Unsettling Noises: Locked Down in Queens

Photograph Source: Alejandro Mallea – CC BY 2.0

For the past nine weeks an eerie silence has descended upon my neighborhood, as it has for much of the rest of New York City. Being a musician, I am extremely aware of my sonic environment at all times and the soundscape of the city has abruptly changed since even a week before the Stay-at-Home order was given on March 22nd. Gone are the honking horns and idling engines in snarled traffic. I don’t hear the traffic helicopter hovering overhead daily anymore. The incessant roar of the turbines from the high volume of commercial airliners coming in and out of nearby LaGuardia and JFK airports has been replaced by birdsong. The residual din of the MTA, LIRR, and thousands of other passersby that made up my “natural” listening existence in my neck of the woods, a non-descript residential area where urban and inner Queens rub up against each other, is no longer prevalent.

Instead, two unsettling sounds have constantly pierced this unusual silence. The first is the blare of the sirens of ambulances and other rescue crew. Day and night NYC’s finest EMTs have been rushing to and from hospitals, homes, and everywhere else humanity is suffering this pandemic in the “world’s borough” of the city that never sleeps.

I am situated next to Queens Hospital Center, close to Jamaica Hospital, and Grand Central Parkway, the southern border of our co-op, is within roughly a hundred yards of my back door. No more than a quarter mile to the east is the mouth of the parkway’s junction with the Van Wyck Expressway and Jackie Robinson Expressway. That means if the screaming ambulance isn’t going to either of these hospitals, then it is barreling down an empty highway to any other hospital in Queens, Brooklyn, and god knows where else.

To boot, the FDNY EMS station 50 is just a few blocks from our home and they have been as busy as one could imagine. The facility was built in 2016 and hadn’t been anywhere this active since we moved in to the neighborhood in 2017. Now, their EMTs have been on red alert for two months solid and are about to begin their third month of rescuing people, with all the accumulated stress, frustration, depression, and loss that this traumatic episode has caused them.

The New York Post reported on April 11th, after the worst week of the outbreak to hit the Big Apple, that citywide, …“the average ambulance response time to the most life-threatening cases — cardiac arrest and choking — rose from 7:37 in February to 9:24 last month. Responses to all emergencies jumped from 11:27 to 18:07.” Those statistics reflected what happened in March, when things were just getting started. It could have only gotten worse as the calendar turned to April, the cruelest month. The Post also reported that there had been one day that week in April with at least 290 cardiac arrest calls, when the average was between 70 and 80 calls a day. That first full week of last month more than 500 New Yorkers died daily and I swear I heard more than my fair share of what would have, ultimately, been their last ride.

Yes, the numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and mortalities in New York are waning. Mercifully, we aren’t terrified anymore by horrific scenes at Elmhurst hospital, the surreal images of field hospitals being set up in Central Park and the Javits Center, and the drone footage of mass burials of unclaimed Covid-19 victims on Hart Island. However, the wash of sirens and claxons at all hours hasn’t stopped, it’s just subsided somewhat in the past week and a half. It has been the most unpleasant of sounds that have intruded upon an otherwise ominous and oppressive silence that has settled over New York, my borough, my hood, my home and, even my inner self.

This silence, with which all New Yorkers are struggling now, is one of the more subtle elements of this calamity. This struggle doesn’t compare to the trials and tribulations posed by the fatality, ill health, financial ruin, and historic unemployment that many have faced in this crisis. Nevertheless, all the city’s denizens now confront this unwelcome stillness that has entered their lives and has taken up residence in each of our souls.

Broadway-curtains. Times Square-devoid of human life. The Village- closing iconic dives. Grand Central – abandoned. MTA- near empty and now shut down. The fortissimo that was the grand, orchestrated cacophony of nonstop industry, movement, culture, and humanity has, subito, been diminished to an opaque quietude.

To add injury to insult, most New Yorkers haven’t been able, or willing, to go out and actually experience that void. And, for the foreseeable future, they might not be amenable to venturing out to see nothing. Like the rest of the world, they’ll be watching it on the news or checking it out online, virtually. Like the families and loved ones of hospitalized coronavirus patients who succumb, we have to watch the demise of our favorite parts of the city from afar. A growing number of the restaurants, jazz clubs, dive bars, theaters, boutiques, bistros, salons, and other alcoves of our pleasures and pastimes may pass without us even being able to say goodbye in person.

