Among the Cole Porter lyrics I didn’t really understand until I lived in New York was, “In the roaring traffic’s boom/in the silence of my lonely room/I think of you/Night and day.” I’d had my share of lonely rooms growing up in several small towns, and I thought I knew traffic noise from the cities I’d lived and worked in before. But I’d never actually heard traffic boom the way it does in midtown Manhattan. And the kettle-drum effect of trucks and busses are just part of the city’s symphony; there’s the bass line of the subway below, the blatting saxes of taxi horns, the piccolo peeps of hundreds of vans backing up, and the endless array of alarms and sirens, some of them denoting actual disasters.
Over time I got used to that level of noise. It was quieter back in our Brooklyn neighborhood than it was Midtown, where I toiled in a succession of magazine jobs, so I had that to return to each night. Sometimes stepping out of my Midtown office and into the din I felt assaulted, but like everyone who has endured more than a year in NY, I just learned to ignore it, along with the frequently offensive smells and sights on offer. People wearing headphones on the street or the subway platform were missing the soundtrack to life’s rich pageant, I thought. I would also worry about someone sneaking up behind me if I were them.
I was working a gig near Times Square when I got a call from my sister saying our father had died. His children were all alienated from the old man in various gradations, but the news was shocking still. He had just survived several health emergencies, and I think I had concluded that he was just too mean to die. I didn’t know how I felt about his death, but knew I couldn’t stay at work. After informing my boss, I stepped out onto the street and walked to Grand Central Station, where I meant to catch the subway home though I think I ended up in a cab. It felt like there was something torn inside of me, like shrapnel had ripped through my innards, and the din of the city was especially bad that day, as if missile strikes had been added to the regular artillery assault.
After a horrible trip to the desert where he’d died, I returned to NY and my job acting as if nothing had happened. I didn’t know my coworkers that well, and they certainly didn’t know me. If you’re looking for anonymity, there’s nothing like a crowd. Navigating the swarming city sidewalks at lunchtime I went in search of solace, or at least silence, and finally found some at a church. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which takes an entire city block at 50th and 5th Avenue, was open to all, and though it seats 2400 and boasts one of the largest pipe organs in the US, it can be as quiet as a crypt between masses.
I hadn’t been raised Catholic but I associated the church with solemn rituals: baptisms, weddings, funerals. Over the years the cathedral has been bombed by anarchists picketed by activists, and tagged by graffiti artists, but has remained impregnable yet welcoming throughout. Though I wasn’t too familiar with any prayer, I knew enough to light a candle and button my lip. “God speaks in the silence of the heart, and we listen,” said Mother Teresa. “And then we speak to God from the fullness of our heart, and God listens. And this listening and this speaking is what prayer is meant to be.”
You don’t have to live in a booming city, let alone be felled by tragedy, to need a quiet refuge. Life’s ordinary onslaught can be quite enough, no matter where you live. I’m back on the West Coast now, and the only cathedral I regularly attend is one not made by man: a grove of nearby redwoods. I’m not a pagan. I just believe that I can hear God better in the kind of quiet that is only broken by birdsong. All silence asks of us is that we meet it halfway, and listen.