by Erin Siu
It was a dull Wednesday morning when I speed-walked to the 14th St. subway station, praying that I wouldn’t be late to class. I found my Metrocard just as the No. 6 train arrived and ran down the steps, right through the closing doors. As a sigh of relief escaped my lips, I noticed a man dressed in a dark brown coat and dirtied, frayed jeans. He stood by the door, singing a strange tune. His arms were stretched out in hopes that passengers would gift him some spare change. But while this man was singing to us—using voice to communicate his sadness and desperation for money—the people around me lowered their heads and plugged their ears with headphones. It was a car of ten passengers, and less than half looked up from their smartphones to listen to the out-of-tune notes coming from this man’s mouth. We all expect the world to read our tweets and listen to our complaints on Facebook. Yet, nobody bothered to listen to the sound of this man’s voice, which conveyed his reality.
New York City is an environment bursting with sound. Honks of taxis can be heard when middle-aged, annoyed citizens of the world are rushing to work. Ambulance sirens blare as drunk college kids pass out at parties and are taken to hospitals on Friday nights. Everywhere we go, there is always that one, obnoxious person talking loudly into his or her cellphone. Pass by an elementary school and overworked moms can be heard yelling at their disobedient kids. New York City is a mash-up of nonstop sound, and we’ve become immune to it, maybe even afraid of letting it all in.
I’m a victim of indifference as well. When people approach me on the streets, I immediately look down and walk faster, thinking that everyone in New York City is trying to sell me something or take advantage of me. It’s a sad truth, but I rarely stop and listen to what people have to say. Instead, their words get lost in the web of my own thoughts—What do I think? How do I feel? Have we become so self-absorbed that our first response to the voices of strangers is a lack of acknowledgement?
I’m not saying that we should allow unwanted sounds to overcome our minds—we’d go insane. However, if we listen close enough, we can hear the tapping of keys transform into a Mozart Sonata on the 3rd floor of the Steinhardt building. We can hear a whisper of thanks being spoken when someone receives unexpected help from a stranger or the laughter of friends reuniting. On some days, we’ll hear the pitter patter of raindrops meeting sidewalks or leaves rustling in the wind.
We often forget that even the simplest of sounds or the humblest of voices may change the way we perceive our world. To the stranger singing on the subway, your voice inspired me to remove my headphones and listen more closely to New York City. The world is filled with sound, but we have to make an effort to listen.