Chapter 03
City Noise

You can sleep through anything but a fire alarm

You get used to city noise pretty quickly. When I first moved here forty years ago, I nearly fell out of bed when fire engines went past at 3 AM with their air horns blaring at the intersection just outside my window. BWWAAAAAAHHH! BWWAAAAAAHHH! To warn away any potential cross-traffic. I got used to it after only a week or two. But overnight guests were always kind of jittery after the first incident.

When you hear a siren, you hope it goes past. Just like the V-1 buzz bombs of WW2. (A V-1 was basically a one-ton bomb with wings and a small pulse jet engine. They had autopilots for directional control, but the range was controlled by giving it only enough gas to get to London from Calais (at least on early models). It runs out of gas and falls. If you hear the engine cut out, you're at risk: it's going to land somewhere nearby, and maybe right on you.) If it passes by and you hear the Doppler shift, the buzz getting lower in pitch, then you're okay. Same with fire sirens here.

One fire engine stopped just up the street today, I could see the red lights reflected in a car window on the street. Then another stopped right behind him. Okayyyy. Get the camera and go downstairs to see what's going on. With four restaurants in the building, fire alarms aren't all that infrequent. (We had one in the first couple weeks, and another a couple months later.) No big deal, just a small car fire across the street. Two fire engines and a police car, way overkill for the incident, but -- car fires can explode, at least on cop shows -- better safe than sorry.

We hear a *lot* of fire engines here. The one-way street system funnels any such traffic headed for a large part of town directly onto our street. So one keeps an ear slightly open all the time, but only slightly.


Twenty years ago, we had a fire here that was more interesting and actually serious. We wake up Sunday morning to see a large plume of black smoke rising from the side (our side) of the building. Call the fire department. No problem, small fire, just a lot of smoke, stay where you are. Okay. Fifteen minutes later, still smoke, call again. No problem, small fire, just a lot of smoke, stay in your apartment. Okay. Ten minutes later, more smoke, call again. Yes, you should evacuate, walk down (from the tenth floor), take precautions against inhaling the smoke. Out we go, wet towels over our faces, flashlights on but not very effective through the thick smoke, down the stairs quickly hand in hand and out. We stand around on the sidewalk, all looking like raccoons with black masks across our eyes, any place that the cloth was not covering.

The EMTs treat me and a lot of other people with oxygen for smoke inhalation. The Red Cross ensures that we have clothes and coats and a place to stay that night. The news crews film away. And, because it must have been a slow news night, this incident was on network national news that evening, Ricky Raccoon sitting in the ambulance with his oxygen mask.

More excitement than probably was warranted. But the smoke was that nasty, toxic kind from smoldering plastic bags. The only real casualty that I know of? The really nice French restaurant next door to the fire closed and never reopened. So sad. They had the best croissants in the city. And, on rainy Sundays, we could get from the apartment to the restaurant *inside* the building without ever stepping out into the weather. Down the elevator, down the stairs, across the garage, into the back door of the restaurant. Voila!

Update 2012/03/22

The electrical fire in Back Bay of Boston made the national news for a couple days. A link and transformer in an underground substation blew and burned and took out power for a whole neighborhood, including large office buildings (Prudential Center, 52 stories), several hotels, and many residences. Some people didn't have power for three or four days. Restaurants and residents lost most of their refrigerated food.

From here, we could see only the initial puff of smoke of the fire. And it was strange to see a swath of large buildings completely dark against the rest of the skyline.

Update 2013/03/25

The senior center across the street, ten stories of it, seems to have a problem with fire alarms. The fire engines are there about once every two weeks. No doubt some of these are real fires -- I have no idea what, though, smoking in bed, electrical appliances, frayed, cords, coffee in the toaster? -- but they are minor enough that I have never seen smoke coming out of the building. They usually rate only two engines and an ambulance.

The furniture store across the street the other way, though, that's different. A little electrical problem there rates five engines, the fire marshal's wagon, and police cars to block off traffic on all that adjacent streets. And feel free to ignore those pesky one-way streets, too, rushing to get there.

At the other end of the spectrum from the sirens are the rumblings. The Red Line subway passes very near this building. Rumble rumble rumble, a mini-earthquake that lasts six or seven seconds. Not all the time, though. The trains run every few minutes but are audible up here only a few times a day. The first one in the morning, about 5:30, is often noticeable, I see by the time when I glance at the clock while turning over.