“They’re not shy about using their horns in this city, are they?” L1 said on our first morning in the new apartment, as we craned our necks in the direction of the TV so as to hear Morning Joe over the vehicular argument that was gathering both pace and volume outside, five floors below.
“This, of course, is why a balcony is a complete waste of time in New York,” he added, clearly congratulating himself on having had the good sense not to pay whatever extra sum might have been required to secure an apartment with six square feet of precariously suspended outside space.
It occurred to us then, as it has almost every day since, that Manhattan actually has two great symphony orchestras. There’s the one that plays in the David Geffen Hall at the Lincoln Centre, the NYPO (New York Philharmonic), and then there’s the one that plays on the streets. The street symphony’s illustrious composer is not Mozart or Brahms, but the combined comings, goings and inclinations of the millions who live, work and drive in the city.
Ordinarily it’s the string section that reigns supreme, with the leading first violinist being the undisputed concertmaster. But in the street orchestra, it’s the brass section that takes centre stage. The constant honking of horns by taxis, cars and giant SUVs forms the very core of the score in this city – mostly trumpets, French horns and trombones, with the occasional stupendously loud report from a tuba. (That would be a super-sized truck making its impatience known.)
“What the Hell are they honking for?” we found ourselves asking in the early days. Now we know better. They honk to tell the vehicle ahead of them that the light has turned green. (As the great Johnny Carson once said, you don’t understand about a New York minute until you’ve gauged the time between the lights changing and the guy behind you making use of his horn).They toot to warn the guy stopped on the left that they’re coming up on his right. They peep-peep to tell that idiotic pedestrian to get out of the way. Some honk out of habit, others out of sheer frustration. On one journey – or rather during one twenty minute period of sitting in a cab in sea of stationary traffic – we turned to our right to see a flame haired woman of about eighty depressing her horn repeatedly for thirty seconds at a stretch. She was mad, as in angry, and she wanted the whole of New York to know it. “No. She’s just mad, as in bonkers,” L1 remarked. She did have a frightening glint in her eyes.
The curious thing about all this horn action is that it’s contained within the vehicle. There’s no apparent danger of anyone getting out and physically confronting anyone else (as one always fears there might be in the UK). There isn’t, either, any flicking of V signs or middle fingers. It’s an incessant, mostly good natured come on buddy, move it on .
If the car horns are the street orchestra’s trumpets and trombones, the sirens are the strings. Ambulances and police cars forcing their way through the clogged streets are the violins, violas, and cellos in the musical mix, providing a nice counterbalance to the show-offs in the brass section. Often an even higher, more whining note can be heard – that’ll be the leaf blowers, flighting their daily battle against fallen foliage.
Percussion is provided by all those things that rattle and shake – drums, bells, tambourines, cymbals. I like to think that the street orchestra’s percussionists are the construction teams working their noisy magic with clanging scaffolding poles and massive blocks of concrete and steel, with the occasional jackhammer thrown in for variety. (To give fair credit to their versatility, the construction workers also contribute to the higher notes of the brass section, with the distinctive beep-beep-beep of their reversing fork-lifts). And at this time of year, the Salvation Army tins being rattled on every corner add yet another dimension, simulating the low level jangle of a tambourine.
(By the way, those construction worker percussionists don’t stop when the light fades. I’ll never forget staying with some friends in an airbnb on 58th and Third, all of us being woken at three in the morning by the jackhammering directly beneath our windows. It was so surreal we could only laugh.)
No symphony orchestra would be complete without its woodwind section, those mighty bassoons, oboes and clarinets that furnish depth and heft. The street orchestra’s woodwind section is comprised of actual human beings hollering with abandon. Certainly, the construction workers bellow a great deal. About what, I’m not entirely sure. It’s probably all for the good (Hey buddy, scaffolding pole about to fall on your head. Watch out!). But ordinary people shout too. To hail taxis, chastise taxis they’ve failed to hail, express disapproval of daredevil cyclists, or maybe to say hello to someone on the other side of the street. It’s impossible to decipher any actual words. It all comes out sounding pretty much the same, which is a kind of heyoy!, or its extended and decidedly more emphatic version, heeeyyyoooy! It’s not particularly aggressive. In fact, a lot of it would appear to be perfectly good natured.
