“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
"Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness.”
I’m sure there are neuroscientists who’ll tell me I’m wrong, that we hear things without really hearing them, but until that morning, when I woke at 5:30 and realized that the mosquito in my dream was coming from the street below my window, it seemed to me I’d never really heard a backup beep. Maybe I’d heard a few beeps now and then, but until now the bird-like beep-beep-beep which is well on its way to becoming the sound-track of our environment had somehow evaded my consciousness. How else explain my near-death experience, two days before, when a Cable TV van, backing into a crosswalk, braked just inches from my knee and the driver jumped out screaming: “Don’t you hear the beep, moron?”
When I realized the beep was not going away, I leapt out of bed and opened the window to locate it. Ten floors down, I saw a sanitation truck parked on the street below. If it was here for waste collection, it had yet to announce the fact. Its dreaded compactor was inactive. Smoking and reading a newspaper, its driver leaned against a rear fender. Free for once of the hopeless despair that industrial noise usually engenders in me, not to mention the cultural taboo which equates any sort of noise-protest with weakness, old age, or lack of patriotism, I threw on a jacket, raced 10 flights down to the street and addressed him in a voice which, because of the beep, he could not hear.
“Off!” I repeated. “Can you turn it off?”
For no good reason, I pointed at his rear wheel. “Is there a switch? The beep! A switch! Can you turn it off?”
“THE BEEP! THE BEEP! FOR GOD’S SAKE, TURN IT OFF!”
“Oh, that. Sure I can.” He pointed to a red switch above the rear fender. “Right here.”
“Why don’t you then?”
“WHY DON’T YOU TURN IT OFF?”
His eyes spread with astonishment. “Violation!”
Short and stocky, weight-trained arms covered with tattoos, he looked to be in his late 20’s. Obviously, he wasn’t deaf, but if we’re to believe recent audiological research, it wouldn’t take long for this sort of experience – ears about two feet from a sound that maxed out at about 112 decibels -- to make him so. Unaware of his effect on the world around him, living proof that – especially when combined with unconsciousness and contempt for silence – technology can invade any space, any time at any moment, he was the perfect embodiment of the noise problem. I’d guess his beep was not completely inadvertent for him. For the moment, it was his identity, his power. How could this be doubted when a sound he initiated could awaken hundreds or even thousands in this upscale neighborhood? And if it should happen that the neighborhood rose up against him, he was protected by the fact, that like almost all noise pollution, his was elusive and transient and sure to gone by the time one of the 49 inspectors from New York’s Department of Environmental Protection could get here, aim his sound-level meter at the truck and, if it exceeded the vague decibel limits of New York’s noise code, issue a complaint (no summons or fine) against him.
I suspect the same neuroscientist who explains how I’d long been hearing beeps I didn’t hear will not be surprised to learn that I have rarely, since that morning, known a beep-free hour or, on bad days, -quarter-hour. On really bad days, it can seem as if there is scarcely a minute free of the beep’s announcement that the wonders of technology are at work nearby. After all, it’s not just sanitation trucks and commercial vans that aim their beeps at us but, as I was soon to discover, almost every commercial or industrial vehicle or machine produced in the last 40 years. It doesn’t matter whether vehicles have the “obstructed view to the rear” that OSHA specified in its initial regulation. Motorized scaffolds beep, cranes beep when their cabs go up or down, vehicles not much bigger than golf carts announce their forward or backing progress for no reason whatsoever. Even buses announce with beeps that they are kneeling for the handicapped or, in some cases, simply opening their doors. Since that morning, hearing them all is constant proof that my brain was altered by the sanitation truck, and whether you call such alteration “awakened” or “damaged” will depend, I suggest, on how much you value quiet at the moment you’re asked. Do you notice the noise that assaults us more with every passing day? If so, do you hate it or fear its absence, consider those it bothers your allies or your weak-kneed enemies? Do you prefer restaurants where conversation is possible or avoid them like the plague? Despise or converse with those who talk during movies? Use a rake or a leaf-blower? An ordinary motorcycle or one on which your virility is confirmed by altered pipes? In any case, I doubt you’ll find it hard to understand that the sanitation truck forged a link between hearing and consciousness in my brain so that not-hearing it has ever since been impossible. The beep is so much part of my life that, hearing it before I hear it and waiting for it when it’s gone, I can’t be altogether sure that it’s not a symptom of my Tinnitus.
