IT'S pretty quiet on 42nd Street tonight. Car horns mainly, and buses that rumble and belch. Not long ago, working this strip was like shooting fish in a barrel. Every boom-box store and peep show had a loudspeaker blaring out at the sidewalk. A noise inspector could write up 10 violations a night, easy.
The crackdown has had an effect, however. Tonight the street hustlers and movie marquees seem like images on a TV screen with the sound turned down.
Jerry Dimitriou, an inspector for New York City's Bureau of Air Resources, pulls over to the curb anyway. Nothing on the schedule until 9 tonight, so they might as well walk the beat for the while. Sure enough, a boom-box store called California Electronics has a big loudspeaker working just inside the door, to lure some sidewalk traffic. It's pretty tame by previous Times Square standards. But the law says no noise on the sidewalk, period.
Jerry and Dennis O'Conner, his partner, go in and issue the violation. They are both short, even-tempered men who wear zip-up jackets. Tonight their supervisor, Steve O'Connell, is with them to accompany a reporter.
``Give us a break,'' says a man behind the counter at California Electronics. The fine will be at least $440, and he is a little perturbed. ``You need something - a radio - a little later, we take care of you.'' His younger colleague is less inclined to kowtow. ``They have to make their salaries,'' he sneers, as the three men leave.
Another night on the New York City noise patrol. Noise is one of America's most persistent forms of pollution. In New York, it tends to come from music bars and construction sites and rooftop ventilation units. There are thousands of these, and every evening, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Jerry and Dennis and one other team cruise the city's five boroughs, trying to keep the decibel level in check. (Thirty-two inspectors work the day shift.)
The inspectors also enforce the city's clean air laws, including restaurant fumes and the like. Mostly, they respond to complaints to the city's 24-hour hotline. There are more than 400 such complaints in a typical month. The inspectors look into three or four complaints per night. They don't get involved in boom boxes, noisy crowds, and the like. ``We are very happy to defer that to the police department,'' says Jerry Ross, the bureau's director of enforcement.
Right now Steve and crew are parked on Seventh Avenue, around the corner from California Electronics. Dennis is the designated paperwork man for the evening, and he's writing up the violation. Each stop requires 15 to 20 minutes worth of paperwork, and there's a car report at the end of the evening. ``I hate that, `You gotta make your salary,''' Steve says, still burning over the clerk's remark.
The first scheduled stop tonight is in a gloomy warehouse district just south of Canal Street, called Tribeca. The area has been sprouting condos and yuppie restaurants, and one such establishment, called Walker's, is bothering neighbors with kitchen fumes. It has already been fined for noise from the ventilation unit. The inspectors seem to show a little extra interest in repeat offenders like this.
They trudge up several flights of an old tenement building next door. No question. The place smells as though the kitchen vent was right outside the window. The resident is an artist, and he's understandably upset. How many times is he going to have to complain before Walker's finally shapes up, he asks.
The inspectors shoulder their way through the crowded restaurant to see the owner. The problem turns out to be a leaky stack, the duct that carries fumes up to roof level. The owner, who is trying hard to stay cool, claims he didn't known about the leak. Couldn't he just get a warning?
The inspectors are going by the book. ``He knew about it,'' Jerry says later in his calm Greek accent. ``Most of them, they don't care.''
It's 10 p.m., lunch time for the night shift. The next stop is a music club in the East Village, conveniently close to Katz's Delicatessen with its famous hot pastrami.
Most noise complaints in New York City are in Manhattan. Of those, the majority concern discos and other music clubs, especially at night. Before 1986 the law was vague, prohibiting only ``unnecessary'' noise. That year, the city passed a new ``Disco Law'' that set a fixed threshold of 45 decibels. If noise penetrates someone's apartment at that level, there's a fine of between $2,000 and $8,000. After three violations, the city can padlock the sound system.
In the abstract, 45 decibels doesn't seem so high; normal conversation is about that level. (An alarm clock is about 80 decibels.) Looked at another way, however, 45 decibels is like trying to sleep with somebody talking into your ear.
``Forty-five is where people get roused in sleep,'' says Thomas Faye, an audiologist who heads the Vanderbilt Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and who formerly was a member of the city's Environmental Control Board.
The persistent ka-thump from a disco is especially infuriating at three o'clock in the morning, moreover.
``It is not hazardous to hearing but to health,'' says Dr. Faye. ``It's a terrible invasion of privacy.''
That is how the people feel at 65 Second Avenue, at 4th Street. The club in the basement has been assaulting them with noise at all hours of the night. The apartment building is a cavernous old walk-up that has seen grander days. Faye says that bass sounds and drums course through the walls as though they were extensions of the instruments. ``The [building] structure becomes a loudspeaker,'' he says.
The club is called Woody's, and it's a typical New York scene bar. The college-age patrons, dressed in requisite black vamp, aren't exactly Steve's crowd. ``Living high on Daddy's money,'' he remarks. One gets the impression he wouldn't mind finding a violation at Woody's tonight.
On the second floor, however, the biggest commotion is a domestic squabble. To the chagrin of the tenants, the noise from Woody's isn't as loud as it usually is. ``This is totally atypical,'' says a wiry man with gray curly hair.
It's a common occurrence on the noise beat, a little like the car that won't start except when the mechanic is checking it.
It turns out that the woman who filed the complaint had announced the inspection at a tenants' meeting, and Woody's had gotten wind of it. The manager acknowledges to Steve later that he just happened to turn off one speaker tonight. The woman will have to file another complaint.
The inspectors are disappointed, too. Woody's looked like a violator. It's after midnight, and the banter in the car is starting to flag. The last appointment is uptown on East 93rd Street. It's a doorman building, and Steve instinctively runs a comb through his hair as he enters the elevator.
The apartment has a carpeted hush that suggests financial comfort. A doctor's wife is explaining that the bar directly below, called T.G.I. Friday's, intrudes on this tranquility with an awful racket. But once again, the noise isn't here when the inspectors arrive. Everyone sits awkwardly for a while, on a couch that looks big enough to hold a baseball team. ``Sometimes we stay an hour, an hour and a half,'' Jerry says later. ``Always, we must be very polite.''
They have a better way of handling these problems in Athens and other European cities, he says on the way out. Clubs must get approval for a specific noise level before they open. ``The police are very tough there,'' he says. ``Here, [the cities] just want the money.''