Locked Horns

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Sunday morning, 8:30. As I open the front door and step outside, the beautiful morning is shattered by a Lincoln Towncar pulling up across the street, blasting its horn as it slows to a stop. What kind of legislative, police or vigilante action would it take to get these car-service fucks to use a doorbell or phone? I strap on my bike helmet and roll out into the street. With a dull, feral mindlessness on his face, the limo driver gives it another blast.

The New York City soundscape is utterly defined by the automobile horn. Stop, close your eyes and listen, even in an ostensibly quiet place like Central Park, and you will find that the honking of tens of thousands of aggravated motorists is the city's omnipresent soundtrack. If man has casually introduced a more useless and destructive technology into the daily life of the city, I don't know it.

Like most bad ideas, the horn sprung from good intentions. In the mid-1800s, as steam carriages became popular in England, public outcry resulted in the 1865 passage of the "Red Flag Act." The law specified that all motorized vehicles be preceded by a man on foot carrying a flag during the day or a lantern at night. Clearly impractical, it was not long before motorists could choose from a variety of signaling devices including bells, whistles and small hand-squeezed bulb horns.

As is still the case today, the first New York drivers preferred horn to brakes. A 1900 New York Tribune item tells the story of a nurse struck and killed by an automobile. According to the account, the driver didn't slow down or steer out of the way, but "considered his responsibility fully discharged by ringing the gong."

As cars grew in popularity, the futility of honking became increasingly apparent. After the turn of the century, the bulb horn, popular in France, became the standard in most American cities. First hailed as being more "novel and penetrating" than a bell, "any usefulness that the horn had was quickly negated by the fact that people in cities were constantly tooting at one another," according to Dr. Eugene Garfield, in his essential 1983 essay, "The Tyranny of the Horn."

After 1910, motoring periodicals began calling for more effective warning devices and manufacturers developed a new generation of ear-shattering noisemakers. One of the more popular accessories of the teens and 20s was an electrically powered air horn called the Klaxon, the name derived from the Greek word klaxo, meaning "to shriek." The technological forefather of modern honkers, the Klaxon was touted as "the only horn which would instantly move cows and bullocks."

Today's horns are not designed with the crowded canyons of New York City in mind. They are engineered to travel great distances on fast-moving highways and to penetrate the increasingly soundproof cockpits of luxury vehicles. The horn is also considered a critical component of the automotive brand experience. As American vehicles have grown bigger and more intimidating, so too have their monosyllabic "voices." Until the mid-1960s, many car horns were tuned to the musical notes E-flat and C, a combination deemed pleasing to the ear. Most manufacturers have today moved to discordant combinations like F-sharp and A-sharp. In New York City, the horn has essentially become a sanctioned form of aggravated aural assault. The predictable results, of course, are incidents like this:

I pulled my bike up alongside the driver's- side window and hopped off. I asked the limo driver who he was honking for. He shrugged and began rolling up his window. I pressed down on the top edge of the glass. The power window's motor made a clunking noise. I leaned in and, at the top of my lungs bellowed, "Hoooonnnk! Honk honk honk!"

Enraged, the limo driver swatted at my face and yanked at his handle as I continued to honk at him. With all my weight braced against the door, he couldn't open it. Desperate to throttle me, he hurled himself against the door until, finally, I let it go. He burst out headlong but was surprisingly quick and wiry. As he came up at me, I got my hands on either side of his head, reared back and smashed him in the middle of the face with my forehead.

The crack of bone reverberated so loudly in my head, I thought I broke my nose. But I was fine. The limo driver collapsed ass-first in the street, hands cupped over his face, staring up at me in shock. As blood burbled between his fingers his throat released a girlish, Klaxon-like shriek. I dusted off and picked up my bike as a guy appeared pulling a small suitcase on wheels.

"Your car is here," I said.

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