Sunday, 23 June 2013

Hear this: what I heard on the street - and what it says about cycling's merits

It was as inconvenient a time for a work call as I can imagine. I had grabbed my ringing phone from my pocket just as the lights turned green at an intersection on the Invisible Visible Boy’s short route to school. “I can’t talk now,” I shouted before stuffing the phone back into my pocket, leaning heavily down on my pedal and getting myself, my bike, the boy and his trailer bike all safely again into forward motion.

But, once I’d said goodbye to the boy and phoned back my colleague in London, he didn’t immediately want to talk about the matter in hand. Instead, he made me realise how thoroughly I’d taken for granted one of my key sources of information about the world around me as I cycled. I’ve been noticing ever since how many sounds I hear as I ride around – and how richly they add to my experience.

“You didn’t ring off properly,” my colleague told me. “I could hear the sound of the wind – and your son’s giggling.”

I had, I suppose, assumed before my colleague mentioned it that most of the time while riding I wasn’t hearing very much. For much of my journeys both to and from work, I work my way past long lines of waiting cars. No-one’s saying a great deal. Even though it’s New York, people mostly don’t even bother with honking. They just sit there.

Clinton St, Cobble Hill: very nice for people - and even,
the Invisible Visible Man was surprised to hear,
a hit with gentrifying birds
But, the moment I started thinking about it, I recognised how much information my hearing was giving me. The wind whistles in my ears, with anything from a whisper to the full-throated, jet-engine roar of a seriously stormy day. I hear the gentle whir of my bike’s rear hub. There’s the gentle clicking as I change onto an easier gear and sometimes a slight clang as the gear cable loosens and lets the chain slip down to a smaller sprocket. It’s a good sign if I don’t hear very much. Recently, a tiny bit of water crept into one of my pedals and I’ve run out of the grease I need to make it completely quiet again. Every now and again it emits a little squeak, sending my stress levels a little bit upwards.

Much of the time, as I pedal along steadily, songs play in my head, to the rhythm of my breathing and pedalling. For a while now, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the tune seems to have been Lyle Lovett’s Walk Through the Bottomland – an obscure choice, even to me, but one whose deliberate beat seems to fit with the way I cycle.

The bike’s interaction with the road makes its own sounds. Occasionally, I’ll hit some stray stone on the road and send it flying – thwack! – into a parked car. My mudguard (fender, American readers) gives off a tiny bit of a vibrating sound – a very miniaturised version of an arrow hitting a target – every time my front wheel jars into one of the countless imperfections in the road surface. On the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s the steady clack-clack of the wooden boards on the walkway, as the bike hits each and sets it vibrating against the metal underneath. One night recently, I went over the Queensboro Bridge and enjoyed the sensation of racing down into Queens on a surface made up of jointed concrete slabs – ka-boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka-boom, steadily faster as I picked up speed. It’s hard to sort out in my head which of these sounds is audible to the wider world and which is conveyed direct from the road to my skull as the bike judders against the crack in the road or the joint in the concrete.
 
The Manhattan Bridge: a perfect urban cacophony
There are sounds of place elsewhere, too. As I leave my apartment, I hear subway trains growling complainingly around the Culver Viaduct high above my head. Then, the other morning, in another part of Carroll Gardens, I heard what I thought must be a novelty doorbell or strange alarm. No, I eventually concluded, there were actually some birds living happily enough in the trees along Clinton Street that they were singing out to each other one June morning rush hour. In some places, the audio soundtrack actually provides far more of the atmosphere than what one can see. Riding over the Manhattan Bridge yesterday, I noticed how I could hear the sound of wash breaking on the shore down below in Dumbo. Then a subway train rolled out onto the bridge, its clanking echoing off the roadway that runs above the tracks and drowning out the sounds of the motor traffic. As I raced the train over the bridge and gathered speed on the ramp down into Chinatown, I ran over one of the loose inspection covers. “Clunk-clank!” it went as I too sent the sound of my own progress echoing off the roadway’s underside.
 
This is how the bike lanes under the FDR Highway look.
But the Invisible Visible Man hears the sound of the cars
banging over the joints in the road above
My sudden noticing of the birdsong, the sounds of the road and the cacophony on the Manhattan Bridge have all made me feel far more positive about the sounds that surround me as I cycle than I used to. Then, I noticed mainly the sounds of stress. Like most cyclists, I’m constantly listening out for the tone of the engines behind me in traffic, ready to pick out the note of a driver who’s revving his engine, ready to accelerate dangerously. It’s one of the clearest warning signs one can encounter that a driver isn’t going to behave safely.

None of that is to suggest, however, that the most noticeable sounds don't cause me anxiety. The volume of honking gradually rises each morning as I ride towards the Brooklyn Bridge – especially if there’s a garbage truck blocking Clinton Street emitting the strange low-high-low hum of its hydraulic crushing mechanism. The honking reaches a pitch as I struggle my way through TriBeCa. On Friday morning, an angry motorist in a hurry slammed on her brakes when I stopped for a red light where Chambers Street crosses the West Side Highway. She gave me a long, unmistakeably intimidatory blast of her horn for having the temerity to stop her from running the light.

