Just a few days after I returned from a month-long deep breath in southern India’s monsoon, I gave in to wanderlust again. I booked a plane ride to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, so I could visit my old spiritual stomping grounds, the big small town of Fairfield, Iowa, where I have a house and a car and a number of good friends. The car’s a 2007 Saab convertible.
I had to drive it to Des Moines so a Saab expert could replace the airbag inflator, which the recall notice warned could maim or kill me if it exploded. I suppose ultimate safety has an ultimate sort of price.
I hope I’m never in a car when its airbags inflate, because I will surely become completely deaf as a result. I use hearing aids now. They’ve become indispensable, my favorite battery-powered friends. Airbags inflate very quickly as the result of a chemical reaction, producing sound pressure levels of at least 160dB. That’s a ton of sound, especially in a car interior. Deploying airbags can hurt you in other ways, too. Do not crash your car, especially if it has airbags. Your car could become angry and it may try to eliminate you.
So I wasn’t just killing time or avoiding a crucial life lesson that I could learn only in the heat, noise, and tumult of New York. I had a car to fix, a beautiful car from a Swedish automaker renowned for making the safest cars on the planet, long before the advent of airbags. Saab’s model 900 convertible was single-handedly responsible for resurrecting the production of convertibles, which had nearly gone extinct because of US safety standards for rollover-type car crashes. Those hard-headed safety-conscious Swedish engineers didn’t plan on a big hit, but the Saab 900 convertible was exactly that. The 400 cars produced for the US market in the spring of 1986 sold like hot cakes. All 400 went very quickly to the convertible-starved, so quickly that normal people hadn’t a clue that Saab made a convertible. I understand their appetite. For most of my driving life, I’ve had a topless car. Convertibles are by far the best sort of car to drive—except in Manhattan in the summer, spring, winter, or fall. More on that later.
After they saw the big splash that little Saab made with their convertible, those copycat Germans decided they could make upmarket topless models, and that’s exactly what Mercedes and Audi and BMW did (and still do). But they didn’t until Saab created that new topless wave. Saab was very brave, an individualistic, iconoclastic enterprise, a veritable David among the Goliaths of the automobile world. Today, Saab is no more.
Poor Saab. Their cars were very safe and very quirky and the company never made any real dough. You could drop a Saab on its roof from eight feet up; the roof wouldn’t fully collapse, and you could open the door and get out. Saab introduced heated seats and cabin air filtration. They perfected turbocharging. In 2010, ten years after General Motors bought the company, Saab declared bankruptcy. People cried. It was an honest-to-Saab sob story. Saab owners’ psychological involvement with their cars was such a phenomenon that a German professor, Ruhr University’s Dr. Rüdiger Hossiep, studied it. He found that Saab owners formed stronger bonds with their cars than did owners of all other makes, 10 times stronger than VW drivers, the next-most-loyal bunch. I’m gonna keep my Saab, come hell or high water. It has good style and feels good to drive.
It seems I can’t write a story without a car section, but now that it’s out of the way, we can forge new ground, or at least digress into something else, like what happened in Iowa. It’s a long way to Fairfield, Iowa, from just about anywhere. It requires at least two airplanes: one big one to get you to from New York to Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta, and a smaller one to get you from the hub to Cedar Rapids, the eastern Iowa airport. As the planes get smaller, the people traveling on them get larger, quieter, and nicer. They’re the sort you’d want for neighbors. Iowa is loaded with those people, even in Des Moines, Iowa’s big town.
The Saab was ready sooner than I expected, and I was ready for lunch. You might think that Des Moines and environs wouldn’t be the place for Indian food, but Google reports at least nine Indian restaurants there. And speaking of modern tech, let me ask you this: where would we be without Google to get us somewhere with incredible ease? Yes, you can’t always trust the reviews. But in matters of directions, life has taken a turn for the easier. I’m all for good direction(s) in life, because it’s such a gaping hole in my relatively aimless script.
