At the beginning of the pandemic, at exactly 7 p.m. every evening, there was a chorus of noise in New York City, where I live. There were people playing saxophones, banging on pots and pans, ringing cowbells, clapping, whooping, and cheering. Each individual noise came from a disparate point, the sidewalks, the driveways, an open window, a balcony — but the noises all merged together. It sounded as if everyone was standing in the same place.
The chorus was to honor nurses and doctors switching shifts in hospitals and emergency rooms. Hospital employees didn’t always enjoy the clapping. Some workers said it felt as if they were being painted as heroes. But heroes often have to sacrifice themselves.
But these evenings weren’t entirely about hospital workers. People quarantining wanted some proof of life from their city. They wanted to hear their community and remember that it could be hopeful.
It’s unclear when this stopped.
For many people, 2020 has been the hardest year of their lives. Children have had parents die, and parents have had children die. More than half of all young adults have moved back in with their parents. Many adults are now full-time caregivers for children or dependent family members, in addition to having a job. As of October, more than 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US, and more than 1 million have died worldwide.
Personally, I’ve had to find new meanings of hope. I don’t think hope is certainty that everything is going to be good, or even OK. Hope is knowing that you’re connected to community, like friends, family, or your city. Regardless of anything else happening in the world, these connections are present, precious, and worth protecting. Hope is other people.
But this year has been difficult because these connections are less tangible. The world is literally more quiet than it was before the pandemic.
When lockdowns began worldwide in March and April, according to a paper published in the Sept. 11 issue of Science, the world entered a period of seismological silence. Seismology is usually known as the study of gargantuan forces much bigger than humans — tectonic plates, ocean swelling, or atmospheric pressure. But human activity is, in and of itself, a seismological force. Road and highway traffic, trains and subways, foot traffic in major cities, and major gatherings like football or baseball games all produce detectable, high-frequency seismological currents that travel through the ground.
The median levels of seismic noise “dropped by as much as 50% during March to May 2020,” the paper says. “The length and quiescence of this period represent the longest and most coherent seismic noise reduction in recorded history.”
In the weeks since this study was published, I’ve thought about it frequently, and about the people who clapped for hospital workers for weeks and weeks, until they didn’t. This pandemic has sounded like a lot of different things. But what does hope sound like?
This is what the opposite of hope sounds like: an emergency room in the heart of Brooklyn at the end of March, where I was admitted for a non-COVID medical emergency. It’s the worst place I’ve ever been.
At first glance, the place looked like the medical wing of an alien spaceship. I couldn’t see any human bodies, just the blue and white linen of protective gear and masks. People were speaking to one another urgently over the sound of dozens of beeping machines.
Workers, speaking so loud they were almost shouting, quickly got me onto a medical bed and put an IV into one of my veins. I tried taking deep breaths. The bed felt wet, and my blood from the IV was all over the sheets. They wheeled me to a spot in the hallway surrounded by COVID patients, and I stayed there until the next morning.
The room closest to me had a COVID patient inside. For about 10 minutes, he was screaming, “Help me!” His voice was hoarse and strained, but its tone was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was pure fear. About a dozen doctors and nurses shuffled in and out of the room, and after a while, the man was quiet. He probably didn’t die, because I would’ve seen his body get wheeled out of the room. Maybe he was put on pain meds or a ventilator.
Over the night, I got used to the beeping. Beep, beep, beep. Pause. Bee-beep. Dozens of different machines were making the same noise, out of sync. It was disorienting and unrelenting. In the morning, one night shift worker told another that the beeping sounded a bit like cicadas.
At around 4 a.m., someone spoke over the intercom. Code blue. That meant someone was having a respiratory or cardiac arrest. They were dying. I was half-awake. Doctors and nurses ran around, shouting at each other. I could tell the patient was somewhere behind me, in the back part of the emergency room. This continued for maybe an hour — it’s hard to say.
A little while later, maybe an hour, maybe a few, doctors were wheeling something behind me. The wheels were silent over the linoleum floor. There was a man in a hospital gown at the end of the aisle. The doctors stopped walking and loudly told him to move. In the bed next to me was a dead body covered in a white sheet. I remember holding my breath. The man in the aisle moved, and they wheeled the bed out.
These are the same sounds and sights that thousands of Americans have experienced. They enter my mind when I least expect it, and often.
The emergency room sounded like the end of the world. On one hand, the space was filled with doctors and nurses doing their jobs, and saving lives. In that sense, the space was incredibly human. But as a patient, it felt anti-human. I was stuck in the middle of every minute, and time was interminable. There was no discernible rhythm to the beeping. There was no moment when the beeps all synched up, and there was a moment of silence. It was just beeping, and suffering, and beeping.
When I left the hospital the next day, the outside world felt disorienting. Familiar buildings felt foreign and strange. Outside, aside from the occasional car, or the metal clinging of a dog on a leash, was silent.
In April, I moved to a new apartment, where I live by myself. Here, over the past couple of months, I’ve thought a lot about how to get control by sound, comfort by sound, and hope by sound.
