As I write this, there are six workmen constructing a building within five feet of the window, as has been the case for the past eight months and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s not a quiet business at the best of times, and at the moment they’re blasting “Rockin’ Robin.” They start work at seven A.M., and they have one of those special permits from the mayor’s office that allows them to work on Saturdays, too. Along with the two preschools and the slew of amateur musicians who inhabit the surrounding buildings, it makes for a cacophony.
I used to wear noise-canceling headphones and sometimes earplugs, and I’d fume like an angry cartoon character, but now it doesn’t bother me much. In balmy weather, it even feels sort of Rear Window–ish and picturesque. Or so you can tell yourself, especially when one amateur musician noodles on his sax for several hours at a time. I realize I have come to love it.
But recently, things took a turn that even I found unbearable. For some time a child has been learning the theme to Star Wars on his or her electric guitar. (At least, I choose to believe it’s a child. The alternative is too upsetting to contemplate.) I privately cheered the young guitarist along, rejoicing in improvements, admiring the diligence of the practice. I even applauded the brief, recent foray into “Pomp and Circumstance,” because what’s a graduation march without electric guitar?
And then it started. “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Endlessly. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh, Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh, ad nauseam, a nightmarishly imperfect riff waiting for a bass that never, ever comes. This went on for three days. I heard it in my dreams, which were creepy and disturbing. And finally, on the third day, someone rebelled. “CLOSE YOUR WINDOW!” he screamed.
By urban standards, it wasn’t much of a rebuke. But it seemed to open the floodgates. The next night, a neighbor screamed at the workmen. “GO HOME!” she shouted. Soon thereafter, I heard my own husband yelling “KNOCK IT OFF!” for all the world, like a character in The Honeymooners.
It had never occurred to me that this was even an option. I had always tacitly believed you allowed innocuous things to go on around you so as to store up goodwill and a sort of credit, in case one really needed help. Crying crank, to coin a phrase, seemed to me a very dangerous precedent to set. And it destroyed that precious illusion of loneliness—that’s what we love so much in the first place.
Besides which, hadn’t my neighbors enjoyed the terrible sound of it, on some level? I felt like we were all watching the same movie with completely different expectations: I had loved hating the “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” they had simply hated it. And had made it go away. We are all so very powerful. We have the power to ruin someone’s night sleep or their day or even several days. The entire concept of close quarters depends on leashing that power, or not acknowledging it.
We voluntarily sacrifice privacy to live in cities—or, rather, a certain kind of privacy. Strangers make noise, they hear us, they spy on us, they sometimes burgle us, but it’s all pretty impersonal. When I hear that construction noise (and now they’re playing “P.Y.T.”) a little part of me smiles, like we’re all in on the most obvious joke in the world, and in it together.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.