This is not to say the world has not conspired with me. Later that same day, I heard a beep from the area of the Washington Square Arch which, despite being two blocks from my apartment, seemed even louder than the sanitation truck’s. Venturing out to investigate, I found that it came from a boom-lift two stories high which was maneuvering two workers in a small cab who were cleaning the arch with brushes and rags and buckets of soapy water.
I called from the ground. “Hey! Why the beep
“God knows!” replied one of the cleaners. “It’s driving me fucking crazy.”
Only birds in flight or someone levitating above or below the cab would have been threatened by its movement but its beeps were close to constant and, as I discovered when I walked downtown, travelled through space with such efficiency and volume that on the other side of the park, at least a quarter-mile away, they were almost as loud as they’d been nearby.
Not yet aware how much my new condition set me apart from at least a few others, I turned to a man standing beside me as we waited for the light to change.
“Can you believe that?”
“The beep! Over there! On the other side of the park!”
He did not respond. Friendly until now, his face took on the paranoid stare New Yorkers show toward aggression on the street. When the light changed, I’m pretty sure he waited to see where I was headed so he could go the other way.
My own denial was not restored by his. Next time I passed the lift, which was still active and, as it would for the next three days, beeping steadily, I found the name of the manufacturer and, back at my office, searched out its phone number on-line. The woman who answered seemed pleased to hear my voice, but she confessed that she did not exactly understand what I meant by “beep” or, once she did, why it bothered me. Once she’d filled out a complaint form (“Let’s see—you say it’s noisy?”), she promised to seek out information and get back to me.
She called back an hour later. “Safety,” she said. “It’s a safety thing.”
“For whom?” I said. “The lift is operating in mid-air. There’s nothing above or below it.”
“Yes, but you have to understand that these lifts are also used on ships or in high-rise construction where they move stuff between floors. People have to know when they’re moving.”
“But what about situations like this, where the alarm has no purpose and can be heard all over the neighborhood?”
“I can see that might be a problem,” she says, “but we have to put safety first.”
“Do they have an on-off switch?”
“Safety. It’s always first for us.”
Non-electronic back-up alarms were used as far back as the 1940s in the military. The version we hear now is typically 4-6 inches wide; 3-5 high; 2-3 deep. Four feet away, its beep is rated at 87 to 112 decibels, which last is 12 above the level as which sustained exposure is believed to result in hearing loss. Activation, set in motion by a wire spliced to the backup light or the reverse switch wire, moves a diaphragm at a rate between 700 and 2,800 Hz to produce a narrow-band sound which some have likened to the repetitive calls of birds in danger or alarm clocks loud as sirens. Triton Signal Corporation claims that its founder, Matsusaburo Yamaguchi, invented it. It entered production in April 1963 and retails today for about $20. Many alarms we hear these days were probably manufactured by Preco Electronics, an Idaho company, which began shipping them in 1967 and, by the time it sold its High Frequency division (to Ecco, Inc. which continues to make them) in 2008, had built and shipped about 20 million. Most contractors and manufacturers will tell you that they – and their insurance companies – insist on the beeping alarm because OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Association, requires it but while this is an over-simplification of OSHA’s position, it’s true that the alarm that woke me that morning and the one that announced to a neighborhood more than a half-mile wide that a boom-lift was moving its cab a few inches up, down or sideways was first mandated by OSHA, one year after it was created during the Nixon Administration in 1970:
“No employer shall use any motor vehicle equipment having an obstructed view to the rear unless the vehicle has a reverse signal alarm audible above the surrounding noise level or the vehicle is backed up only when an observer signals that it is safe to do so.”