Choosing an Indian restaurant in Des Moines might not be the wisest option, if only because Des Moines is very far from India, even farther, in fact, than is New York. Things get lost in the distance, and distance matters in matters culinary. I know this because a few years ago, on a Sunday, I ate a couple of shrimp in a high-class restaurant in West Des Moines. About noon on Monday, the troubles inside me began. That night I was reasonably certain that I would not live to see the morning. But see the morning I did, and a doctor, too, who set things right. And I learned a valuable lesson. I will never again eat shrimp. Eating seafood in Iowa is not a wise choice no matter which creature you choose: there’s too much distance to the sea.
I picked an Indian restaurant in Waukee, a 13.7K town—that’s the population, not a road race—In the area known as West Des Moines. Statistically, I think it’s a pretty average small Midwestern US town. You can get lost there. I did. Even though Waukee was laid out in 1869, they still haven’t learned how to number their buildings. I got waylaid at a bank before I reached the Indian restaurant. The two had the exact same numbers and were located on the same road, just a few hundred yards apart.
When I entered the bank, I announced, “I’m looking for an Indian restaurant at 280 Hickman Road. This is 280 Hickman Road. But it’s a bank.” One man in dark suit-and-tie banker attire picked up on my plight. He didn’t look like the sort who’d go for Indian food, but he was immediately on it. And nearly as immediately, two other people dove in, one female employee with papers in hand, and one male customer, offering directions via questions only a local could use. “You know where the such-and-such is?” he asked. I explained that this was my first time in Waukee. They were all as nice as can be, eager to get me on my way. They seemed to relish the interruption provided by a stranger in mild distress. And they cut through the mystery of the numbers.
Before I left, the first man said, “Come again sometime, and we’ll talk about… And he hesitated right there for a brief moment as he looked thoughtfully at his feet. Then he looked up at me and said “banking!” He knew that he had my attention, and he needed to finish his sentence. Friendliness reigns in the great sweet Midwest. We were all smiles as I left. People love to be helpful. That’s my story; it seems to play everywhere.
The food at the restaurant wasn’t very good or even authentic Indian. But it filled my belly and the woman who owned it was Indian, born there, the works. We got on famously. She sat at the counter, directly opposite me as we talked. She loved that I loved India. I told her so. From India to Waukee, Iowa, is a whole ‘nother story.
In most places in Iowa, you can count on two very charming qualities: it’s dark at night and quiet almost all the time. Most Iowans would have no truck with the New York “city that never sleeps” ethos. They’d call that unnatural or crazy. They can’t imagine why anyone would want to live that way. One man on the plane to Iowa said as much after I told him that I lived in New York. “You’re crazy to live there.”
There’s no doubt that New York has a noise problem. Everyone knows that. But New York has much more than a mere noise problem. New York is addicted to noise. Last year I did an Airbnb for a month on the Upper West Side very close to Central Park. Sounds nice, right? It could have been. My host couldn’t live without his television blasting in Spanish from breakfast to bedtime while he played video games and waited for his customers. He was a masseuse, or so he claimed; no customers ever showed. He blamed his dogs for the noise requirement. “They need the sound,” he told me one morning after I took the liberty of lowering the volume, which made him instantly angry. “I do it for the dogs. They’re used to it.” I thought it was a simple matter, and entirely from his side: he simply abhorred quiet. I’m certain that many dogs live quite happily without television.
New York also has a noise ordinance to offset its noise problem. It’s a new one that took effect on July 1, 2007, more than ten years ago, so it’s already obsolete. Here’s the introductory text on the Noise Codes and Complaints page:
Noise Code (Local Law 113 of 2005)
The City’s new noise code takes effect on July 1, 2007. Noise complaints continue to be the number one quality of life issue for New York City residents;
however the City’s old noise code was over 30 years old. The new legislation establishes a flexible, yet enforceable noise code that responds to the need for peace and quiet while maintaining New York’s reputation as the “City that never sleeps”.
Apparently everyone got bored with the old noise code, or it became weak from old age. Thirty years is a long time for a noise code. So the racket just got louder and people kept on complaining (they’re still complaining), so something had to be done. And they did something. They admitted in writing that noise was a big problem, that most New Yorkers didn’t like all the noise, but that nothing much could be done about it because, ahem, the city has a reputation to maintain, a reputation which implies that we, many of us New Yorkers, stay up very late and we do so with a lot of noise and fuss. We don’t mind the dog poop or puppy pee, or the litter containers that overflow here in the Village every Saturday night after the tourists have finished swarming. We don’t mind the filthy, blackened sidewalks or the sticky grime that coats the subway platforms. We just don’t like all that racket. So there. We’ve taken our stand. New Yorkers excel at taking stands. They’re always ready for a good fight. But a “flexible” noise code? Give me a break.
