One night in late fall, a longtime friend and I are catching up over burgers and beers at a restaurant in New York City. He’s regaling me with tales of his new life in the suburbs: something about “knobs and tubes” — an electrical problem, apparently. Maybe it’s a New Jersey thing?
His words are a little hard to make out, to be honest. Everything around me is somewhat muffled, and I’m distracted by all the commotion going on inside my own mouth. That’s the weird thing about wearing earplugs: the self-amplifying effect. Never before have I felt so in tune with my palate. Every bite of french fry crunches like a giant tree branch crashing in the forest. If these aren’t the best fries I’ve ever tasted, well, they sure sound like it.
Later on, my ears perk up when I think I hear my friend talking about pot — only to realize, when I finally pull the plugs out, that he is actually talking about his pond.
While my listening abilities seem to be lacking, at least I know my hearing is secure. As you might have heard from last October’s New York Post report, dining out in the Big City may be detrimental to your auditory health. Doctors cited in the article note that “anything over 85 decibels — a noise level equivalent to a car or motorcycle passing 30 feet away — can do real damage over time.” Using an iPhone app, the paper recorded some consistently high sound levels at a number of popular places around town: 95 at STK Midtown, 98 at El Toro Blanco and 101 at the Smith.
Black Iron Burger, where my friend and I are chowing, has little in common with the highfalutin spots mentioned in that article — except for the noise, of course, which hovers steadily above the 85-decibel mark, according to my own iPhone app.
Luckily for us, I brought protection. Earlier in the day, I hit the local pharmacy to pick up a pack of the necessary prophylactics. “They look like smurf penises,” my friend says of the soft foam blue earplugs, which are described a bit differently on the packaging. “Ultra Noise Blocker,” the box says, recommended for “[l]oud concerts, motor sports, sleep, shooting sports, power tools, etc.” The package says nothing about restaurants. (Note to the manufacturer: You may be missing out on a lucrative new market.)
When used as directed, these earplugs are said to reduce noise by up to 32 decibels, knocking our potentially ear-damaging burger-eating experience down to the 50s, on par with a quiet suburb, probably not unlike my friend’s peaceful new abode with the apparent pond out back.
Granted, noise is a fact of life in New York City. Walking around town with a decibel-meter app, you quickly realize that earplugs could be helpful pretty much everywhere. My regular morning commute to work, for instance, is a virtual gauntlet of sonic hazards: rush-hour traffic along Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue exceeds the 85-decibel threshold even before the horns start blaring; the Q train then rumbles into Atlantic Terminal in the upper 90s. Weekends offer little respite: A five-year-old’s recent birthday party peaked above 100.
Would I seriously consider wearing earplugs to all of those places? Maybe. If they served crisp french fries.
My friend, who probably misses the clamor when he slinks home across the Hudson River each night, rips his earplugs out long before I do. He squishes one between his fingers while he ponders.
“With a little blue cheese,” he says, “I bet they taste just fine.”