Monday, May 12, 2014

The Bronx is Burning


Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence

-          Paul Simon

 

Paul Simon is many things – musician, lyricist, poet, New Yorker, but I’d bet he has yet to become a very pregnant lady lying awake at night trying to get comfortable and fall asleep.  I doubt Art Garfunkel could make that claim as well. 

Up until recently, these days, or rather these nights, lying down for the end of the day was a lovely reprieve.  Day is done, gone the sun, catch some zzzzz.  Now I just roll around with some arraignment of pillows hoping to succumb to sleep rather quickly, but to no avail.  And then after I do fall asleep, I wake up only 2-3 hours later to pee or to realize my pillow fort has fallen off the bed or my hands are numb or I was having some very bizarre dream or drooled all over my face or my hip aches and it’s time to change positions.  Or any combination of the above.   And so I fix the problem and have to get back to sleep again, though I usually lie there for another silent, dark eternity hoping to succumb to sleep but my mind fills up with all types of ideas, mostly involving how to function with two small children in the house, and here I am again listening to the sounds of silence.  The sounds of night.  The sounds of a bedroom community, who are, at these hours, mostly in their bedrooms, also asleep (I assume). 

For the most part, the Seventh Borough is pretty quiet at night.  The polar vortex has kept everyone inside for a very long time, but we’re turning the corner, and it’s that time of year to sleep with the windows open again, and the delineation of inside sounds and outside noise starts to get fuzzy.   We’ve traded in the sound of the lone, brave, early morning snow shoveler with that of the hum of lawn-care equipment, obnoxiously running at first light.  Open windows bring in the sounds of tweets and chips and bird conversations, and it seems they always have much to say.  Two blocks away sit the train tracks to the commuter rail.  I’m pretty sure I can tell the difference between the electric and the diesel engines by now.  The diesels are so much deeper and like to make their presence known.  The express trains zip on by with a very matter-of-fact rhythm to the pattern of wheels on tracks.  The locals, just pulling out of the Seventh Borough station a mile away give off a more labored sound, as if they are uninterested in speeding up, to just stop again three miles down the track. 

Living on a steep hill of a street, I sometimes hear the acceleration of a car engine, just to get up the hill.  But we really don’t get much street traffic at night.  Just after six AM each week day, a car slows down in front of my house to hurl my newspaper at my driveway, then it hits the gas to make it back up the hill.  Breaks, thump, acceleration, every morning.  But I’m usually awake by six, with the sun rising earlier, waking up the critters and my hips looking to evict the excess baby load soon, I’m well awake by six.   And on weekends, if I get some divine luxury to sleep to well, 6:30, I get to wake up to “Mommy(.)  Mommy(?)  Mommy(!)  Mommy (!!!)” and the toddler comes to my side of the bed and puts his wall decal stickers on my face.  

One noise I welcome at night is the static coming through on the baby monitor.  Static means it’s working but as long as there are no child noises, then he’s sleeping.  We now have the baby monitor rotating from picking up sounds in Nick’s room as well as the nursery, which no one sleeps in right now.  But after watching way too many Ghost Adventure type of shows, I’m just waiting for some other ‘resident entity’ to make their presence known through the baby monitor. 

The Seventh Borough would be a very peaceful place for sleeping, if it were not for the inability of little children to sleep late, and the abundance of trees, which brings about the abundance of early-morning chirping birdies.  I spend a good number of sleepless nights here and there in the Second Borough, and grew accustomed to a whole different set of sounds, many of which you learn to sleep through, like heavy rain beating down on a window air conditioning unit or the advertently/inadvertently triggered car alarm.  Twenty-five plus years in Bay Ridge, one grows accustomed to hearing the fog horn of large container ships entering or leaving the mouth of the Hudson River, it’s a deep moaning sound, often two-toned, with the second tone deeper than the first, and it lingers, and lingers, and reverberates off the water until the tall building density of the Second Borough thickens enough to absorb it.  The more fog horns you hear, the thicker the fog.  And on rarer occasion, the ding-dong-ding of the harbor channel markers makes its way off the water and into the Second Borough neighborhoods.  An excess of fog horns and buoy dings means that you know before even getting out of bed in the morning, that skies won’t be clear and the weather will be unpleasant.   Also, due to our proximity to Fort Hamilton (I assume), our neighborhood seemed home to frequent helicopter traffic, and after time helicopter noises seemed like no big deal, except on the occasion where they sounded really, really, really close, like on your roof close, and then you wonder what’s really going on, or is someone filming a movie, and can I be in it?