And the street orchestra has something the NYPO does not – a rogue performer who fails to conform to the score being followed by the main sections. As I write this, for instance, I am hearing a strange whoop whoop whoop sound. I haven’t the foggiest what it is. (And no, it isn’t the Verizon router thingy with its failing battery, because I’ve attended to that.)
Underlying it all is the steady hum of traffic on FDR Drive, if you’re on the East Side, or the West Side Highway over on the west. The West has helicopters too, providing a fine whirring to accompany the low hum.
Everything experienced together – the horns pressed in anger or in warning, the screaming sirens and the monotonous drone of the leaf blowers, the clanging metal poles and the shrill jackhammers, the constant bellowing of human beings, the sudden, mysterious whoop- whoop-whoops, the humming and the whirring – makes for an eccentric and rather glorious harmony. L1 and I are used to it all now. A month in and we hardly notice it. Or if we do notice it, we hear it much as a classical music lover registers a CD playing quietly in the background while they read or work.
But is all this noise good for us? Erling Kagge, a Norwegian explorer and the author of Silence in the Age of Noise, doesn’t think so. But silence isn’t easy to find. Kagge said recently of New York that “you never find a place that is total silence. I’ve been looking, and I’ve not found it.”* Even in an enclosed garden, he couldn’t escape the “incessant grinding sound” of the workmen stripping paint from a fire escape a block away. I can’t see us having any more success than Kagge. Maybe on one of those trips up the Hudson Valley.
Actually, we wondered if we might miss our orchestra, or indeed any other things about our new home, when we travelled to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with my parents and some American friends. But we needn’t have worried, for what we were to miss about our symphony we were soon to experience in the form of theatre. And theatre is exactly what Thanksgiving is. From the Happy Thanksgiving! greetings exchanged fully two weeks beforehand, to that final mouthful of pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving is a wonderful show in which Americans are both audience and actors, and to which they buy tickets every year, without fail.
American friends living in London took the trouble to equip us with vital insider information prior to the day. Make sure you go to Central Park on Wednesday night to watch them blow up the balloons for the Macy’s Parade. Watch some football. The parade itself is to be avoided unless from a window. Clint (One half of Dallas and Clint. Remember?) had already warned me against trying to experience the parade at ground level. Alas, we weren’t able to make good use of this particular advice, since we were heading South. My father’s advice, on the other hand, promised to be very useful indeed. It came in the form of an emailed Forbes article ominously entitled: Flying for Thanksgiving? Here’s how to make it a less stressful experience. I read it with particular interest, and ever increasing levels of anxiety. I also took notes, which I’ll share with you now, in case you should ever find yourself travelling through America at Thanksgiving:
- 51 million Americans would be travelling more than fifty miles for Thanksgiving celebrations
- 3.95 million of those would be travelling by plane
- Airport parking would be full by 9am on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Thursday.
- Planes would be full too, to bursting point, and what’s more, they would be full of atypical passengers (badly dressed and/or badly behaved) carrying all forms of unauthorised weaponry and unusual cargo, including (wait for it) dead turkeys. Yes, it’s true. Passengers may transport whole turkeys in their carry-ons, provided they contain less than 3.4 ounces of gravy or drippings.
The only way to survive, according to the article, was to plan ahead, and keep both a sense of humour and Job-like quantities of patience immediately to hand at all times. An encounter with a woman from our building only served to reinforce this message. It was 6pm on Tuesday, and I was on my way to Morton Williams to pick up something for dinner. The woman travelling down in the elevator with me was pushing one of those enormous trollies laden with three large suitcases, two sports bags, and a couple of crates housing bottles, tins, at least six packets of cookies and a jumbo sized bag of Ripple salted chips. (That’s crisps, not fries, to you folks in the UK.)
“Big thanksgiving celebrations? Whole family going?” I queried, making polite conversation.
“That’s right,” she sighed.
“Getting ahead of the rush?”
“We’re leaving tomorrow morning,” I said beezily. Then something about her expression – I think it was the wide eyes and the stretched out fake grin, much like that emoji with all the bared teeth – caused my stomach to lurch.
“Tomorrow morning’s too late, isn’t it?”
The emoji face disappeared, a sad, sympathetic smile offered in its place. The smile seemed to say, you poor foolish novice. You half-witted amateur. It’s going to be Hell for you, but you only have yourself to blame. If you’d only asked me earlier.