The ruling was not unquestioned. At preliminary hearings, many contractors, manufacturers and government agencies questioned it for different reasons. Representatives from the Georgia Power Company argued that its regulations, already requiring a “spotter to the rear who is more effective than a reverse signal alarm” made the ruling unnecessary, perhaps even counter-productive. “In our view, the [backup alarm] requirement will reduce our safety effort.” A complaint from Deere & Company requested that machines such as loaders, tractors, bulldozers, and graders be excluded from the requirement “because these types of vehicles are often operated for considerable portion of time in reverse and the operation of the alarm in these cases contributes to excess noise and confusion on the job site.” Finally, an agent from the Department of the Interior seconded the view from Georgia Power that a spotter was a safer alternative. “Based upon our experience, [Backup alarms] are difficult to maintain and frequently create distracting noise levels which actually constitute a hazard in some circumstances.”
As we know, the people at OSHA were not – or not just then at any rate -- persuaded by such argument. Whether those who participated in the vote took into account the tens or hundreds of thousands of beeping vehicles they were unleashing on the world, the millions of sleepers they’d awaken, readers, students and church-goers they’d distract or construction workers they’d subject to audiological torture, we will never know of course, but it’s clear that noise was not allowed to compromise the two great American dreams of technology unimpeded and safety (in certain circumstances) at any cost. OSHA records since that time give no indication of efforts to define “audible above the surrounding noise level”, not to mention establish any standard by which the volume and pitch of the beep might be regulated so that, say, an alarm meant to protect a worker in the path of a sanitation truck backing up at 3 AM would not awaken hundreds of people in a five block radius. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration has noted that backup alarms are the biggest reported nuisance of nighttime construction. They were the single biggest complaint, by far, from those living near Boston’s Big Dig project. Some vehicles, like the sanitation truck that woke me, have manual cut-off switches, but alarms without switches can be disengaged in minutes by anyone with a wire-stripper. Although OSHA’s first priority is worker safety, neither their records nor those of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show any sign of concern for workers forced to hear backup alarms throughout their time on the job.
Given its brutal assault on the audioscape, one would suspect that the safety benefit of the backup alarm is inarguable, but such is not the case. For at least four reasons, there is a good chance that a worker in the danger zone of a backing truck a quarter mile away might not hear the beep that is driving you crazy. First of all, workers will tell you that, when competing not only with other alarms but other machines on the work-site, it’s often more disorienting than protective. Second, the pitch of the beep, in most cases, happens to be almost identical to that which most ear-protection, also required by OSHA, is designed to mute. Third, despite its proliferation into surrounding neighborhoods and higher floors, the beep is far from efficient at its source. A study by Dr. Chantal LaRoche at the University of Ottawa demonstrated that because its single, narrow-band frequency reflects chaotically off solid material, it may actually become less audible to someone in its path as a vehicle moves in his or her direction. Finally, of course, there is the fact that workers habituate to the beep. How can a sound heard day after day for hours be any more noticeable than the shirt on your back? As far back as 2001, research by NIOSH stated that "commonly used back-up alarms tend to be ignored after long-term exposure.” The bottom line then is that the beep which has so proliferated in our environment that no silence, anywhere or any time, is safe from it can’t be counted on to do the job for which it is designed.
Sad confirmation of this research can be found in accident statistics. Though not exhaustive, OSHA’s numbers show that between 1984 and 2005, 45% accidents that mention the backup alarm occurred when it was operating. Dr. John Casali, director of the Acoustics Lab at Virginia Tech, has testified in numerous court cases where accidents occurred when the alarm was known to be beeping and the ‘audiogram’ of the worker showed that he heard it even if, like me in the days before the Sanitation Truck, he did not notice it. Casali has a video he won’t let me see – “because, believe me, you wouldn’t want to” – of a worker strolling idly into path of a truck whose alarm is beeping and whose engine alone is loud enough to be heard at 90 feet.
