In December, 2011, I visited a protest outside of the Credit Suisse offices in Manhattan to make sound recordings. Below is the podcast that resulted. The event was staged against that day’s military contracting meeting, hosted by Credit Suisse, but connections to Occupy Wall Street were evident on many levels, from the organization of the protest to the perceptions of observers.
This weekend, 644 competitors vied to become the 2010 crossword-solving champion. (I came in 338th, way ahead of Ken Burns.) As solvers finished each puzzle, they filed out to the lobby to discuss triumph and tragedy.
We hear many voices when we’re in public. But the logic between which ones we engage, ignore, or get frustrated by isn’t always apparent, even to ourselves.
One of the most perplexing examples is the cell phone conversation. To wit: if we’re sitting in front of two people on a bus, and they’re talking in a reasonable tone of voice, it’s very unlikely we’ll care at all. But if it’s only one person, and he’s talking at the same hypothetical volume on the phone, we might think bad thoughts about him, or have trouble concentrating. Why are we bothered by the latter and not the former?
We develop and adjust auditory filters throughout our lives. Our annoyance with overhearing cell phone chatter suggests that we’ve become accustomed to telephone conversations – however innocuous – being private. And so the sound of them in public space registers as a breach of etiquette, even if it’s no different in pitch, volume, or timbre than an old-fashioned, in-person conversation. This may change over time, perhaps after we’ve spent years and years confronted with the practice. For now, the memory of landline custom still obtains.
The following recording is a good example of this phenomenon, starring one of those much-despised Motorola walkie-talkies. As the F train went above ground during a snowstorm that had severely delayed train traffic, a man got a page (presaged by the famous tone) from a friend, and commenced telling him where he was, how long he expected to be there, and so on. There was a whole lot of eye-rolling on the busy car. The tones kept coming, and the voice of the man on the other end came through covered by a harsh, almost mean-sounding distortion. This mixed with the sound of train announcements which, as you might expect, were filtered into the normal bin.
Something “lite” for Friday. (Trying to make this the routine.)
Most of the interview snippets concern race, obliquely or head-on. If you ask New Yorkers open-ended questions about anything, the conversation will almost always end up there sooner or later. The movie anthropomorphizes common New York objects in a generally random fashion (with the exception of the Italian luggage, I didn’t read any associations between thing and identity), but the matter of race remains, both explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly, when the red emergency services box speaks about her pride as a black woman, when the big and little newspaper boxes discuss their Cherokee ancestry, etc., and implicitly when accents and other vocal details suggest individual histories – the smoker’s cough of the Bronx-born free-used-car-info box seemed, to me, particularly suggestive. Also notable was the Asian (?) pay phone’s awkward reference to “some black people” blasting music from their car, although the remark was obviously well-meaning.
The double-wide storefront across the street had been shuttered for two months. Once I saw some guys getting arrested in front of it on my way to work in the morning, but that was the most action to be observed there, and it seemed unrelated to whatever business was hiding inside. Then, just last weekend, the metal gates finally flung open, like God parting the waters at Yam Suph. But what was revealed was far more miraculous than anything in the bible.
The building is home to Buzz-a-Rama “500,” the last remaining slot-car establishment in the city of New York. The owner, Frank Perri, 74, claims that there used to be 30 or 40 such venues throughout the boroughs, back in the late 60s and 70s when he first opened. Children worked on their personal cars over the weekend, and then brought them in to race on lovely and elaborate courses. This article suggests that the name Buzz-a-Rama “captured the energy of the hundreds of teenagers and kids who used to crowd into the room on race days, and also the sound of the cars themselves, a high-pitched, insectlike whine — the sound of constant speed.”
A short documentary has Mr. Perri yelling at a child who claims his fingers are numb, among other amazing old slot-car guy moments.
This spring, the music department borrowed a professional sound level meter from a company that sells them. I spent a day walking around and talking to people about noise in the city, using the reader to show them how loud their environments were. This brief interview was with two teenage girls on the Manhattan-bound Q train.