Soon after settling into a new apartment, I caught glimpses one evening of fabric, billowing rhythmically in my peripheral vision. Standing from my desk, I looked out the window into my neighbor’s, where swaths of white, swirling at the ends of dancers’ arms, filled the panes like live TV. A few nights later, little girl voices sang anthems. Soon after, there were violins.
Blissful, I was, having landed the biggest, best-priced and most serene one-bedroom on the island of Manhattan and now this, private performances with the pull of a shade. When I found the apartment weeks earlier during a visit from Texas, I heard that there was a school next door, its pretty brick facade and fine foliage comprising my fourth floor view. For nine months, I delighted in the creative efforts of adolescent children, finding empty-nest nostalgia in their wobbly tour jetes and questionable pitch. But then, summer happened.
I suppose, now, that there are questions that one should remember to ask when renting apartments in New York. But the escapade--with its pressure, competition and all-around frenzy--can make a person forget to inquire.
One morning after classes ended at the all-girls independent day school next door, I woke to sounds of metal, dredging and twisting into the earth just feet from my eardrums. The delicate waft of applause I had grown accustomed to hearing from the auditorium out my window transformed into maniacal gouging that reverberated in my tendons and bones. Bolting up in bed, I felt my forearm with the other and then my cranium and my ribs. I vibrated, everywhere.
We were under some kind of attack, clearly. I covered my head. The burrowing persisted, accompanied by groaning sounds, raucous churning that could hollow out a small nation in minutes.
“Charlie,” I called to Charlie, who had sought shelter under the box spring. Oh, to be a small terrier just then. “We need to scram, and fast,” I told him, pulling on shorts and a tee. “Hurry!”
As we tore through the lobby, our doorman informed us of our neighbor’s building project, a three-floor multi-year expansion that had encountered loads of community opposition and assorted lawsuits for all sorts of safety, acoustical, aesthetic and plain old attitudinal reasons but got a go-ahead from the city nevertheless. “Can you hear it up there?” he asked.
And so began my summer of ibuprofen.
Not to be left out of a protest, I mount my own personal crusade against The Fancy Private School and its Unconscionable Construction Noise, thinking that I can stop the madness. I label a folder, as such, and begin tracking activity. One needs evidence for a personal crusade.
First, I read up on the situation that preceded my arrival. A hornet’s nest, indeed. Despite the Community Board’s rejection of the school’s plans, the city’s Board of Standards & Appeals approved them, allowing for building beyond the allowable height and issuing assorted variances for extended work hours. Still, I am compelled to right the wrong. I go to the site to nose around. A man behind a desk behind a door behind an orange cone tells me to call the Director of Security of The Fancy Private School and its Unconscionable Construction Noise, a certain Bill Dozer*. The man also tells me never to cross the orange cone again.
Meanwhile, I ask people in my elevator about the permit and they make all sorts of unkind statements about the school, saying that it doesn’t need the extra stories, particularly for athletic space, that the modern addition to the 100 year old building that was added in 2008 is frightful enough and tall enough for the neighborhood’s quaint landscape, and that they wonder how the school managed to snag the permit, anyway, given the overwhelming community outcry. They say that it is a fait accompli and that the task now is to endure the racket. They also say that the schoolchildren throw candy wrappers on the sidewalk every afternoon at 3:15. Not that that is related.
I continue to amass evidence, hoping to hit upon something that will save the collective sanity of my fellow residents. In a certain city ordinance governing such cacophonous building of buildings, I stumble on the requirement of a “Noise Mitigation Plan” that must be present and posted on the construction site. According to this plan, we’ll call it our NMP, extra measures, or “noise mitigation strategies,” must be taken when using particularly boisterous equipment, such as a jackhammer or drill. Hmmm, I think, recalling the clamor that woke me at 7 a.m. days earlier. Hardly a heavy equipment expert, I do sense, though, that what I heard was in fact jackhammer-y or drill-like. I run downstairs to locate the appropriate signage, locating nothing, anywhere. Aha. I leap over the orange cone and ask the man in the forbidden place if there is a Noise Mitigation Plan posted. There is not. He is mad at me for leaping.
It is time to contact Bill Dozer.