Let’s face it: people come to New York to find excuses for staying up ‘way past their bedtimes back in Hooterville, where there just ain’t much shakin’ after 6pm. It’s something you must do in this lifetime. You must make the pilgrimage to the city that never sleeps, so you can take a bite of the Big Apple, and return home with the rush of it warming your heart and thrilling your mind, informing them that you spent time in what may be the greatest city on Earth. The noise code, therefore, has nothing to do with keeping NYers comfortable. I has everything to do with luring the tourist trade. That’s my guess—and I’ll bet real money it’s right—right on the money, of course.
However, unless they’re filthy rich, people who live here have to get up in the morning and go to work to make their sky-high rent and have a few bucks left over for coffee. And getting up in the morning requires—guess what—sleep, at least a smidgen of the stuff. The last time the guy on the top floor of the building next to mine had a blasting rooftop party, I thought about calling the cops—but only for a New York minute. I decided that I’d only make a fool of myself. The cops would laugh at me while someone was getting shot in the Bronx. So I went back to something resembling sleep, and some dude in the Bronx survived the night.
The subway is definitely loud. Those long trains of huge metal city-bus-sized cars
riding on steel rails in underground tunnels make a lot of noise, especially when two or three of them are hurtling past you in opposite directions at 35 miles per hour. The noise down there is ‘way more than I can handle. That’s why I bought these.
They look almost like the slick headphones that other people wear to listen to tunes while they ride. No one suspects that mine are ear protectors. No one has made fun of me or laughed at me for wearing them. (Bonus information: New Yorkers don’t care what you do) I want to keep the hearing I have as long as I can. Like most things in this life, my ears are on borrowed time.
But the most irritating, unnecessary noise in the city comes from the cabbies in their Toyota Camrys.
They make me wanna slug ’em, knock them out stone cold. In most locales in this country, Camrys are driven by upstanding, forthright citizens, decent people who go to church, pay their taxes, and vote in every election. Camry owners are not revolutionaries. They maintain a modicum of respect for the social order. The two-party system suits them fine, thank you very much, just please give us single-payer health care. I’ll bet the typical Camry driver reserves horn-blowing for matters of life or death.
Many NY cabbies drive Camrys. Every green light is a matter of life or death for ’em. Before the close of the first tenth of the very second after the traffic light turns green, the cabbie in his Camry is on the horn. Camry horns will give you a skin rash, heartburn, halitosis, and other anger-induced ailments. They could make you tear your hair out. They push mercilessly, gratingly—a perfect match with NY cabbies. You’d think that a car as inoffensive and plain-vanilla as the Toyota Camry, a car from a land renowned for politeness—Japan—would have a polite sort of horn. It doesn’t.
A side note: I remember from the era of my childhood that French cars had two horns, one for the city and one for the countryside. In some Arab-speaking lands, if a driver is liberal with his car’s horn, he’ll incur the wrath of old women walking by, who may reach into the car and slap the driver. And in areas of some countries, honking is illegal. In India, it’s an expected courtesy.
There are legions of Camrys here, their drivers-for-hire all waiting for that tender, quiet moment which they can smash to bits with noise as they explode in typical New York fashion. Even if he’s the tenth car in the lane, that’s reason enough for a long, loud blast. No cabbie here knows how to “toot” the horn. It’s a long blow. Or nothing. And it’s rarely nothing. The sheer volume of horn-blowing is…it’s perfectly proportional to the population density.
And all this horn-blowing, etc., is why the air over Manhattan is turbulent. Your plane will pitch and roll and jump when you fly over Manhattan, because, like everything else in Manhattan, all the noise has nowhere to go but up. It zooms up from the streets and ricochets off your plane’s underbelly, pushing the hapless silver bird off its course. So keep your seatbelt fastened—and have a nice, quiet day.
“New York, New York, is everything they say,
And no place that I’d rather be.
Where else can you do half a million things
All at a quarter to three?” —Huey Lewis, “The Heart of Rock and Roll”