“You’d better change the time of our taxi,” I said to L1, just as soon as I returned from Morton Williams with our chicken noodle soup. “We’ll need to be at the airport three hours before the flight. And you’d better brace yourself. You won’t be able to pull your usual up-tight nonsense”. (L1, like a great many fathers who have endured a lifetime of trying to corral toddlers and then teenagers through airport security and towards holiday flights, adopts something of an angry-drill-sergeant demeanor when he gets his mitts on a full set of boarding passes.)
So we set off early Wednesday morning, fully apprised of and prepared to face the ordeal that lay ahead.
Now, I know you’ll be anticipating a sorry tale that will make you laugh or cry on our behalf. And I don’t like to disappoint. But the truth is that the ordeal failed to materialise. No storm. No teacup. No queues. No delays. No badly dressed or loutish passengers. No turkeys on board. We took off on time, landed early, were greeted by a Delta Airlines employee who had already pulled our suitcase from the carousel, and hopped into a taxi that took all of twenty three minutes to whisk us to my parents’ home.
We’re really not sure how this happened. Were we too early or too late for all the chaos? Did a larger-than-usual number of family arguments keep a great swathe of passengers at home? Had people opted to avoid Florida for fear of running into Donald Trump?
We still don’t know the answer. But we were mightily pleased to have suffered so little en route to our first ever Thanksgiving dinner in America. Our friends K and P and their family treated us to the most delicious spread imaginable, a magnificent turkey with all the trimmings and at least four different pies with a choice of plain or chantilly whipped cream. We ate too much food, drank too much Griffino, and played several raucous rounds of Table Topics, covering everything from the most memorable meals we’d ever enjoyed, to whether or not we believed in spirits, ghosts or soul-mates. The theatre did not disappoint.
But there’s no free lunch, as they say. Our friends – keen blog followers, all of them, and therefore well up to speed with our attempts to get to grips with the whole business of tipping in New York – had placed traps in every corner of the condo.
We made sure to give generously.
Having had a thoroughly enjoyable Thanksgiving break in the sun, we wondered how Manhattan would strike us on our return. Would we be shocked all over again by the street symphony? Would we long to return to the calm and quiet of a house in a gated community, where the only thing to be heard was the gentle splash of turtles sliding into the lake.
The affront was instant. The moment we landed at La Guardia, we were forced to listen to a woman conducting a full-on job interview on her phone while a hundred fellow passengers listened in. (This is an example, incidentally, of another aspect of the woodwind cacophony on New York’s streets – people holding long, loud and completely unselfconscious phone conversations while in very public spaces.) After the job interview (which went quite well, as far as we all could tell, concluding, as it did, with an arrangement to meet up at four pm the following day), the honking horns of the brass section greeted us the minute we exited the airport, and they achieved new heights as we crossed the Queensboro Bridge in the middle of rush hour.
But there was an agreeable, almost comforting familiarity about it, a kind of affability. Like New York saying to us, welcome back! And lying in bed that night, with the window open (because it’s a peculiar foible of the English that they prefer fresh air to sleep), we found ourselves not at all unhappy with a lullaby of sirens, taxi toots and that FDR hum to send us on our way to the land of Nod. It all stopped, in any case, somewhere around four am, the symphony giving itself a much needed tea-break before tuning up for the dawn chorus. You see, Frank was not entirely correct – New York is a city that does sleep – or rather, cat naps – for about ninety minutes a day.
We slept too. Extremely well. Whether we will continue to sleep well is another question. It’s difficult when there’s a mad man in the White House and he’s tweeting fake fascist videos and attacking our Prime Minister on Twitter. I wouldn’t have said this last year, Theresa, but after the year of unparalleled idiocy to which we’ve all been witness, I’ll say it now: cancel the State visit and show that man, and the world, what you’re made of.
Meanwhile, there’s always Harry and Meghan to cheer us up. What thoughtful, principled, intelligent and gorgeous human beings they are. When they’ve done their bit for the monarchy, I say Meghan for president.
Next week, Notes From Underground, and what happened when the great M arrived with a suitcase full of fabulous shoes.
P.S. I’ll be posting Saturday mornings from now on (Friday evening here in the US). You good people are far too busy to indulge the ramblings of an L2 on a Friday morning
*New York Times, 12 November 2017