The voices in my head are chitter chatter chitter chatter never ending — some days it’s much too much and only the subway will lull the 17 little squirrels in my head to sleep. When you live in a city long enough, you appreciate the quiet of the subway. The screeching cry of metal wheels, cars flopping on the tracks, the whole package barreling through tunnels of rats and garbage — it’s surprisingly relaxing and calming.
I sit in my 4th floor apartment in what I’ve been taught to believe is quiet. It’s City Quiet — the motor of the refrigerator, hiss of the radiator, overhead planes, barking dogs, cars driving damp streets four stories below, the elevator, the second hand click, click, clicking and more clicking, footsteps on the carpeted hallway, a key scrapes into a lock, a heavy metal hinge creaks, a door down the hallway clicks shut. The subway is the white noise of mechanical things, motors and hydralics, metal on metal, muffled by too many bodies in too few cubic feet.
I start & end my days in silence, a bit of Zen Silent Work Meditation. My morning is as quiet as the borough of Queens and the airport of LaGuardia will allow. No television, no radio, no conversation, sans some telepathic babblings to the cats and their whiney vocalizations back to me. Mornings mean easing my mental ’57 Chevy from Park to Neutral –from the comforting silence of sleep to puttering morning chores (make the bed, breakfast, feed the cats, clean the kitty litter, shower, make up, get dressed – “You really like that?” the squirrels ask in my mother’s voice, change clothes, decide I really did like that in the first place, silently give squirrel and mother the finger and change back, the squirrels are revving up–they’ve only just begun). The subway shifts me from Neutral to 1st gear, easing me towards bustling hustling downtown Manhattan and an loud Overdrive loud office.
In the evening, I need the subway for decompression from the frenzy of work/ play / daytim; to take me down slowly, so I don’t get the bends, lower my heart rate, my breathing, my stress level, take me towards a comforting silence, down shift towards Neutral. The 7 train is an all shifts always rush hour working-class train, I manage a seat none-the-less, because I am that good. I’m eager for my long ride home (45 minutes) and time with the current love of my life (John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley). I settle in, breathe in, out, in again, focusing briefly on mantra train noises to center me — the 7 train pulls out of the tunnel, it’s above ground and a dozen people whip out their cellphones. They have been frighteningly out of contact for…what? Five minutes? Technology is totally fucking my serenity.
Five inches from left ear: It’s Hindi, or Urdu, a minor annoyance, she speaks fairly softly. To my right, louder, Slavic, I guess Polish, although the only thing I know about the Polish is how to say “Kiss my ass” (thanks Grandma!). I whip my head back & forth, like in a tennis match, incredulous when the well-dressed woman standing in front of me begins texting, blipping, beeping – she taps out something very very important. iPods from either end of the car wage a bassline drumbeat battle. Two Long Island girls (Surely, the train is being trailed by mobs of dogs attracted by that special nasal twang only Long Island girls have), raise thier voices an octave or two to compete. I’m trapped by technolgy and its ambient noise.
I give up. It is as noisy outside me head as it is inside. The squirrels rejoice, holding hands, dancing on tables, breaking crockery.
I was up in the Canadian mountains recently — really up in the mountains — inaccessible to GoogleMaps or MapQuest, just a solid green mass, no squiggly red lines pretending to be roads. Roads with no lights, no reflectors, no white line down the middle, not much of anything besides Road and Mountain. I stepped out of the car that first night and saw Dark for the very first time. Real dark. Disorienting dark. Dark where there’s no light in the horizon, no glowing distant city reflecting neon off low cloud cover; dark where you can see every gosh darn star that has ever lived anywhere in the entire galaxy. I kid you not, there were that many, so many you almost cannot see the black sky for all the stars and you wonder how is the sky so thick with stars and yet I still cannot see the ground beneath my feet or my hand in front of my face. I must rely on my sense of touch to know that I’m not floating in that abyss that looms around the corner. That kind of dark. I stayed at a 400 acre sheep farm, kept company by two dogs and several cats — one cat curled wanted to sleep with me and stole my glasses in the middle of the night. (A reincarnation of some former boyfriend, any one, pick one.)
That brand of dark comes with a partner — a particular kind of quiet that if you grew up in the city or the suburbs you’ve never heard before. Its so loud I can’t sleep. First, the sound of my breathing fills the room, then my heartbeat. Slowly, in the dark and the silence, I begin hearing the sounds of the mountains at night — wind brushing through the tops of giant trees, pink cat feet padding stealthily across the carpet (with my glasses in his mouth), wool — still attached to its original owner, brushing against other wool, insects – crickets? cicadas? do I even know the difference? And the chitter chattering squirrel voices are silenced, struck dumb with awe or respect or some primeval recognition of the Real Dark and its Original Quiet.
In the East Village I lived over the rumbling boiler room where it sounded a space capsule, about to blast off. Brooklyn wedged me between the giant freighters at the loading dock, the highway and an active parking lot with a squeaky gate. I moved to Queens and swore the silence would drive me mad. Canada showed me the beauty and tenderness of dark and quiet, when you can feel your roots in the earth and touch your center. Somedays though, the subway is the closest I can get…