Nobody comes to New York for the peace and quiet. The continuous array of sights and sounds encountered throughout a 24-hour day within the metropolis is it’s most attractive feature. There is never a moment’s rest for the senses. New Yorkers, when traveling, are often perturbed by the near and total silence of long nights in rural and less urban settings. “The silence is maddening!” they’ll tell you after a night that the high decibels of never-ending car alarms, stereos pumping out rap and reggaeton, and quarreling neighbors are replaced by the subtle impingements of chirping crickets, the rustle of leaves flitting in the wind, and livestock and other fauna vocalizing a mile away. Nobody comes to New York for the peace and quiet, and nobody ever will.

Sadly, this implies that New York will not be truly itself again until people are either safely able, or desperately/selfishly needing or craving enough, to coexist publicly in close NYC-style proximity. Only then can we return to the quotidian pursuits of; rubbing elbows, literally, with people at the next table, crowding onto the F train at rush hour, standing in a line for Shake Shack, squeezing into elevators, attending concerts where maybe 4 to 5 people are physically touching you at any given moment, and any number of typical scenarios that make the city unique. No one really has any answers as to when, or, dare I say- if, these occurrences, now memories, may be relived. The ubiquity of the catchphrase “new normal” would suggest that some of our favorite (or, not-so-favorite) activities that make this city special won’t be reassumed for awhile. Until then it’s “Stay Home” for most of us and let the city lay dormant. Not all are staying indoors though.

Unfortunately, the ambulances aren’t the only things that have penetrated this silence. I mentioned that there were two unnerving sounds that have served as the main protagonists of my Covid-19 induced solitude. From inside my house I also frequently hear the unbidden roar of the mufflers of racing motorcycles, dragsters, and an ungodly assortment of “off-road” vehicles that have taken over the streets and expressways of New York since the pandemic started and have converted the city’s empty avenues and thoroughfares into racetracks. Because of my proximity to Grand Central Parkway I am bombarded by what seems like an all day, eternal Grand Prix motor event.

Although less reported than other recent incidents throughout the nation of people breaking with guidelines and exposing themselves and others to harm during this pandemic, this scourge of illegal street racing and joyriding is yet another example of what William S. Burroughs termed “the basic American rottenness.”

Like the mobs of right-wing funded, white, gun toting, confederate flag-waving miscreants overtaking state capitols, these speedsters are taking advantage of open, public spaces to demonstrate just how bereft they really are of common sense and mindfulness of others. Their common disregard for health and safety has just been waiting for this sort of opportunity in order to flaunt itself. The speedsters, like the gun nuts, white nationalists, and Trumpsters, were around before the lockdown. Their dangerously darting in between cars in gridlock traffic with no concern for other’s safety, and taking over streets at night in the outer boroughs has grown worrisome in the last six months, but there was always enough traffic to make sure they would never take over. Now, open road for miles and no hassle from the police. Like those angry, armed protesters, they have been given free reign to take over our commons while they mistakenly claim that their frivolities and conveniences are really their liberties and freedoms. None of them care a wink for the suffering, sacrifice, and heroism of others who are getting us through this catastrophe while they try and hit 120 mph.

Complaints from all five boroughs have been filed, but the NYPD has been stretched beyond capacity lately. Some weeks in April up to 20% of uniformed officers were out ill, thereby hampering any attempt to respond to such nuisances. Many people are afraid of what will happen when drag racers end up running into people, which is what happened on a Queens expressway to an unfortunate off duty cop the last week of April.

As for me, the main inconvenience of the infernal racing is the noise pollution. I haven’t driven hardly at all in two months and have only crossed the street a handful of times. I haven’t been into Manhattan since March 17th, and I can barely wrap my head around that fact. I haven’t been on any road that would lead me to have any contact with any of these fools. Yet, the constant, hideous backfires from modified and illegal mufflers that sound like a machine gun and explosives fired often have me straining to discern whether or not what I hear are gunshots. It would be just a minor inconvenience if it weren’t for the volume and frequency. Some days it would seem as though the dragsters and ambulances were mixing it up on the road, racing each other to see who can get to the Triboro Bridge the quickest.

These two sounds break the silence, my silence. No more clashing ride cymbals, throbbing bass lines, and hip-grinding congas. Forgotten are the shriek and hiss of the rails as your train comes into your station. No more eavesdropping on conversations in a hundred different languages and trying to see if you understand anything. The wail of sirens and the crackle and pops of mufflers of crotch rockets and funny cars are the only things to listen for since the beginning of this ordeal.

Benjamin Willis is an activist living in New York who worked with the Cuban American community in bringing about engagement during the Obama era.