If you live in my building on the Upper West Side, you do not need to own an alarm clock, at least not if you want to wake up at eight A.M. Sleeping beyond that hour is impossible—that’s when the preschool opens its yard for the first playtime of the day.
It is a very lovely way to wake up, if you’re in the right frame of mind. Joyful shrieking, terrified screaming, feuds and rivalries and friendships all at once, magnified by the walls all around them. It is much better to take a Blakean view of it, especially if you work from home, because there are periodic recesses throughout the day, and their collective energy is unflagging.
I always liked the background noise of the playground; working by myself all day, it made me feel less alone. It didn’t really strike me as strange until I conducted an interview in my apartment and, when I tried to transcribe it, realized the voices were obscured by the wall of child-call in the background. Still, I didn’t mind; I threw my windows open and welcomed it, as some people do the constant buzz of public radio.
Then, recently, a second preschool opened. This one faces the other window, and in fact it may be a daycare, because the children are younger, and there are babies, too, and they cry, and sometimes a particularly harried teacher raises her voice in what sounds like near-hysteria. Once again, the walls of the surrounding buildings amplify the noise. The sounds now come from all sides, at all times. It is often just crying, or shrieking, but other times a word comes through; “ACTION” and “DIE!” were the most recent. At one of the schools, the teachers summon the children with an intricate series of loud clapping patterns that I now hear in my dreams. It cannot be denied: I am going mad.
Of course, the solitude of working from home can already lead one to “go strange.” “Going strange” is the prelude, in my family, to “garden-variety madness,” which is how we refer to any obvious craziness that goes undiagnosed, which is to say all obvious craziness. The first sign is a need to talk, furiously, to any stranger, until you see their eyes widen with fear and apprehension. This usually occurs after two days of total solitude. On the third day, you become furtive and sly; you peer out of your peephole to make sure you won’t encounter fellow human beings and take elaborate backstairs routes to the mailboxes to avoid any interaction. By the fourth day, you have ceased to collect your mail.
In these moments, I begin to worry that, in fact, the chorus of children is in my head. But then I look out my window, and there they are—I don’t do this often, as it makes me feel distinctly like Henry Darger—and there is the one little boy who chases all the other four-year-olds around and tries to kiss them and screams “I LOVE YOU!” seemingly without discrimination. The other kids seem scared of him, but I think they love it all, too.