Sounds of the City: What Happens to Hearing When You Move to N.J.

A few nights ago, my sister called from her cell phone to make dinner plans in Manhattan. Two minutes into the conversation, I said, “I don’t know—what about that place with the chopsticks that don’t splinter? … You’re at an A.T.M. in a bodega, aren’t you?”

“What? Yes.”

“The hollow bleeping sound when you type in your P.I.N., the one that sounds like Speak and Spell. That ain’t no Chase machine.”

“You’re psychotic.”

“No, I just live here.”

“O.K., that was cold.”

Over a year ago, my sister and her husband moved from their rent-controlled apartment on 24th and Lex to a squarish building with a mortgage payment called a “house” in Glen Ridge, N.J. They freakishly wanted more than one bedroom, and a lawn and a car. Even my mother, a Scarsdale-bred suburbanite herself, thinks they’re freaks.

I grew up a Grand Central girl. I’m finding it hard to acclimate to a West Side indoor strip mall of pizza and doughnuts and platform escalators. Just entering Penn Station has the tendency to make me feel like a little kid lost in a mall. To be fair, Grand Central has been known to have that effect on people as well. But I would imagine it’s more like being lost in a museum.

Not blessed with cultural or geographic personalities to defend, suburbanites can become fiercely loyal to and protective of the few things that differentiate theirs from other suburbs. I am no exception. Neither is my mother. I am boggled thinking about the place my sister left. My mother is boggled thinking about where she went.

“We have to accept it … she’s from Jersey now,” she mourns.

“Jesus, Mom—no, she’s not.”

“Yes,” she weeps uncontrollably in her black suit sewn from the cloth of betrayal, “she’s no longer with us.”

“What, so she’s against us?”

“No, I mean that in the traditional way.”

At the end of the day—though I would have forgone trips to Penn Station had she moved to Westchester—I don’t particularly care about this New Jersey business. My issue lies with her leaving the city, period. Because I don’t see her as much as I used to? Because that’s one set of spare keys that would be a real bitch to reclaim from her if I locked myself out? Not really. It’s because it’s starting to show in the tiniest but most profound ways. The sound thing disturbs me the most.

We are bombarded with clatter in this city, from concrete being drilled to an overstuffed backpack with a tourist attached getting stuck in subway doors. Miraculously, what should be white noise is more, well, Technicolor. While we’re not listening, our ears start to differentiate, like identifying birdcalls.

But just because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s not a skill. Though my sister still works here everyday, she goes home to a different set of sounds—ignitions starting, cicadas buzzing, leaves scraping in gutters. Her ears are getting dull. Pretty soon she’ll be holding them as buses come to screeching halts, and she’s already unable to differentiate between an oncoming express train and the local 6. I shudder to think of the day someone says “Barney’s sample sale” and my sister thinks of the purple dinosaur. That’ll really give our mother something to cry about.

You know that ticking of a taxi receipt right after you utter those magic words “Right here is good”? That’s one of the better sounds in the world for me, signifying the almost-there collapse into bed after a night out. My sister doesn’t even miss it.

“There are some things more important than taxicabs,” she says.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Last night, we had a barbecue with an actual grill.”

“So?”

“So we saw lightning bugs and these weird little dots in the sky called ‘stars.’”

“I saw Mary-Kate Olsen last night. She ordered a Cobb salad and ate it.”

What my sister doesn’t get is that a mundane urban detail like the sound of a MetroCard with “insufficient fare,” or a large-scale classic like midtown traffic, becomes engrained in New Yorkers. So much so that we’re famous for it. Who among us hasn’t had to tolerate a condescending overnight stay at a friend’s lakeside cabin or beach bungalow? As they show you your room for the night, they say something like “Bet you won’t even be able to sleep without all that street noise.”

Yes, you think, I actually won’t be able to get a wink unless you jam a cinderblock against your station wagon’s horn and A Clockwork Orange is playing full blast in the basement. Concrete being an inanimate substance and all, the streets don’t actually make any noise. This is an un-urban legend. Street noise is relative depending on precisely where you live in the city—and besides, they don’t call them babbling brooks for nothing.

In the highly underrated 1992 film Sneakers, Robert Redford is clubbed over the head by Ben Kingsley’s goons and stuffed in a trunk. He’s then taken to Kingsley’s evil world-taking-over lair blindfolded and later dumped on the side of a highway. In order for Redford to get back to said lair and save the world, he has to describe what he heard from the trunk of the car: the sound of seams in the concrete, going over a bridge, geese on the side of the road.

“Being in New York is not unlike being trapped in the trunk of a car,” I explained to my sister, also a Sneakers fan. “What makes the noise is not what you can hear from the trunk of the car. It’s the harsh world we have to squint to see when that trunk opens.”

I have grown to appreciate my trunk. And it’s important to have people with you that you don’t mind being in such close quarters with—like my sister. Because it’s not the noise that puts us to sleep each night; it’s the being home. For her, that home is now in New Jersey. Even though I miss her living here, I have to admit: She seems to sleep just fine.

Before we hung up, my sister mocked what she referred to as my newfound super-power hearing. She was still standing in the bodega.

“What about the little round smiley guy bouncing around the A.T.M. screen? Can you hear him, too?”

“He doesn’t make any noise, genius.”

“Sure he does,” she laughed at me. “If you listen real close, you’ll hear the sound of him taking away all the money you have left after paying rent.”