom visited by locals. (But no human meal is ever really over-the-top when you consider the hundreds of gallons of gas it takes these guys to propel their hungry behemoths.)
Quirky, multicultural, and architecturally charming, the historic Village of Greenport used to be a seaport town populated by fisherman and factory workers, a gritty urban outpost at the end of a long stretch of potato farms—now given over to a thriving wine industry. Sheltered from the ravages of theAtlantic Ocean by the South Fork (a spit of land known to many as the Hamptons), its waters have long provided a safe harbor for fishing vessels. Now it has become a summertime parking lot for luxury yachts—and you can expect to see more of the same.
“Anyway,” I say, “the noise is giving me a headache.” He nods in sympathy. “And the damn fumes . . . which just may be coming from the Global Commons plant over in Moore’s Woods.”
He nods again.
In 2003 the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) surreptitiously fast-tracked this “peaker” power plant to generate extra capacity for the rest of Long Island–but not Greenport, which has its own village-run utility.
The nonmoneyed year-round residents of Greenport don’t realize they live a few hundred yards from a massive oil-fired power plant—because it is completely hidden from view in Moore’s Woods. With a maximum design output of 80mw, it is not a “major” generating facility and therefore not subject to public regulation.
Nevertheless its toxic emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds waft into our homes, and may also account for an odor of ammonia we sometimes experience. The very existence of this power plant—its water requirements and immense impact upon the local marine environment—has been so completely shut out of public awareness that the proposed development scheme touts a hiking trail only yards from the hidden plant.
Anyway, though I have some idea of where the dreadful smells may be coming from, the source of the noise reverberating throughout my house at 4 a.m. is still a mystery. Until 3 a.m. or so, there is dead silence; then it will slowly start up—the deep, resonating sound of an industrial compressor.
“Won’t the dredging make things worse if there’s a hurricane?” I ask.
“Oh sure, we’ll be ten feet under. These people,” he says, gesturing toward the blocks of small homes extending from the hospital all the way up to the main highway, “are all under water with their mortgages anyway.
“Well, back to work.” He stamps out his cigarette. “And you,” he laughs, starting toward the hospital, “You’re worried about a noise.”
At the risk of sounding like a tin-foil-hatted fool anyway, I’ll admit I sometimes wonder if I could be experiencing a microwave auditory effect—thermal expansion of parts of the ear brought on by pulsed microwave radiation–that is in some way connected with the 360-foot FM radio tower located only a few blocks away. Besides broadcasting NPR across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut, it has stationary radar, a gazillion cellular antennas, and also transmits local and state police communications.
Greenport has no police force of its own but is served by the surrounding town of Southold. With half a billion dollars worth of empty yachts at the marina and never a cop car in sight—I sometimes wonder if my ears might be suffering the collateral damage from some new high-tech method of security surveillance.
On the other hand, guys in pickup trucks with antennas and lights on the back of their vehicles circle the neighborhood at all hours of the night.
The streets are lined with wires strung on utility poles. Throughout the summer the current to the yacht yard surges and the electromagnetic fields in our house rise to 10 milligauss. Field strengths of 3 and 4 milligauss have been associated with childhood leukemia and some adult ills–too bad there are no health laws on the books, no regulation of any kind. Over the years I have complained to village utility directors, who return with industry talking points. No one other than myself is the least bit concerned about any of this.
So I suppose I’ll get used to the mysterious noise, just as I’ve adapted to everything else–the odors from old Exxon MTBE spills, the onslaught of drunken yachters whose number seems to multiply exponentially each year–and struggling to breathe from time to time. I guess it’s no big deal in the scheme of things. Maybe these troubles are all a bit quaint and nostalgic anyway–even petty, as my friend here seems to think. The world we know is getting fairly uncomfortable and may be at the dawn of something really bad, runaway global warming –with a hundred million or so dead by 2030, according to informed reports–will we just have to get used to that?
Kathy Deacon is a free-lance writer living in New York.