Sounds & the City: On Noise in New York | corals + cognacs

Manhattan Musings: Sounds & the City

I came to an interesting realization on my walk to work this week.


That is to say, I have a full set of conversations before I even get to my destination. Without actually speaking.

(It’s also been awhile since we’ve had a meaty, long-tail conversation about life and New York City ’round here, so let’s sit back and have one of those today.)

[Sips coffee.]

In New York, we joke about this often, but
living here is a full-on assault of the senses.

A full-on assault, you guys. Especially after spending a week in Paris, where the morning commute pales by comparison — in a good way.

For starters: Though I’m an “early riser” on the weekdays, New York is constantly one-up’ing me. Every morning. Regardless of when I throw back the sheets, she’s already up and at it – humming about her business. (And to clarify, you don’t start your day until 10 a.m. unless you work on Wall Street; so one can be an early riser and a serial snoozer.)

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Every day, though, we talk. New York and I.

We’re never not talking, actually. It’s more like arguing, but either way — we’re constantly exchanging candid thoughts and dialogue.

That walk to work — the same one, day-in and day-out — can get a little redundant. Rush hour in Manhattan rivals the freakin’ Running of the Bulls, though, so the redundancy isn’t so bad, as zoning out means your chances of having a panic attack decrease by the day…

Anyway: Though I’m typically listening to music on my commute (here is my new playlist for fall), I’ve recently stopped and forced myself to start paying attention to the sounds of the city. This may or may not have been spurred by the fact that I’ve almost been t-boned by a biker, but that’s not the point. (I’m fine, Mom.)

Noise and New York City go hand-in-hand.


Sans-headphones, now, New York and I will greet one another in the morning and she’ll talk to me the entire duration of my commute.

Sometimes, what she has to say is comforting and melodic — quietly lulling me out of a groggy state-of-mind via the ambient noise of an air conditioning unit, the distant rumbling of the subway underground…

Most of the time, she does not whisper. That bitch yells. And she’s obnoxious as hell.

There’s metal-on-metal from the braking subway. There’s bums and cat-callers on seemingly every. single. corner. And there are garbage trucks — I swear – that alter their morning routes just to creep along behind while you walk. (And to note, every day is garbage day in New York City.) This is typically followed by insistent car horns and pissed off cabbies.

No wonder we call it the city that never sleeps, man.

This city breathes incomprehensible noise.


Yesterday morning, for example: There were jack hammers and ear-shattering fire engine horns the second I stepped on the sidewalk. The screech of the 6 train actually made my teeth hurt. And very few things are more soul-crushing than running down the stairs of the subway platform to hear that stupid, innocent “ding” of the train doors closing right in your face.

“Hahaha yeah, fuck you,” New York whispers. “You remember who the boss is, here.”

“I know,” I’ll reply, shaking my head and allowing my lips to form an amused smile.


Though the noise of New York City — and any city, really — can be abusive enough to stop you in your tracks, you’ve just gotta keep on moving. (You’re in Manhattan, after all: You’ve got places to be and if you’re not running late, the person behind you is so get OUT the WAY!)


There’s this perspective that I’ve come to acknowledge — and think a lot about — during the mindfulness that I’ve been practicing on my morning walks.

If you think about it, noise is utterly subjective.

Background noise — be it external or internal — is really just an idiosyncratic improv that quickens your step and reminds you that you’re alive. Not so bad, right? A quiet city, I think, wouldn’t be much of a city at all.


The perspective continues to unfold:

Life is pretty meaningless until you actually give it meaning (positive or not). The same can apply to the “little” things in your everyday – including that morning commute.

Although today’s post is chalk-full of commuter context, the point is really quite simple: Learn to let your thoughts exist as they are without getting overly involved in them. In other words:

Don’t let yourself be burdened by noise and negativity.


[Sips more coffee.]

I’m usually jarred out of my reflective thoughts by whistles from a nearby construction site or the blast of a police siren. It’s as if New York insists on reminding me of her empowered existence. (Bitch, I see you!)

By now, I’m almost to my destination.

There’s a rumble under my feet, encouraging me to think about the hundreds of people making their own hurried morning commutes. Are they talking to New York, too?

Maybe… But from the looks of it, no.

Most are craning their necks at a 90-degree angle, scrolling mindlessly with the same boring motion of thumb-to-phone. It reminds me — every damn day — to set a simple goal: To more awake and less distracted (by noise, negativity and anything in between).


And of course, on the days when I’ve had enough of New York’s nonsense and I’d prefer to turn the dialogue inward, I turn to my music


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