The sounds of New York in winter

On this day three years ago, I was freezing and insomniac in a shared apartment on 26th Street, New York. And I wrote this:

It’s 6 p.m.  My roommate Heather’s not back yet, so I have the luxury of listening to my music without headphones.  The day is winding down, much too soon, and cars honk here and there as they rush home.  Wheels sound slick on wet roads.

It’s 7 p.m.  My suitemate Kristen takes her usual evening shower.  Maybe I should shower early tonight, too.  I’m tired and I’d like to go to bed early, maybe wake up early to finish studying.  But Heather will be back soon and I wouldn’t be able to sleep with her in the room, typing away on instant messenger.  My pills rattle as I look for my glass bottle of Vitamin B6.  I press down firmly on my pill splitter until one tablet snaps neatly in two, giving me two manageable doses of 25 mg.  No need for 50 mg at this time of the evening.

It’s 8 p.m.  Our heat’s broken again; I turn on my electric heater.  It clicks merrily as it heats up the oil inside.  The satisfying click, the promising click…  Heather’s back, and we make our usual small talk, but there’s more to talk about tonight.  Sometimes I think we turn every mundane event into drama to compensate for the lack of excitement in our lives.  An ambulance blares and honks its way down our street as Heather and I discuss the latest passive-aggressive behaviors in our suite.

It’s 9 p.m.  The heater whines and buzzes to indicate that it’s reached maximum temperature.  It’s still cold.  I walk over to the room thermostat and press the fan button to no effect.  The radiator makes a jerking sound as if it’s going to do something but doesn’t blow any air.  Kristen’s removing her dishes from the dish rack; she closes the cabinets and returns to her bedroom, shutting the door.  My turn to do the dishes.  At least the water will be hot.

It’s 10 p.m.  The wind howls through high-rise valleys and building vents.  The locals next door to our building chatter into the night, savoring the last puffs of their cigarettes.  Delivery trucks growl, rolling up 1st Ave.  Someone on the street yells, “Watch out!”  The city has so many people and sometimes it upsets me that I can’t care for every one of them, that I can’t know what happens to every one of them.

It’s 11 p.m.  I take my usual 11 o’clock shower.  One of the few things I like about this place is the water pressure.  The spray drowns out my thoughts, and for 15 minutes, my head is emptied of the usual jabbering of philosophers and communication theorists.  What does it really mean to be “alone with your thoughts” when all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas are always invading your head?  How many of my thoughts are really my own?

It’s 12 a.m.  I make my usual midnight tea.  A rapid swoosh of water, my trusty pot hitting the stove, water sizzling on heat, the clink of my infuser in my mug.  As usual, I take my teaspoon out of the jar.  It always comes out with a tinkle; I wonder what it means to Kristen and Heather.  Is it a midnight annoyance, the clinking and tinkling?  The leaves in my infuser make a soft hill, and I return to my room until the water boils.  The low rumble of the bubbles calls me:  I shut off the heat, remove the lid, and swirl the water, cooling it off a bit.  It sputters into my prepared mug, the last stream purling gently as I raise the pot to finish it off.  I bring my tea into the comforts of my room, shutting the door behind me.  The “solitary” part of my night begins, with Heather three feet away, typing away in bed.

It’s 1 a.m.  They’re beginning to scrape the snow in front of the building.  From this third floor suite, the sound is uncomfortably close, filling up the room.

It’s 2 a.m.  Heather gets off her computer and goes to the bathroom, which means lights out soon.  As she goes through her skincare routine, I change into my pajamas and set my alarms.  Getting ready for bed is my favorite part of the day, provided that I deserve the sleep and can prevent disturbances.  Heather’s going to bed so disturbances shouldn’t be an issue, but I don’t know if I deserve this sleep.

It’s 3 a.m.  I can’t sleep.  It’s quiet enough, and the cold is manageable if I stay still under the covers, but I can’t sleep.  The theories I’ve gone over for my exam are loud and clear in my head, unrelenting in their grip on my attention.  Heather starts saying gibberish in her sleep; I wonder what she’s dreaming about.  If only I could dream, too; maybe I could even study in my sleep!  Too many things are bothering me tonight.  Or maybe it’s just the sleep deprivation going to my head.  I take my Valerian, but it won’t kick in for another two hours, so what’s the use?  What’s the use of a sedative that takes two hours to work when you can’t predict whether you’ll have trouble sleeping?

It’s 4 a.m.  They’re scraping again.  What’s so wrong with having snow on the sidewalk anyway?  Isn’t that what boots are for?

It’s 5 a.m.  The sky has turned a shade lighter, and pretty soon, the city’s going to awake.  And that means morning sounds, my least favorite kind.  Efficient people bustling around, early to bed, early to rise, when I’ve wasted the day away and toiled the night away.  Serves me right, I suppose.

It’s 6 a.m.  Birds chirp outside my window as they feel the sun creeping up on the horizon.  The early risers start their cars and 1st Ave comes alive again with activity.  As the sky turns lighter still, I almost drift into a strained sleep, only to be jerked awake by Heather’s alarm.

(originally appeared here)



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