Another thing you might assume, given the various downsides of the beep, is that there are no alternatives to it. This is not the case either. The once ubiquitous flagman is still preferred by many safety experts. Another option, manufactured by Preco now, is a video monitor or audible alarm in the driver’s cabin which is linked to a radar system that detects individuals in the vehicle’s path and, if necessary, triggers an alarm of variable amplitude. An array of wireless backup cameras are also available to alert the driver. Though not all that expensive in relation to corporate costs, not to mention the community’s Quality of Life, economics is probably the main reason this sort of technology is not more widely utilized. There is at least one audible backup alarm on the market, however, which is inexpensive and mercifully kind to surrounding neighborhoods. Brigade Electronics, an English firm, makes an alarm which generates a sound like a quick burst of wind. Some call it a White Noise alarm. On-site workers have reported that it is more easily heard and located than the beep. Since its sound dissipates quickly and is focused on the immediate vicinity, it eliminates proliferating noise pollution. It’s been endorsed, among others, by Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, The Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the Society of Automotive Engineers. New York and Seattle, among other municipalities, are thought to be considering it for Sanitation use, New York City’s recent noise code accepts it as “community friendly,” and OSHA itself regards it as an acceptable option.
It should be noted too that some companies, like UPS and FEDEX, which have, respectively, 100,000 and 90,000 trucks on the road, abjure audible alarms and use rear-vision cameras to protect from backup danger. Drivers for both companies are given extensive training before they go on the road and then tracked with technology that monitors how often they put their vehicle in reverse and how long they backed up each time. As one UPS spokesman explained, “Audible alarms give the driver a false sense of security. We believe training is the best safety precaution. We train our drivers to use their horn when backing, but since it is not an automated thing, it gets people's attention. We’ve known our lawsuits due to accidents, but even though some have been due to backing accidents, we’ve never known one that had to do with our backup technology. Our motto is, ‘When in doubt, get out.’”
****As word spread about my unfortunate obsession, commiseration came from all over the globe. A friend emailed from Bhutan that on her first morning in Paro, she was awakened by a beeping bulldozer across the street from her hotel. Another, calling from rural Vermont, held the phone near the window so that I could hear a beeping bulldozer across the road. “I’ve heard it all day, every day, for the last two weeks.” Another called from southern Colorado to say that for an hour or more every day he heard the beep of the loader at his town dump two miles away.
As noise pollution goes, the beep is fairly low on the totem pole. Even radical anti-noise organizations, like the Noise Pollution Clearing House or NoiseFree America, do not put at the top of their primary complaints. Neither its decibel level nor its medical repercussions will it come anywhere near, say, aircraft or altered pipe motorcycles or, for that matter, major construction noise, and as an irritant it arouses nothing like the rage of boomcars, jet skis, weather and sight-seeing helicopters or any of the other assaults the world is currently mounting on our sanity. We know from anthropologists that the human species has been at war with its soundscape since its earliest days, but of course the industrial revolution raised the stakes exponentially, and modern technology constantly refines and excerbates both the sources of torture and our dependence on them. Playing defense, we write noise codes which (like the recent, tough-minded New York City code) are generally unenforceable, restrict construction hours or the number of sightseeing flights over national parks or set loudness and decibel limits for appliances, vehicles or even aircraft, but as anyone knows who’s been kept awake by a dripping faucet or a cricket under his refrigerator, amplification is not the only reason noise can unnerve, and it always comes at the wrong time because there is never a right one for it. Invasiveness and repetition make decibels irrelevant, and when they combine with a ubiquitous narrowband frequency diabolically synchronized with the eardrum and the acoustic nerve, they make the backup beep unique in the noise spectrum. None measures better the degree to which we are not only habituated to noise but submissive to those who inflict it on us. Next time you hear it, remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be there. There are cheaper alternatives, on-off switches and rear-view mirrors. Remember that, because we do not require breathalyzer ignition controls on cars or mandate the technology which would prevent drivers from texting or talking on cellphones, our roads are commonly used by homicidal maniacs who drive drunk or text while doing so. If the audioscape were not the least relevant part of the environment, the backup beep would be treated like secondhand smoke and dog poop on the sidewalk. If someone tells you that it needs to be there for safety reasons, ask them why -- despite the fact that the technology exists which makes it possible, and inexpensive – cars don’t beep when their drivers are texting or talking on their cell phones or (yes, this is possible too) drunk. Wake up! I say. Even if you dread silence, Tinnitus will do you in.
hang out in bars with 2Rise up, Yes, I have to admit I often blamed myself for hearing it and reflected on my inferiority to Zen Masters, John Cage or other realized beings who did not differentiate from the outside world, but in the end it always seemed to me that rage at the beep was a vote for sanity in a world gone completely mad.
