At the Whispering Gallery


Our Daily Correspondent

Photo: thenails

Last time I went to the Grand Central Oyster Bar for a quick pre-train chowder, there was a particularly large group of Italian tourists blocking the door. I couldn’t understand their guide’s monologue, but I could only assume she was instructing them on one of New York’s worst kept secrets, the Whispering Gallery.

There are whispering galleries all over the world—enclosures in which, by a trick of acoustics that I could relate but never understand, whispered words can be heard clearly from another distant point. Notable examples include Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the U.S. Capitol, the Mormon Tabernacle, and the Mapparium at the Mary Baker Eddy Reading Room in Boston.

The Grand Central gallery gets a lot of visitors because Grand Central itself is a tourist attraction, and along with the constellation ceiling, FDR’s secret train track, the Campbell Apartment, and (I guess) the clock, the gallery is a focal point of any tour. Kids love it, of course. I like that it’s in such an incongruous location, with busy lunchers and commuters forever rushing past to gobble oysters and make trains, completely indifferent to the miracle of acoustics surrounding them. 

Being a whimsical, childish woman—albeit not the kind who changes lives—I used to be unable to pass through the whispering gallery without imparting a secret to whoever I might be with. If I was alone, frequently, I would sometimes just whisper into the void—or, at any rate, corner—and hope a passing stranger would hear my voice. In such cases, I would usually hiss “I love you” because I think it’s a nice, validating thing for anyone to hear, plus maximum creepy.

And then I took my husband there—although he wasn’t my husband then, or even my boyfriend. Indeed, given what went down, I’m amazed either of these things came to pass. Amazingly, he did not know about the Whispering Gallery. I remember we had to wait a while for a large group of teenagers to finish whispering at each other and shrieking their amazement at the scientific miracle. (It really is very amazing.) Once we assumed our respective corners in the gallery, we had some acoustical problems. I had to repeat my secret multiple times before he heard me, which was a bit anticlimactic.

I had tried to think of the deepest, darkest, most shocking secret I could. And indeed, when I had successfully whispered it into that dank stone corner, I did not need any acoustical trickery to hear his response.

“You don’t like Astral Weeks?” he cried, turning to look at me with what amounted to horrified fear. I had sort of thought that the Whispering Gallery was a safe space. But really, it’s just a tourist attraction.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.