Volume 75, Number 9 | July 20- 26, 2005

Talking Point

Sounding off: Former clubber just wants some quiet

BY David Wallis

A menu posted outside Metropole, a new bistro and bar on W. Fourth St., advertises “Neighborhood Specialties,” including the “two-handed” hamburger, penne pomodoro and grilled chicken paillard with mustard sauce. But since opening a few months ago, the restaurant has also been serving neighbors a steady diet of late-night noise.

On several nights, well past midnight, a mix of foreground music and drunken whoops boomed through the fifth-floor window of my apartment in the building next to Metropole.

Now, I have never considered myself a noise prude. Traffic barreling up Madison Ave. lulled me to sleep as a child. During the early 1980s, I promoted events at nightclubs, including Studio 54. I even plead guilty to blasting my music on occasion; so throughout the spring I kept quiet about the tumult, not even calling 311 as some of my neighbors have done. (The non-emergency hotline fields about 1,000 calls per day concerning noise, the number one complaint in summer months).

But the other night, again unable to sleep because of the commotion from Metropole, I snapped. Perhaps I was feeling my age or finally accepting my status as ex-hipster. Or perhaps I just felt offended by how over-the-top the racket was. In any case, I dressed and rushed downstairs to plead for quiet.

Metropole’s G.M. reminded me of an American version of Dieter, the German talk show host played by Mike Myers on “Saturday Night Live,” who exhorted viewers to “touch my monkey.” American Dieter seemed flummoxed that I would dare complain, since I lived on the fifth floor rather than right above the bar. He also informed me that the restaurant’s lease permitted background music.

Not exactly the “I’m terribly sorry, sir. May I buy you a Calvados?” that I had expected. I wanted to grab American Dieter by his right earlobe hard — as he evidently did not hear me. Fortunately, for both of us, a patrol car from the Sixth Precinct happened by with Lieutenant Richard M. Pfluger, the police officer charged with enforcing the city’s antiquated noise code in much of the Village.

Looking like a Navy officer in a pressed white uniform, the lieutenant, who later told me that “sound is a strange animal” that penetrates homes in unpredictable ways, ordered American Dieter to shut the restaurant’s windows facing Fourth St. and to lower the music. The din disappeared, and I returned to bed. Still, I could not sleep. I thought about — O.K., fixated on — the fortuitous arrival of the noise police. What if the cops hadn’t shown such remarkable timing? What could an ordinary sleep-deprived New Yorker do to get the attention of an unresponsive noise polluter?

My darker plans ran from planting cockroaches in Metropole’s bathroom to conducting a poll in front of the bar with only one question: “Would you be more ( ) less ( ) likely to patronize Metropole if you knew it was run by inconsiderate jerks who keep your neighbors up at night?”

A couple of days later I told my friend Clive about my fantasies, adding a proposal to urge sleep-deprived neighbors to make — and break — Saturday-night reservations at Metropol.

“That’s conspiracy,” pointed out Clive.

I decided to consult Dr. Arline L. Bronzaft, a Manhattan psychologist specializing in noise. To my relief, Dr. Bronzaft, the longtime chairperson of the New York City Council on the Environment, labeled my craving for vengeance as normal, even healthy.

“If you did not have fantasies you would be engaging in learned helplessness,” explained Dr. Bronzaft. Apparently, feeling you lack control of your surroundings only compounds the stress caused by loud noise. And I didn’t need a shrink to tell me that loud noise causes stress.

Research compiled by the League for the Hard of Hearing (http://www.lhh.org/noise/facts/health.htm) links exposure to noise with elevated blood pressure, heightened anxiety and “increased aggression.” As evidence, L.H.H. cited a 1995 story in London’s Daily Mirror that reported that at least 16 Brits in the previous six years were murdered or committed suicide because of chronic noise.

Of course, not all Muzak-hating Anglo-Saxons resort to violence. Nigel Rodgers, the founder of Pipedown International, a nonprofit organization that battles the thump, thump, thump of public hip-hop as well as classical renditions of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” printed cards that his organization’s members could leave at local pubs. “To the manager,” one card read, “I have enjoyed being here but will probably not return for one reason: the piped music, which ruins all other pleasures.”

Such politeness might fall on deaf ears in New York City.

There are those who judge urban quiet-seekers as hypersensitive killjoys who should suppress their complaining. Bombarded by a loud bar? Buy earplugs. Some argue that worrying about noise pollution is a privilege of the rich. In rougher neighborhoods, noise at night means gunshots not Guns ’N’ Roses. One local “leader,” Arthur Strickler, district manager of Community Board 2, which covers Greenwich Village, told the online magazine Gotham Gazette that residents besieged by noisy neighbors should simply start packing: “This is Greenwich Village,” observed Mr. Strickler. “If they want peace and quiet, they should move to some bedroom community in Brooklyn” — a comment that true Villagers, famed for their readiness to protest just about anything, might greet with the sotto voce reply: “Hell no, we won’t go.”

Not long after my confrontation with Metropole’s manager, the restaurant, which had received a summons for violating the city’s noise code, and officers at the Sixth Precinct held a public meeting at the stationhouse in a bid, according to a flier, to “get to know one another.”

In my new role as activist, I proposed a few steps that Metropole’s owner, Christiano Jannou, could take to restore calm to once-sedate W. Fourth St. At 11 at night, the restaurant should shut its large windows and turn down its music, remove the words “late night” from its canopy to send a message to the community and revelers alike and hire a security guard to act as a public shhusher on weekend nights. Also, Mr. Jannou should give neighbors his home and cell phone numbers so that if our families were awake at 2 in the morning because of Metropole, his family would be awake as well.

Mr. Jannou, long hair, fashionable stubble, high-tech Razor phone, argued that with profit margins so slim, he could not afford a security guard. He contended that it would be “disingenuous” to remove the words “late night” from the canopy of a restaurant that serves until the wee hours and that he could not agree to a hard, fast time to batten down his hatches because “our business is so negatively impacted on a summer night when the windows are closed.” He did say he would stop hiring D.J.’s, use his “discretion” to keep the peace and had begun playing more “chill-out” music.

Admittedly, the balance between commerce and neighborliness is delicate in a densely populated city celebrated for a vibrant nightlife. Mr. Jannou, in a concession, an act of good faith, gave me his cell phone number, but I worry about his “discretion,” given that his employee, American Dieter, told me at the meeting: “It’s unfair of you to expect that because you live here on the fifth floor you can have your windows open but we can’t have our windows open, when it is one of the perks of the restaurant.”

I hope Metropole can become a quieter neighbor. But, as an increasingly cranky former clubber with a new-found sensitivity to sound, I reserve the right, if the boite’s quest for profit leads to more sleepless nights, to record the sounds of my nightlife: yawns, belches, toilet flushes, and to blast it out my window for the listening displeasure of Metropole’s patrons.

It will not be appetizing.

Wallis is the editor of “Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print” (Nation Books) and the forthcoming “Killed Cartoons (W.W. Norton)”

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