Shared walls in apartment buildings can give your ears more entertainment then necessary in the middle of the night.  One of my neighbors kept blaring ‘70’s and ‘80’s rock music late at night when they were going through a divorce.  I had another neighbor leave his gas stove on (on purpose) which would bring the fire department through to wake you up, just in case evacuation was necessary.  A fire truck siren or a police car siren was really no big deal at night, but other times sirens would go on and on as if there were a parade of emergency vehicles headed to your house.  So you’d listen, and hope they’d pass, that the sirens were going down your block but not stopping on your block, and you could roll over and go back to sleep.  Usually nothing was worth getting out bed for.  Usually. 

As we got more acquainted with each other's neighborhoods, Rob would find himself in the coastal Second Borough more often, and I would find myself in the hilly, north Fourth Borough, we got accustomed to each borough’s respective sound patterns.  I remember the first time Rob heard the fog horns, he seemed a bit nervous.  I said don’t worry, as long as you’re not part of the Coast Guard or the Merchant Marines, it just means a cloudy day for you.  In fact, I think I was pretty surprised at how little noise I heard from the Fourth Borough.  His apartment was in the back of the building so he didn’t get much street noise.  The adjacent building had some pretty hostile neighbors, and you’d hear some yelling here and there, but the apartment across the hall was vacant and the next building over was a funeral home, so things were quiet.  
Neighborhood sound test:  1. Win a major championship 2. Listen

In 2007 the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win the Superbowl.  I was excited because I went into the office pool and was getting some winnings from this game.  But I was home alone in the 2nd Borough and congratulated myself with my inside voice.  But just one avenue away, I could hear people coming out of bars and restaurants yelling and cheering and screaming with delight.  Drivers honked their horns.  Parked cars were getting their horns honked.  My neighbors cheered.  It was January, and I’m sure my windows were closed, and I could still hear the jubilation blocks away and the boom boom pop of (probably illegal) fireworks going off in the distance (aka Dyker Heights).  You’d think it was New Year’s Eve.  Bay Ridge was happy the home team had won.  You could hear the celebration in the streets.

In 2009 the New York Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies (and that nasty green offspring of a Snuffalupagus and a feral chicken – the Philly Phanatic) to win the World Series.  I was not really excited (because it was the Yankees) but I was excited that the home team had won, and I was in the Bronx, in Rob’s apartment eating dinner and watching the game with him.  It was October, and I think the windows were open, a bit.  After about 30 seconds of gloating by my then-fiance, that the Mets didn’t even make it to the post-season (what else is new) I waited for the (illegal) fireworks, the honking horns, the neighbors to come out of their apartments and cheer, the yelling (happy yelling).  I was waiting for the Bronx to cheer their Bombers and all I had was the Sound of Silence. 

Out of all the ruckus I am sure Bay Ridge was making that October evening, probably a few people are really drunk, but no one will get arrested.  It’s a joyful noise.  Some will take a 'sick day' for the ticker tape parade, and life will go on.  But there was no celebration for the Bombers in the Bronx that night.  Nothing. 

In 2012 the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win the Superbowl (again).  Sitting in my Seventh Borough home, I thought to myself, well listen up and see if this is like Bay Ridge in ’07 or the Bronx in ’09, but I had a ten-day old newborn baby at home and I can’t remember a thing. 

A few weeks later, right around Halloween 2009, I woke up to the sound of helicopters.  At first I thought nothing of it, then I reminded myself I was in the Fourth Borough and we don’t usually hear helicopters in this neck of the woods.  My lease was up, and I moved in with Rob for a few weeks while we waited to close on our house.  This was a lot of noise for the middle of the night, but it was around Halloween so maybe there is some mischievous ruckus going on the main avenue, just around the corner.   Usually no ruckus was worth getting out bed for.  Usually. 

The next day we found out that a bunch of attached stores had burned down (due to arson) on the main drag, from a Dunkin Donuts to a bakery and a few smaller places in between, but half a city block was now a pile of ash and charred metal. 

