Book Excerpt: 'Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence'

George Michelsen Foy went in search of peace and quiet after being surrounded by overbearing noise in a New York City subway station. Here & Now producer Chris Ballman took a turn with Michelsen Foy outside WBUR offices on Boston's Commonwealth Ave., to measure the sounds of daily life, video below. George Michelsen Foy's new book is “Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence," excerpted below.

the Broadway train

I don’t know at what point noise became intolerable for me. I do know when I decided that, having lived for a long time—weeks, months even—in a state marked by my increasing inability to tolerate high volumes of sound, I decided, with a sudden certainty more characteristic of schizophrenics, or teenage lovers, to seek out the opposite, and track down silence wherever it might live.

I was standing on the uptown platform of the Broadway local at 79th Street, in Manhattan, waiting for the train to ferry me and my children to the 116th Street stop. The Broadway local was taking its time about showing up, and I suppose the charge of frustration stemming from delay was a contributing factor. New York, in a non-Newtonian way, seems to boost the quantum of energy one brings to any event or problem with each additional unit of time spent in the city. Through vents leading to the street above, I heard traffic rush and honk. And the kids were squabbling. . . .

None of these factors would have made me particularly content with where I was or what I was listening to that day, although none of them should have bothered me inordinately either. After all, having lived in the city that never sleeps for ten years, I had, like most residents, evolved a higher threshold of tolerance toward over-the-top input of any kind. At some brute level, higher volumes of input are one reason we choose to live in New York.

I take this ride several times a week. You might think I’d be inured to what was about to happen.

The Broadway line south of Ninety-sixth Street consists of two local tracks, one uptown, one down, with two express lines in the middle. Similar equipment runs on each track but the local trains, which stop at every station and don’t enjoy the long stretches of acceleration available to the express, travel slower. On the afternoon in question, at approximately 4:17, the downtown local screeched into the station, across the tracks from us. Even one train—with its steel wheels mashing steel rail, brakes woefully lacking in grease, ventilators roaring as they struggle to keep the temperature of both motors and passengers in check—hits the ears like an extrusion of New York, in all the city’s unapologetic whaddya, its in-your-face aggression. The level of sound it generates will set babies crying.

That day, however, just as the downtown local was coming to a halt, the uptown local came in; and at the same instant the downtown express entered the station, its seven burgundy-colored cars thundering shrieking roaring at 40 mph between the slowing locals. Immediately thereafter the uptown express, as if anxious not to miss the party, showed up around the curve from Seventy-second Street and blasted into a station already occupied by three other trains, two moving, one now stopped.

The noise was immense. It was gut-pounding. It smacked the cosmos. Without thinking I clamped the flat of my palms to both ears and screwed my face into the scrunched expression of a root-canal patient. I usually despise people who do that on subway platforms. Wimps, I think; milquetoast souls who cough if someone is smoking across the street, who wear cardigans and bicycle clips; for God’s sake, if you’re so delicate, move to an ashram! But here I was doing the same thing. And still the noise grew, as the express trains slammed past each other in the stone tunnel, and the flanges of their wheels rocked forty-five tons of weight against the edge of rail; the whine of motors; the warning “dings” as the doors of the downtown local closed and ours opened; the grunts and plaints of sardined passengers; and the overamped voice of the conductor yelling, “Seventy-ninth, let the passengers off—stand clear of the closing doors.”

I remember keeping my hands power-glued to my ears, even as we boarded and sat down. My daughter Emilie, who as a teenager is always alert to signs of egregious weirdness on the part of her progenitors, glanced at me nervously. But for once something had cracked the enamel coating New Yorkers must accrete to live in this town, and I kept my ears covered, cringing at the rumble that filtered through my palms; thinking, I can’t put up with this kind of noise, day in, day out, any longer. I mused, This has to damage me in some way, reflected also—because that was the other wheel of this scooter of thought—I need to find somewhere quiet. And the train rumbled slower, and stopped, and the loudspeaker blatted, “Eighty-sixth, let ’em off!” and I thought no, not just quiet; what I want now is silence.

Perfect silence.

No noise. No sound. Nothing.

That was when I thought of the farmhouse.

It’s an old, dark house, smelling of dry rot and smoke, with a fieldstone hearth and thick walls. The farm lies deep in the hills of the Berkshires, far from any roads. It’s the dead of night, at midwinter. The air is frozen and void of wind. Farmhouse, meadows, and woods surrounding are buried in a quilt of snow so deep that everything alive has chosen not to fight, but burrow instead below the white insulation and go to sleep. All is so cold and silent, on that farm in my mind, that the stars, shining against a sky the color of tarnished lapis, seem to give off a vibration that is not sound and not light but something in between—something that is perhaps the essence of silence itself.

Excerpted from Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence by George Michelsen Foy. Copyright © 2010 by George Michelsen Foy. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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