I’m sat here idly fantasizing about an on/off switch for human beings. If only there were a button somewhere on my person that, if pushed, would turn me briefly off then on again. A reboot would be handy right about now. I’m aware that a lot of my unutterably bubbly excitement about being in a new country swirls around my brain for a bit and comes out… as complaining. But trust me, I’m complaining with a smile. It’s just the way I am. The things that seem insane, bizarre, annoying, frustrating, outright blood-boilingly nightmarish… are the things that make me dance on the inside. It gives me a chance to jazz up the language. Let’s face it, the language of crazy things is just so much more fun!
New York is a full-throated roar of a city, an assault on every sense. Even in the haven of my little room in the top of my tall tower. 12 storeys above Broadway I am not far from the electrified kaleidoscope. Take last night: the sun was setting behind my building and throwing golden light at the windows opposite, from there it bounced through my curtains and painted itself in ochre patterns on my walls. The sky itself, beyond the water towers and the Jenga skyline, is blushing pink. Even the close of day takes on a myriad colours. (Sorry, colors.)
How about the ears? Well, there’s only one place to start:
I live round the corner from a fire station. I would swear up and down American fire engines are more obnoxious than their English cousins! And as far as a full night’s sleep is concerned… well… lets just say the entire Upper West Side must go up in flames every night for all the silence its inhabitants are afforded.
From there its subtler, how could it not be, and yet it’s overwhelming. Something about the broad street between tall buildings and the still end-of-summer nights rattles the noises back and forth and up even as high as my window. Snatches of conversation, cussing, laughing, clink of keys in front doors, coughs, the dawn parade of garbage trucks a bickering hum and crash of men and bins. There’s the murmured coming and going of my roommate, flush of toilet, splash of shower, sometimes the shrill whistle of the kettle, snatches of radio. Neighbours clump in and out, crashing keys and doors. The quick ping of arriving elevator. Rowdy kids and professors dimly singing.
And then, suddenly and nerve-shreddingly: total silence. We’re in class – Intro to American Studies – and we’re torturing our professor with Total Silence. He asks a question, we avert our eyes and clamp our tongues between our teeth. He is reaping the reward of his vague line of questioning, his broad generalizations. Twice now, for two hours a piece, it has been the six of us against the entire span of Native American History. He deserves silence.
Even the library cannot claim so deep a hush. Winter colds are making the early rounds, people snuffle and cough into their coffee. Foot-high stacks of books are dropped on the wide desks, laptops whisper in and out of standby, clack of keyboards. A phone buzzes, the vibration spreading through the table and sending eight hands blindly reaching for devices, scholars’ eyes still glued to their books. Only one is really in touch with the outside world.
The library itself is an icebox. The air-conditioning oozes chilly air on the greyest of days, leaving us feeling like side of beef strung from hooks in the ceiling, tiny ice crystals forming in our veins. Handwriting takes on a spidery quality that speaks to numbed fingers.
There are grips in the library today, film handymen on a low-slung trolly. They’re rolling up and down the central aisle, cameras pointed ceiling-ward. Surrounding studiers tacitly agree to pretend they don’t exist. The librarian himself is an elaborate concoction of impressions. He looks out at the world from underneath thick glasses and an even thicker beard. As if in fear of not being heard from under such impediments his tongue sometimes offers support to his voice, joining it in escaping his mouth: it sweeps in a wide left-to-right arc, the tip curled down toward his chin.
Life here is an avalanche of sensory overload, a constant stream of input. The sick pink reek of my Professor’s uncapped soda, the dull smell of her breath as she preaches to us about personhood and bodies, said as if it’s spelled “bodiz.”
Another class is beset by the machinations of the lighting timer, going dark for a few seconds every 23 minutes. No one can figure out why, or how to end the cycle. We simply bear with it for 2 hours of surreality. At least in the darkness no one can see me grinding my teeth at the one student for whom, by some arcane rule of his personal law, “like” must be every third word.
Everywhere you look there are tiny pieces of art, there’s a small section of the foot-high wall that surrounds the traffic island in the center of Broadway that has a casual mosaic set into it, for seemingly no reason other than ‘why the hell not?’ Bronze alligators crawl out of manhole covers to snatch at tiny fleeing bronze figures. One building in the midst of many plain ones has life-sized golden people crawling up its flanks. The whole city is a gorgeous mess of ‘why the hell not?’ It’s a noisy, painted whirlwind of exuberant self-expression and it’s too much of everything.
I can’t get enough of it!