Empowered, I pose the question. “Do you have in place extra barriers or enclosures, even portable ones, to mitigate the noise emanating from those jackhammers and drills that you use at 7 a.m. five feet from my ear drums? In other words, Mr. Dozer, do you have a Noise Mitigation Plan, you know, an NMP?”
“An NMP,” I repeat, realizing that I made up the acronym. “I mean a Noise Mitigation Plan.”
“No, I don’t know of such a plan,” says Mr. Dozer.
There is a reason that I went to Journalism School.
The next day, Charles and I take a walk under the scaffolding next to the school and see an official collection of official-looking papers, one of which, lo and behold, is my NMP. The man behind the orange cone looks as if he wants to throw a two-by-four at me when he sees me coming, again, but I get him to reveal that someone hung up the sign the day before, the day that I called Bill Dozer. Thickening of plots, and all that. Upstairs, the jackhammering and drilling seem unfettered, as if there is no noise mitigation barrier in place, despite the presence of the noise mitigation sign. Sensing a cover-up, I become energized, if not unglued from the auditory assault on my psyche and frame.
The next day, the jackhammering and drilling begin at 7, as allowed. The following morning, there is a chopping that ambushes me, making my abdomen tighten and temples hurt. On the Saturday, a droning starts at 9, but I wake up at 4 expecting it. My body is primed for the attack, the visceral and emotional torture of inhumane loudness. I think peculiar thoughts. I cannot write sentences at my desk or form them from my mouth. Purple semi-circles emerge under my eyeballs. I lose four pounds.
I write an email to the school’s address posted in my building’s mailroom, introducing myself as a neighbor and a reporter and asking how construction with decibel levels greater than 110 was happening without proper noise barriers. The Facilities Director of The Fancy Private School writes back. Here is how our conversation goes:
Him: “When we are actually doing jack hammering we are required to have a noise mitigation plan. At this time we are not doing jackhammering.”
Me: “What is the machine in use first thing each morning, then? I was told that it chops cement. It is as loud as a jackhammer. The authorities have been notified.”
Him: “I don't know who you are speaking to. But I would be glad to answer and address your concerns.”
He provides his cell phone number and offers to meet. That is nice, I think, but then remind myself. He is the enemy. I go to sleep. At 2:14 a.m., the banging blasts through the window like gunfire and pierces my innards, not to mention my equanimity. Semi-conscious, I fear burglars are hurling fire extinguishers through the glass. I imagine them in my living room, clad in metal helmets and military style gas masks. Charlie jumps from his bed into mine, trembling. “Save me,” he says. I write The Facilities Director a mean email and take video, recording the commotion.
In the morning, he encourages me to use the 24-hour hotline, which will handle my call immediately, or to use his cell phone. I want to continue to dislike The Facilities Director, but he says that he will get the facts and figure out what happened. Later, he tells me that the workers took liberties without his knowing and would be terminated if they did it again. Be strong, I tell myself.
But, then, “You are upset for good reason.”
In between bouts of bulldozing, the words Stockholm Syndrome enter my brain. In the way that kidnapped people come to love their kidnappers, I, reading Tim’s words--yes, Tim’s--felt weirdly allied with him. Broken and victimized, I had latched on psychologically, as a means for survival. I was a textbook captive. Soon, I was sending him text messages, friendly ones.
Me: “Hi, Tim. It’s Sunday, and there is a high-pitched metal banging going on.”
Tim: “They are allowed to work inside on Sundays.”
Me: “Okay, thanks.”
What had happened to me? Had the quarry that was The Fancy Private School and its Unconscionable Construction Noise pounded out all semblance of outrage from my soul? Had I gone limp with acquiescence? What was next...would I take up a power tool myself and join forces? Sure, acclimation is a fine thing, but how much is too much?
Toward the end of the summer, I laid down on the couch in front of the windows and looked up at the piece of sky that would one day be eradicated by brick. The drilling and jackhammering had waned, and I anticipated back-to-school choral concerts, maybe some handbells or chamber music. I closed my eyes, rediscovering the initial tranquility of the best one-bedroom in Manhattan and glad, at least, that the bedlam was seasonal. A late summer breeze drifted inside and I breathed deeply, only to break into convulsions from the intake of some noxious gas into my lungs. A little asphyxiation never hurt anyone, I thought, gagging uncontrollably, so happy for the peace and quiet.