Two days after I came upon the Boom Lift, another beep arrived in the morning and continued through most of the day. Like the sanitation truck’s, it came from the Washington Mews. Its source, I discovered, was the smallest of any vehicle from which, to this day, I’ve heard an alarm. Not much bigger than a golf cart, its view to the rear not at all obstructed (thus excluding it from the original OSHA mandate), it was driven, at the pace of a very slow walker, by a large, bespectacled man in a business suit and a Yankee cap who chauffeured a young woman with a long-lens camera fixed on the pavement below and ahead. Neither the beep nor the vehicle stopped when I approached so I walked alongside as I shouted the questions I could no longer resist.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me why this machine is beeping?”
Clearly annoyed to be interrupted, especially by a neighborhood crank with something so trivial on his mind, the photographer’s stare was not accomodating. “Safety, “ she yelled. “Why do you think?”
“Right!” shouted the driver. “It’s an alarm!”
“But you’re going forward! You can see where you’re going! There’s no people or cars here. Why do you need an alarm?”
He shrugged. “Safety,” he said again. “Don’t want anyone to get hurt, do we? Anyway, we’ve got nothing to do with this thing. It’s rented.”
For all his impatience, he had shown me the root of the problem or at least one of them. Like the Boom-Lift and many other construction vehicles, his little cart came from a rental company which had sent it out into the world with no idea where or how it would be used. Before it got to the renter’s lot and, let’s not forget, satisfied the demands of its insurance company, it had been manufactured by another -- probably huge, transnational, bottom-line fixated -- corporation which had its own insurance policies and which was equally uninformed about its destination. Following what it incorrectly took to be OSHA’s rigid regulations, it had automatically installed on this as on every other vehicle that came off its assembly line a backup alarm (which in this case was triggered by the forward as well as reverse gear) which had to be, as the mandate stated, “audible above the surrounding noise level,” which level of course could mean anything from the conversation in which we were now engaged to street traffic to construction site pandemonium, so who could wonder why the designer of this cart had interpreted his civic and legal responsibility to mean “so loud you can’t not-hear it, moron” so that, when the cart rolled off the assembly line, he’d not only be OK with OSHA but proud to have made the world a safer place, and who gives a shit about some neighborhood crank who thinks his own comfort is more important than the life of a construction worker?
But of course there are different ways to hear things and different ways of dealing with them if you do. When the cart drove off and I walked along the Mews, I came on one of the residents, a slender, whitehaired elderly man in bathrobe and slippers, standing in his open doorway not 20 feet from the noise. Yelling again to be heard above the beep, I could not resist the need to seek communion.
“AMAZING, ISN’T IT?”
The expression on his face reminded me of the photographer’s, but he managed a patronizing smile. “Hey, it’s New York, right?”
Like most people, I’d always thought of OSHA as an impenetrable bureaucracy, but later that day, casting about for relief after my encounter with the golf cart, it occurred to me that, if I meant to take on the beep, I had to begin where it started. As it turned out, a quick Internet search was all it took to get me there. By way of the phone number of OSHA’s New York office, I connected with its media department and – one day later -- an East Coast director. I expected him to be defensive or condescending, but he was sympathetic. “I hate the beep myself. When I was an inspector in the field and encountered violations of the mandate, I had to issue citations, of course, but if there was clearly no backup danger, I always did my best to accommodate them.”
