This morning on the Bowling Green subway platform, I felt the trains roaring by on either side of me. A little girl walking by had hands clapped over her ears, distinctly offended by the metallic crashing of the train tracks, but I didn’t hear a thing.
I don’t know what it is about me, but I find it hard to listen to the sounds of the city. It stresses me out. I tune out subway traffic and pedestrian voices, conversations I pass by and cars honking as they desperately try to make turns in between endless lines of jaywalking pedestrians. I don’t listen to the automated announcements within the train cars, instead memorizing routes or silently watching the signs out the windows.
Instead I listen to music, anything from radio pop songs to video game soundtracks, songs older than me and others that act as contemporaries, some in languages I can’t speak that I still sing along to because I’ve memorized the melodies of sounds instead of the lyrics. I’m more partial to songs themselves than to artists, so my library is, in all honesty, kind of puzzling.
I’m almost always listening to something. I cling to the habit like a security blanket; it helps me create my bubble, my version of the flawless, unbothered veneer of the stereotypical New Yorker, one I’m too scared to go without.
For me, the sounds of the city are something like this.
I start my day on the Staten Island Ferry, ears plugged up as I walk the gangplank. Sometimes the boat’s horn cuts through my noise-cancelling fog like how it announces itself through the physical fog that coats the water in the early mornings. When the songs switch there’s a moment of silence, and sometimes I catch the usual rounds of announcements – “Welcome aboard the Staten Island Ferry, please pay attention to the following…” – or half of a part of a conversation. The ferry’s crowded with tourists no matter what time of day it is and I can’t tell what languages they speak even if I cared to pay attention. I change the song and close my eyes: “I’m so heavy, heavy in your arms…”
The crush of people leaving the ferry are probably talking. Most of the native Staten Islanders, the commuters, they’re like me, eyes trained on glowing phone screens or iPods. Their feet know the way to the street and the avenues and subway grids beyond. I walk my route along Battery Park, perpetually under construction in one way or another, and turn the volume high for the lead song from the Pacific Rim soundtrack. It’s power-walking music, plain and simple. As I swipe my MetroCard and check the countdown to the next 5 train, the song switches. There’s an announcement scrolling along the message board and being repeated aloud, I’m sure, but I don’t hear it. Owl City is playing directly to my brain, talking about saltwater rooms. The train goes by in the opposite direction and I feel the floor shaking beneath me, watch others on the platform wince at the noise. The screeching of metal-on-metal bleeds through my aural shields and I nudge the volume up higher: “At the end of theworld, or the last thing I see, you are never coming home, never coming home…” I don’t have much partiality to bands, really, but I like My Chemical Romance. What can I say? It’s hard to lose affection for a band after you clung to their lyrics like lifelines for all of high school.
I watch my reflection in the windows on the subway, seeing myself mouth along to lyrics; I’ve memorized both the stops on the 5 train and the poetry of my favorite songs alike by now. When songs without words crop up, I go still, mouth set in an unsmiling line. I see other people’s lips moving and wonder if they’re speaking or only pretending to, like I am.
Wordless isn’t always bad. I get goosebumps from my favorite wordless pieces. They’re soundtracks, all of them, hardly Beethoven or Mozart, but the soundtracks I love are full of soaring strings and thrumming percussion and featherlight woodwinds like any other orchestral song, and I think of them with the same reverence. They may lack words, but they have as much feeling as any crooning ballad or perfect lyric. The song changes once, twice, a thousand more times. “Red flag diver, dive for me. I’m as good for you as I can be.”
The train stops at Flatbush Avenue and everyone pours out in a mob, walking quick up the boulevards to campus, and I don’t listen to the bells announcing the time or the conversations I pass by at a mile-a-minute because I’m not out of my bubble yet. I’m not ready to listen to the world. “I love my hands but it hurts to pray...wait for me.” I prowl the hallways and slink up the stairs like a shadow, silent and lost in my own sounds.
Sometimes I run into people I know when I’m crossing campus or standing on the subway and I read their lips, see them say hello, answer with nods and waves, because when I can’t hear, I can’t speak either, like the two senses are connected so intimately that I can’t do one without the other. Sometimes when I do my assigned reading on the subway, I keep my earbuds in but don’t play any music and all the sounds come through the soundproof filter, or try to. It feels like listening to noise underwater, everything oddly subdued and distorted.
I’m not sure if I like it, being half-hearing and half-not, so I tune it out.