Those aren’t the only worry-inducing sounds. Any encounter with a large, road-hogging SUV has an extra edge when it’s blaring out rap so loud that the whole car vibrates. The motorists with most faith in honking’s efficaciousness seem least ready to move aside for emergency vehicles and I hear their drivers using their sirens to plead their way out of traffic. The mixture of short blasts, honks and steady whines they emit sounds like nothing so much as a pitiful trapped dog. Probably no motorist driving along Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn the other night was able to hear how desperately the woman traipsing along the street at 11.30pm with a toddler son and luggage was swearing as she pleaded for help or criticised or did whatever she was doing to the person on the other end of her ‘phone call.

But the exposure to the stress is a flipside to the joy of hearing all this sound. It’s a pleasure of cycling round the city that all my senses are in immediate, unfiltered contact with the world around me, rather than being filtered through tinted windows and soundproof doors. I’m experiencing the city far more fully than I would in a car or a subway train.

That came home to me most fully late last summer, when I had not long moved to New York. As I stopped for one of the last sets of lights near my home, an old sedan drew up next to me, its windows rolled down. For a few seconds, I was treated, wholly unexpectedly, to a blast of sublime 1960s jazz, saxophones running riot over a pulsing bass line. I looked over at the driver. We both smiled, surprised to find ourselves sharing a brief transcendent moment of musical appreciation.

11 comments:

  1. You write so well. I love today's post. Yes, cycling connects us with our environment. With all the sounds that we otherwise would not hear.

    More than once I have noticed at my own place of work near the end of business hours that someone would get the latest weather forecast and there would be a discussion about the weather. It was always the people who would be going home by bicycle that were keenly interested in the weather.

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    1. Kevin,

      You're very kind. I wrote after Superstorm Sandy about the challenges of the weather in this part of the world (http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/11/whatever-weather-cyclings-proved-post.html). There are certainly more extremes than I encountered when I was in London - and it's well worth not getting caught out in one of the sudden, torrential storms that sweep across pretty much all of the US at this time of year.

      The connection with the wider world is, however, a joy. I've just cycled to my office in 90F heat but got occasional little blasts of cold air to cool me down. The people who came by subway missed all that.

      Invisible.

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  2. Unlike DFW, I haven't felt like wearing earphones in Ocean Shores. Odd.

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    1. I can only imagine that up there by the Pacific Ocean the balance between life-affirming and stressful sounds is tilted very differently from how it was in the DFW area. Am I right? But I should imagine the balance between stress and life-affirming is generally fairly differently balanced.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  3. It's the connection to our outside environment that strikes me in the most palpable way when I am traveling by bicycle on the roads. On roads without sidewalks, often I sense how limited our human presence is on the landscape. It's as if we've restricted people from that very public realm and instead allow only metal, glass, and plastic to exist in the outside world.

    On another note, it's amazing how adult the public sphere has become. Our fear of cars has banished children from our roadways, so when I travel with my daughter on the trailer bike, I often feel she is the only recognizable child in the street. This has a rather perverse effect on car drivers, I think. Actions that people would never consider around children, like displays of aggression or swearing are considered acceptable. This most amazingly has been directed at my wife during the morning commute when she is taking our daughter to school on the trailer. Twice she has been sworn at, loud enough for my daughter to hear. I can't imagine that those same people would do that in other social contexts with children around, even if they were frustrated or angry.

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    1. It's a very good point, Gneiss. A few weeks ago, I had a driver illegally push past me as I rode towing my son on his trailer bike. When I gave the driver no more than a disapproving look at the next traffic lights, he told me "Get that Death Trap off the Road." Given that he was driving a large SUV aggressively and that I could see when he wound down his window that he was talking on his cellphone, there was more than a hint of irony to his comment.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  4. What an evocative post, Invisible! And so true that when we cycle, we are much more connected and/or exposed to the world around us, be it people, places, sounds or the weather, for better or for worse.

    All the best,

    Our Bicycle Lives

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    1. Thank you, OurBicycleLives. I actually thought of you a little as I wrote it, as I thought it was probably more in the style of some of your posts than my normal ones.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  5. What a fantastic article - Though it made me very sad to think of how badly we have butchered our towns and cities to accomodate these pitiful trapped dogs.

    Actually, I think I have become too complacent about the sensory experience of cycling and mostly listen to podcasts on headphones these days. This evening I will commute au naturale (well not quite) inspired by this post!

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    1. Hairy,

      I suppose I don't mind accommodating the trapped dogs (the emergency vehicles). It's the people trapping them to whom I object.

      But I'm glad you're going to ride with your earphones out. I tend to agree with the commenter up above that it's a big aid to safety to be able to hear clearly. Let me know, incidentally, if you substitute for the headphones with a song going round your head. For me, this morning, inspired by the poor weather forecast for later today, it was the Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again."

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. I love your writing.

    Today I was riding in my area (Northern Virginia) and noticed a weed-eater type sound. At first I was annoyed thinking someone didn't understand the sanctity of quiet on a Sunday summer afternoon. Then I realized the sound was made by cicadas in the grove of trees I was passing. Understanding that it was a "natural" rather than "man-made" sound immediately made me smile. My entire perspective shifted.

    And, around here, instead of high-volume rap, it's often something lively in Spanish. I'd be happy for a jazz experience like the one you had.

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