He knew about the quieter alternatives I’d discovered in my research, and he could not understand why they weren’t more widely utilized. For that sort of information, he suggested I seek out a man named Ted Fitzgerald, the director of public affairs in the regional office in Boston and ask him to pass my questions along to Washington. I assumed I was sending my email into the bureaucratic void, but two days after I wrote Fitzgerald, I received an email from him which restated my questions and Washington’s response to them. Though it restated the original mandate, it was anything but rigid. “OSHA,” it said, “does not, in fact, mandate the use of backup alarms on construction sites. Employers have a choice as to whether they use a backup alarm or spotter. In addition, employers can choose what type of alarm they would like to use, so long as it is a reverse signal alarm distinguishable from [and] audible above the surrounding noise level.” They were open to “emerging technologies” and saw no problem with “cameras, proximity detection systems, and broadband alarms, as long they meet the requirements of the original mandate.” As for the narrowband alarm itself, “OSHA is aware of the problems it may cause. As announced on its regulatory agenda and mentioned above, OSHA will be publishing a Request for Information relating to preventing backover injuries and fatalities. As part of this, we are examining all aspects of backover prevention, including the types of alarms that are currently in use and possible alternatives.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this correspondence changed the game for me. Even though it took no position on noise pollution, it was the first indication that OSHA was neither inflexible nor insensitive to Quality of Life issues. Like so many who struggle with noise pollution, I had always assumed, consciously or not, that ours was a war against intrangient barbarity. It had never occurred to me that the debate could be anything but adversarial. But if the single despotic source of an absurd, avoidable, ubiquitous assault on quiet was not unequivocal about it, our argument had an outside chance of becoming a dialogue. In other words, it was no longer so clear that the other side was absolutely other. Not for no reason is the soundscape called the Commons. It belongs to us all, affects us all and, like it or not, connects us. Those on the other side, however much their definitions of noise might differ from ours, have ear drums and acoustic nerves that vibrate as much as anyone else’s, and whether they know it or not, they can’t survive without freedom now and then from such vibration. The taste and tolerance for silence may be relative, but as every religion or contemplative practice throughout history has indicated, the need for it is absolute.
A few days after the photographer’s cart moved beeping through the Mews, the roar of heavy machinery announces why the pavement needed photographing. Looking down from my window, I watch an army of men in hard hats commence installation of a fence along both sides of the street while trucks of all sizes unload the armamentarium of tools, lumber, wiring and pipe we all recognize as industrial mobilization, a sure sign that our lives will be upended for the next few months or even years. In this diminutive space, there’s no room for vehicles to turn around, so once they’ve unloaded, they back out with a chorus of beeps that, as usual, seems to rise above all other noise as the crash of cymbals can rise above the ensemble sound of an orchestra. Within a week, I’ll see the cobblestones removed, the whole of the Mews stripped back to dirt and then, as if by autopsy, excavated and trenched to reveal the underworld of pipe and valve and wiring which hides below the surface.
Posters on the fence explain that this is New York University at work. The job will take a bit more than a year but when it’s done, we’re assured, the Mews will be restored to its original beauty, the whole of the neighborhood enriched by this wondrous project. Already the owner of a good deal of Lower Manhattan, a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi and a huge medical center on the East Side of Manhattan, much in the news of late because of its controversial 20-year plan to add three million square feet of new classrooms, dormitories and offices in the Greenwich Village area, a new engineering school in Brooklyn and satellite campuses in China and on Governors Island, the university (unbeknownst to many who live in this neighborhood) has owned almost all the buildings in the Mews for more than 50 years. Now it means to occupy them. The smaller buildings at the West End, which were stables for the wealthy before they became studios and homes for haute Bohemians, will be used for classrooms and and faculty housing, and the two larger buildings at the east end, next to what are already the Deutsch Haus, the Maison Francais, and the Abu Dhabi Institute, will become the Africa Institute and the China Institute.
Within a week, all the buildings in the Mews are taped at window and door to protect from dust. The sidewalks are fenced off from the street with thick green canvas screens into which have been cut small oval windows through which curious pedestrians can observe the violence within. One of the most enchanting streets in New York is not altogether distinguishable from a War Zone. Ten floors up, I have a terrific view of it all and, much though I try to resent it, cannot stop watching and appreciating how much thought and sweat goes into a job like this, how much coordination and skill it requires, how dangerous it can be, how much noise it inflicts on the community and, ruefully, how trivial and unavoidable such noise must seem to those who finance and manage the project.