A few weeks later, right before Christmas, I woke up to what sounded like someone cutting through metal.  I assumed it was someone working on their car, in the middle of the night and right after a snow storm it seemed like a very odd noise, for what had been a very quiet street.  But I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.  Usually no ruckus was worth getting out bed for.  Usually.  Rob’s cat, Cosmo kept mewing at me.  For a while, I thought this cat hated me and wanted to have nothing to do with me, but now he was telling me in cat speak to get up.  (Do you notice the theme here, I keep waking up.  My husband sleeps though everything and anything).  It was just before 5 AM so I could only sleep a little more before getting up for work, I gave Cosmo some attention and then went to the bedroom window to see what this early morning car-repair clown was up to, but all I saw out the window was black smoke and flames.  I freaked out.  Cosmo freaked out.  Rob was still sleeping.  WTF?

I woke him up and paced around the apartment for a little while, then got dressed.  Our building was not on fire but we were very close to it.   Stay in.  Get out.  What do you do?  Would we be evacuated?  It was December and it was freezing cold outside, but we were in the back of a building looking at the back of another building on fire.  So we gathered up a few important items into a backpack, bundled up and got out.  Cosmo went into hiding, we couldn’t find him, and left him in the house. 

I called my mom at like six AM, probably freaking her out.  I said, "Don't freak out!" and not to worry, I’m ok.  If you turn on the news and see Rob’s block on fire, we’re ok but the cat is missing.  Then I called my boss to say I wouldn’t be in.  I needed a personal day because my block is on fire and I don’t know if I’m going to be homeless in few hours. 

We spent the next 5-6 hours just hanging around on the street.  The fire seemed unable to be tamed, but yet Rob’s old brick apartment building did not seem to be in harm's way.  We saw some neighborhood people and chatted with them, we were in and out of a deli just to keep warm.  It had recently snowed and the gallons upon gallons of water the FDNY kept spraying on the flames was creating more patches of ice all over the sidewalks.  Everything was treacherous  There must have been six or seven fire crews working the fire and another one sanding down all the ice.  The fire had started in a diner, taken out a dentist office, a travel agency and a supermarket .  The supermarket would not stop burning.  It smelled awful.  I guess behind the supermarket was like all its storage and garbage and the way the rears of the buildings came together, they were all attached.  The end of the block was home to a Bank of America, but it was in an old-fashioned bank type of building, with a clock tower on the façade and made of stone and marble.  It was such an old stone building, it was non-flammable, and probably helped contain the fire.  Next to the bank was the funeral home, which was slated that day for a viewing.  A bunch of firemen and the funeral director (who lived upstairs from the parlor) took the corpse out of the building in its coffin.  I figured why bother, when you’re dead, you’re dead, but I guess cremation was not one of the deceased’s last requests.  The funeral home had been recently redone and its façade painted, but its new exterior was getting singed from the still-burning supermarket.   Apparently the funeral director also kept a large stash of (legal??) guns and ammunition in the basement (why- his clients are already dead?) and the FDNY urged him to get them out in case the building were to also catch on fire.  I guess you never really know your neighbors until you all risk homelessness and destruction.  FDNY went to the roof of the funeral home and tried to keep the fire from spreading by spraying it from the roof down into the pit that was probably once the basement of the supermarket.  This seemed to keep the flames at bay.  By midday the fire was under control, but so much was still smoldering.

For the next three days, I’d lay in bed listening to the sounds of firemen still watering down a smoked out mess, which sounded like a very localized heavy rain storm, and smelling all that burnt stuff.  Later we’d find out the owner of the diner paid someone $2,000 to set it on fire so that he could collect the insurance money on the business.  All involved were arrested.  For a stupid insurance plot, two people went to jail, four businesses were ruined, a few others almost ruined and an entire neighborhood lost its supermarket just in time for Christmas.  One week later, we closed on our house, and moved in with whatever we could fit in our car.  We slept on an air mattress in our new home that night, as empty as it was, it was smoke-free and not under constant police surveillance, like a neighborhood suffering from two major arsons in as many months. 

And that would be the beginning, of the sound of silence, the sound of nothingness, the sound of very calm, mostly calamity-free suburban night times.  Peace.  Quiet.  Diesel trains.  Birds.  And the sound of what we could not hear, but would become evident every morning – the sound of a very slow air leak in an inflatable mattress.  I’d wake up on the floor.  And Rob, well he sleeps through everything.     

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