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Alone in the City of Sirens

As New Yorkers self-isolate indoors amid the coronavirus lockdown, the normal music of the streets has given way to the ambulance’s horrid solo.

John Moore/Getty Images

In normal times, life in any city means a constant barrage of sounds: car horns, yowling cats, heated arguments from windows overheadoften over inconsequential things. For the past few weeks, the most frequent sound heard in my Brooklyn neighborhood, like in many places across the United States, has been sirens. Most of us have been ordered to remain inside in an effort to thwart the coronavirus pandemic. Lately, there hasn’t been much else to fill the silence, beyond applause for essential workers and church bells rung in solidarity. These are well-meaning gestures that unintentionally emphasize the feeling that a disease is inflicting irrevocable damage upon the world. When those daily traditions conclude, the sirens return.

Ambulances in action have existed before Covid-19, but they rarely if ever induced the anxiety they do now. Before this epidemic, my usual reaction to a siren was to take a second to make sure I wasn’t in the way and hope the person being tended to turned out all right. Over the month of March, as “nonessential workers” were sent home, as sports leagues canceled or postponed play, as restaurants and bars were shuttered indefinitely, those sirens began to feel like the only evidence that the world hadn’t gone completely still.

Missing are the other sounds that used to testify to the surrounding lives being lived. These days, I yearn for the return of construction workers, even the ones who seem to make a point of banging on anything within arm’s length at 7 a.m. on the dot. I find myself remembering those strange phenomena that became a part of the whole city’s shared experience. Think back to how New Yorkers reacted in December 2018 when a transformer explosion in Queens filled the sky with an arresting shade of blue. An alien invasion, we joked. It’s quaint in retrospect.

The apartment I live in is one street north of the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway, a boulevard still in use during the pandemic. Though I can’t see the road from my second-floor apartment windows, I can hear the sirens swarming all around me. I find myself making a mental inventory: At about 5 p.m. on April 2, there were two, at the beginning and end of my grim afternoon shower; three more in the next span of 20 minutes; three minutes later, here come two more. On the morning of April 3, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the statewide coronavirus death toll had risen by 562 from the previous day, to 2,935. During a bout of insomnia a few days later, I heard one around 3:30 a.m., the mechanical wail cutting through the quiet. The purpose of a siren, of course, is to warn people to make way for the helpers and allow them to traverse the city as quickly as possible. There’s hardly anyone on the streets now, so it all sounds less like a warning and more like a dirge.

I’m certainly not the first to have noticed the doomy soundtrack. “It’s so much louder than usual because there’s no other noise. I’m so much more anxious now,” one Manhattan resident told the New York Post in an article published April 1. “They are supposed to get your attention amongst distractions. Now the distractions are uncomfortably absent.”

In an effort to be curious about my surroundings and allay the general dread that comes with each of these sirens, I searched for emergency rooms in my area. I couldn’t have told where the nearest one to me was, a month ago; I’ve been fortunate enough not to need to visit one in Brooklyn. It seemed certain that once I knew where these sirens were going, it wouldn’t feel like they were all hurtling into some great beyond. The sound would be less demoralizing to hear, or so my dumb brain thought. It seems my apartment is roughly in the middle of two clusters of medical centers. There are a few hospitals southeast of me in the lower part of the Crown Heights neighborhood: University Hospital of Brooklyn, Kings County, and Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center. On the other side of Prospect Park, in Park Slope, there’s New York-Presbyterian. I have this map in my head now. But knowing where the sirens were going didn’t really put me at ease.

I decided to make a go of being ruthlessly rational, a technique favored and misused by the biggest dimwits. I reminded myself that the coronavirus can’t be the cause of every siren. Some of them could be police vehicles. Maybe what I heard yesterday evening was a fire truck showing solidarity with health care workers. It’s hard to keep this game up. Since it’s not always possible to determine the source and severity of each siren while trapped inside, each instance delivers the same fear. Whether or not it’s true, you can’t help but have the same thought: A person is dying out there.

And yet if you spend a long enough time in isolation, stuck inside with the noises of your radically constricted world—your laptop, phone, and television—the noise of that constant emergency outside takes on a perverse meaning: It’s your reminder that life is still going on around you. There are other people out there, outside the quarantine. This kicks off a train of thought, rapidly building steam: There’s not just a person in the back of that ambulance; there are people trying to save that person’s life. There are loved ones in tow. There are others at some destination, waiting to provide treatment or comfort. Though they are portentous, for a brief moment these thoughts come as a strange relief. I cherish them for a moment before I realize how selfish it is to have them; before I remember the price of this knowledge.

The process does not end when the siren does. An idle mind might consider the overcrowded emergency rooms, the underpaid and underprotected hospital personnel, the American health care system that was already broken before the coronavirus even emerged. The person in that ambulance was fortunate enough not to die at home. If they’re lucky enough to receive the care they need in a timely manner and survive, they might just be able to put together a GoFundMe page for the enormous medical bill facing them at the end of treatment.

Sure, it’s an extremely pessimistic line of thinking, a fixation on a sound associated with emergency that is no longer reduced to just another facet of the city’s ambient blare. It does no good to hear it all the time, but what else should we be listening to?