The principal noise, however, is neither trivial nor unavoidable. It comes from a small Bobcat loader which is constantly in use for earth-moving, digging, or leveling. Like all Bobcats, it came out of the factory with a high frequency backup alarm that cannot be switched off. Since the work-site is narrow, excavated and trenched, thus close to impossible to navigate, it operates in reverse as often as it doesn’t. Sometime it has to back up, beeping constantly of course, for five to ten minutes, from one end of the street to the other. Not infrequently, its beep sounds – at half-second intervals, of course -- for three or four hours straight. Since the Canyon effect amplifies sound as it rises, the beep is actually louder on higher floors like mine and of course those in the three other highrises within its range. Thus am I astonished to realize again and again as if for the first time that on a megamillion dollar job which is financed and coordinated by one of the wealthiest educational institutions in the world, surely employed first-rate architects, designers and engineers and, in Plaza Construction, one of the most respected contractors in the United States, and has been monitored at every stage by the New York City’s Buildings Department, Landmarks Department, Transportation Department and of course Environmental Protection Department, the major noise is produced by a $20 device which is wired to the reverse gear on a machine ten feet long and six wide and, when it’s switched on, emits a narrow band beep that, as my on-the-ground research confirms, is audible at least an eighth of a mile north, south, east and west or, more exactly, to any one of the hundreds or even thousands of those whose brains, like mine, are both cursed with awareness of it and appreciative of the silence it destroys.
Monday mornings, of course, are the worst. Weekends are quiet around here. I often take the silence for granted, but one morning, a few minutes before the onslaught begins, I don’t. As if for the first time, I realize how nourishing and energizing it is, how it expands and clarifies space, how much hope and possibility it offers, how it slows time and so awakens one to the present that every moment seems a sort of re-birth. I am not unfamiliar with this sort of experience or the great range of poetic, philosophical and contemplative literature it has engendered, but what strikes me most about it this morning is its simplicity, its sanity. It’s hard to believe there’s anyone on earth who hasn’t known what I know now and, consciously or not, sought it out again. When the Bobcat resumes its daily assault, it seems to me a crystallization of all the noise we create to deny this sanity, and the tremor it seems to send through the room is all the disorder that results from such denial. It’s true that there are those like me who are hypersensitive to such disorder but just now it seems to me that even the noise-addicted must feel it. Who knows that the fear of silence is not exacerbated by the shock of its interruption?
A few days before, along with all residents of our building and, I assume, the others which surround the Mews, I’d received a “Hi All” email from a woman named Arline Peralta in the community relations department at NYU. The University, she wanted us to know, was very sorry about the disturbance we were experiencing, doing its best to mitigate it, and – “like all of you, I know” – hopeful that the job would be done as soon as possible. Meanwhile, if anyone had a particular complaint, we should not hesitate to send it her way and know with absolute certainty that she’d do her best to take care of it.
I’d ignored her offer because, despite my experience with OSHA, I did not believe that any noise problem, much less one as common and trivial and bureaucratically calcified as a backup beep, could be traced to an actual human being in a huge instititution who would, first, take me seriously, second, accept responsibility, and third, have the authority and skill to do anything about it. In other words, I’d not bothered to answer because, like most anyone inclined to protest an institutional outrage, my state of mind had been adversarial, and I believed that she and her employers were entrenched on the other side of the barricades. After that morning, however, I could not doubt that Ms. Peralta and her employers had experienced, at some point in their lives, the sort of silence I’d just known. Was it not possible that they had heard the stupid beep they’d inflicted upon us?
I sent Ms. Peralta an email which summed up my position and research. Surprising myself with my civility, I asked her to consider why NYU had chosen to use a high-frequency backup alarm on the Mews project. “I can't believe you were unconcerned about the noise or contemptuous of the neighborhood or that you made this choice for purely economic reasons, but the fact is that this job, requiring extensive earth-moving in a confined and easily monitored space in a very dense neighborhood, is producing horrific noise pollution, that the worst of this pollution comes from the backup alarm, and that this alarm, unlike so many disturbing side-effects of major construction, DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THERE.”