In a city like New York, you often have to work consciously to control the things that you hear. Before I got an air conditioner, I spent most of the summer with the windows open. I heard everything, and the world felt so close I could touch it. For someone living alone, this was both good and bad.
I felt so close to the tree outside my deskside window. The leaves brush against each other gently. In the early morning, birds chirp and fly from branch to fire escape to branch. But on the other hand, there’s chaotic noise. Every conversation, every person shouting, every car beep, every door slammed, and every single siren and ambulance wail.
For the first time since moving to New York, I lived close to a park. I’ve always been a runner, so five to six days a week, I would run in the park. The other day or two, I would walk.
I would wear headphones and blast carefully curated playlists so loudly that I couldn’t hear the ambulances in the distance, fellow parkgoers, or anything else that might be happening in the environment. In one sense, this put me in a world completely my own. I couldn’t hear catcallers, or any other sound I didn’t want to hear. I had control, until I didn’t.
As anyone who has ever made a workout playlist knows, the music is supposed to both literally raise your blood pressure and be conducive to mental scenarios that make you feel powerful. Often, I imagine myself overcoming worst-case situations in a race. I fall or get tripped, but I get up. I start from the back, but I work my way to the front. I get shot, but I manage to finish. (This extremely unreasonable scenario is probably fueled by the Boston Marathon bombing and a constant news cycle of public shootings.)
But through the spring and summer, something strange started happening. All of my scenarios would get drowned out by the sights and sounds of the hospital. As much as I tried to push it out, the memory was too loud. One moment, my body was fine; the next, I had to stop. I couldn’t breathe.
I tried regaining control over my surroundings in other ways. I got an air conditioner, which allowed me to comfortably close my windows. The conversations and traffic below were instantly muffled. My apartment had never been so quiet. It had been several months since I’d moved in, but this was the first time it felt like truly my own.
Still, even with the air conditioner, I found myself leaning on ways to control the things I heard. Even though I have a small Bluetooth speaker, I listened to all my music and television wearing noise-canceling headphones. I started wearing them when I walked around, went to the grocery store, or walked in the park.
Sometimes, noise from the outside world leaks in. But there’s a profound safety in the near silence. It’s as if the headphones gulp up all the noise in the world. One swallow, and I'm alone.
I reported on a Black Lives Matter protest in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on May 30. After weeks of lockdown, the experience was surreal. March leaders shouted protest chants through megaphones. The crowd responded. The chants ebbed, flowed, and changed, but it was never silent. As we walked down Flatbush Avenue, traffic was at a standstill, but every single car, truck, and bus I saw was honking in support. The honk of a horn, which is usually stressful, felt communal and good. Silent NYPD officers stood in small groups at every corner.
After a few minutes, an NYPD helicopter started circling over the march. Over the course of a few blocks, the helicopter got lower and lower. Eventually, the crowd arrived at an impasse and came to a stop. The helicopter hovered just a few stories above the ground. The sound was deafening. I could hardly hear the people shouting in unison, surrounding me on every side.
It seemed obvious that the helicopter wasn’t just trying to create a visible NYPD presence. And it wasn’t just trying to intimidate the crowd through its own loud noises. The helicopter was trying to silence the crowd. If the chants were an attempt to create solidarity and hope, their goal seemed to be to neutralize that.
So, unable to shout over the helicopter, people flipped it off.
I was reminded of this moment a couple of weeks later, when police in riot gear responded to reports of fireworks by blocking off a Brooklyn avenue and besieging an apartment. Summer fireworks are nothing new in Brooklyn, but there was a higher volume in 2020. In part, this was due to boredom, and in part, because people made money by buying fireworks in Pennsylvania (where they are legal to purchase) and reselling them in New York.
The NYPD later created an anti-fireworks task force in late June, aimed at arresting the people who were selling fireworks. Over the next couple of weeks, Brooklyn got quieter and quieter.
A little over a month ago, I injured my knee and haven’t been able to run. So for one to two hours a day, I walk. For the first half of a walk, I usually listen to music. I stay away from pump up music. For the second half, headphones aside, I listen to the park. I can hear scattered conversations, crickets chirping, birds tweeting, insects chiming, and the rustle of leaves in the wind. Depending on where I am, I might hear the rush of streams, dogs barking, or music playing from someone’s speaker. On a typical nice day in the park, there’s usually a few jazz bands in different sections of the park.
Sometimes, I meet up with some friends in the park. We talk on a bench, sit on a blanket, or go for a walk. Other times, I’ll FaceTime a friend out of the blue. If they call me, I pick up.
FaceTiming used to make me anxious. I would get nervous if I was calling someone, and my heart would pound harder if I saw that I was receiving a call, even from someone I love.
The pandemic has erased this dread. The past few months have brought everyone through cycles of hope and hopelessness. I don’t think anyone tuned into what’s happening in the world can, at least easily, feel hope about the big picture.
Hope, at least to me, is hearing your friend say hi! on the other end of the line. It’s the strong, intrinsic good that allows people to be connected and care for one another. Hope can sound like a lot of things, but it usually sounds like other people. ●