Later that day, I had a telephone call from John Beckman, Ms. Peralta’s boss. My letter, he confessed, had raised questions in his mind. He could not understand why NYU, “which by the way removed the backup beep from its mail trucks three years ago,” had not done so on the Mews project. He’d called a meeting with his colleagues to discuss the issue and he promised to get back to me as soon as they’d done so. Two days later, I had a call from one of those colleagues, Beth Morningstar, whose title alone – “Assistant Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Communications, Division of Operations, NYU” – would have convinced me a few days earlier that I was up against an impenetrable bureaucracy. Ms. Morningstar, however, was not just a bureaucrat but a human being with cheerful voice, a reasonable mind and a miracle to share. She wanted me to know that the Bobcat’s beeping alarm had been replaced by a rear-vision camera and a White Noise Alarm, and though she hated to bother me, she wondered if I could meet her on the work-site to explore these new conditions first-hand.
Along with Ms. Peralta and a director from NYU’s Community Relations Department, Sayar Lonial, we met next morning at the scene of my grief. Not allowed on the Mews because we did not have hard hats, we stood on the sidewalk and watched through the fence while the Bobcat, just on the other side, backed up, moved forward and backed up again. The “White Noise” alarm was a loud and focused blast of wind. It seemed impossible that anyone in the vehicle’s path would fail to hear it. Pleased though she was, however, Ms. Morningstar was not completely satisfied. Though we’d convinced ourselves that the new alarm protected workers, we had now to investigate its effect on the world beyond. What she needed now, she said, was to hear how the noise proliferated. Would it be possible for her and her colleagues to come up to my apartment and check it out?
A few minutes later, the four of us stood at the window from which I’d looked down on the job. Ten floors down, the Bobcat shifted into reverse and backed up from one end of the Mews to the other.
Ms. Morningstar leaned out and, straining to hear, closed her eyes in concentration. “I can’t hear it. Do you?”
Leaning over the window sill, I focused the whole of my beep-fixated mind on the source of my rage and despair. “No,” I said. “I hear nothing at all.”
How sweet it would be if we could end the story there. Miraculous though it was, however, we must not believe our blessing unmixed. It’s true that NYU, community conscious as it needs to be at this contentious moment in its history, has resolved that none of the 132 building projects it is currently planning will use the narrow band alarm, but the bureaucracy which gave us the beep remains in place. Though it welcomes public comment and is open to alternatives, OSHA neither supports nor rejects any alarm which satisfies its mandate, and as far as I can see, does not consider noise pollution a significant variable in the realm of “occupational health and safety.” Since most real estate developers, contractors, manufacturers, insurance companies and noise-enforcement organizations, like New York’s Environmental Protection Department, use the OSHA mandate as their guideline, there is no explicit reason why any of the millions of beeping alarms which are already on the road should be deactivated or replaced with quieter alternatives and no reason why any developer, manufacturer or contractor – unless noise pollution is much higher on his list of priorities than it seems to be for most others in these fields -- would seek a quieter form of safety. When I asked Richard Wood, the president of Plaza Construction, if he would continue to use the White Noise alarm which NYU had chosen, and which his own Safety Director had approved, he shook his head. “If someone gets hurt on a job where we aren’t using a narrow-band alarm, we have to worry about litigation.” Of course one could answer his logic – as I did -- with all the information I’d collected, but the fact remains that the beeping alarm is cheaper and louder than any alternative and backed by a culture which is not only habituated to it but obeisant to its safety rationale. The fact remains as well that the office of Noise Abatement, which like OSHA was created in 1970, was defunded by the Reagan Administration in 1981, and to my knowledge has not appeared on the agenda of any president since that time. Until it joins toxic waste, secondhand smoke, acid rain, dog poop on the sidewalk and other pollutants we are neither afraid nor embarrassed to take on, the backup beep will remain a crucial blemish on the soundtrack of our environment.