July 1, 2001 (cover story of the City section)
(photos by Frank Conrad/New York Times)
By JEFFREY STANLEY
Jeffrey Stanley, a playwright, is the author
of "Tesla's Letters," which was presented
in 1999 by the Ensemble Studio Theater,
and, most recently, "UFOs Over Brooklyn."
|CHICKENBOY: Hey, who's that out there? You got the
193: (laughs) Chickenboy? Yeah, come on.
CHICKENBOY: I'm in Williamsburg. Metro and Graham. Where are you?
193: Yeah, roger. You got 193 on the Lower East. Roger?
(loud static interference)
CHICKENBOY: 193, come back with that. What's your 20?
193: Yeah, man. Come on.
L-TRAIN: Yeah, talk to me, man. I'm right here. I'm L-Train, man. I'm L-Train.
The voices on the CB radio waves in New York are not those of lost truckers from Montana on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They are the multicultural shouts of a thriving subculture: two men threatening to kill each other on Channel 6; angry complaints about livery drivers on 22; a heated debate on 27 about the shooting of Amadou Diallo, months after the event has disappeared from the front pages; an endless cackle of off-color remarks on 12; and on every channel, lots of ephemera, like that involving Chickenboy, 193 and L-Train.
CB has an image as a rural phenomenon. But in the big city, it functions as a way to build community, an urban version of the gathering on the porch of a country store. With its connotations of the trucker's life, it also adds a down-home touch to urban life.
"There's always been a strong strain of rural culture in the big city," said James Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University who is writing a book on the effects of mobile communications on society. "A few years ago it was blue jeans, cowboy hats and plaid shirts.
"CB radio fits our present desire to get back to toughness," he added. "You see it elsewhere; Jeeps, trucks, tattoos. It's urban chic."
Because the Federal Communications Commission does not require a license, calculating how many New Yorkers use CB radios is difficult. But longtime users remark on the increase of voices on the 40 channels available to them. City dealers say sales of CB radios are up, but their reports do not tell the whole story, because many people buy and trade secondhand radios among themselves in deals made over the airwaves. Still, on any day, at any time, 10 to 30 voices can be heard over the CB channels in just about any neighborhood in the city.
CB (citizens' band) radio, a fad of the 1970's, is a city subculture, invisible to all but CB radio owners. Some New Yorkers have been involved for years. Others are newcomers, attracted by the general resurgence of interest in the decade's styles in film, fashion and television, everything from disco to platform shoes. Though some use CB radios in their cars, exchanging information about New York's increasingly congested traffic, most broadcast from their homes. Given the short range of the frequency — usually 2 to 5 miles, with a legal limit of 155 — they end up talking to people fairly close to home.
The characters of city CB have appropriately colorful nicknames, or handles: Brown Hornet, Cuz, Rosebud, Lady Finesse, Cobra, Dragon, Candy Girl. Dr. Love broadcasts from his home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Maranatha, who adopted a handle from the New Testament, broadcasts from the commuter van he drives in Flatbush.
Most voices are male. But when a woman breaks in, a lot of men who seemed to be lurking in the background suddenly start talking.
New York CB users speak in the familiar language. Cops are "smokies," "10-4" means "O.K." and "20" signals a broadcaster's geographic location. But they have also coined a distinctly urban slang: "waving it" means "hello," "eyeball" means a face-to-face meeting, "4- 10" is a variation on "10-4," and "rah-joe," a play on "roger," means "transmission received, O.K."
Internet chat rooms and discussion boards attract local enthusiasts, like the Staten Island man who recently posted a message on a Yahoo CB club, seeking others within his broadcast range. Amateur radio flea markets known as hamfests, at which new and used ham and CB radios are bought, sold and traded, are held regularly in high school parking lots in the New York suburbs, but on June 3, one took place in the Hall of Science in Queens.
A Touch of Country in City Life
Explaining its appeal in 21st-century New York is tricky. Part of it has to do with the revived interest in the culture of the 70's. Part of it is a hunger for immediate connection in a city in which it is easy to be anonymous, a hunger that even the Internet cannot always satisfy.
"You're always in touch with someone else, 24 hours a day," Professor Katz said. "You never need to be lonely again. CB is allowing us, in a sense, to put back together our fragmented communities."
For city people, CB is a way to "just drop in" on both neighbors and strangers, Professor Katz said. The technology, unlike the Internet, is based on voice, which he described as richer and thus more immediate and satisfying.
Millie Cecala, an owner of the CB Stop in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, one of the city's leading dealers, noted that CB users do not have to leave home to connect with others. "It affords them a way to get out in the world," she said.
CB performs another function in a city in which people broadcast as much from their living rooms as from their vehicles. Truckers and others who use CB radio in their cars have little opportunity to form relationships because they are always moving, and the cast of characters changes constantly. In a city like New York, the opposite is true.
"What's interesting about CB in a nonmobile situation is that it delivers on the promise of community," said Paul Saffo, a technology consultant at the Institute for the Future, a research group in Menlo Park, Calif. "Because everybody's in one place and they're always in range, you can really build a community."
The Faces Behind the Voices
Stewart Sutherland, a 45-year-old Haitian immigrant from Flatbush, Brooklyn, uses his CB radio in the commuter van he drives for Brooklyn Van Lines. His handle is Maranatha, a Biblical term meaning "Oh, Lord, come." He talks to other drivers about traffic conditions and also relies on his radio for his safety. "If I have a problem with a customer," he said, "I can radio for help."
For Frank Puma, 55, who is known on the air as Peacock (he's an audio engineer at NBC), CB has a larger purpose.
"It's a community," said Mr. Puma, who chats on his radio as he commutes from home in Dutchess County. "I have to leave at 3 a.m. Every morning I hook up with these same four guys on the air — Twister, Fleetwood, Snake and Pianoman — who are also driving into the city, and we share information. We know where the deer are, broken-down cars. I've never met these people in person, but we help each other."
|Jeff Lavender of Bensonhurst, 27, a chef at
Sheepshead Bay seafood restaurant, sees his CB as a hobby and a family
tradition. His grandfather was a trucker. His father, who died in 1996
at 45, kept radios in his car, in his office and at home in Coney
The younger Mr. Lavender grew up with CB but did not broadcast much after his teenage years. After his father's death, the son occasionally used his old CB. Recently he installed the radio in his Ford Explorer, in which he travels to Atlantic City and other places, talking to friends and strangers.
Using a CB makes him feel linked to his father "100 percent," said Mr. Lavender, whose handle is the Fisherman. "When I'm on the radio," he said, "I think about how he taught me."
Then there is Dr. Love, who would give only his handle and whose voice is often heard on the city's airwaves. His patter is ceaseless and colorful, like that of an AM radio D.J. In person he is short and soft-spoken, the opposite of his boisterous alter ego.
"For me, being a bachelor, it keeps me company," he said of CB. "People like to talk to me. They like my voice."
Dr. Love, who is in his mid-40's, broadcasts from his tidy apartment in Bushwick. A long antenna protrudes horizontally from the window of his bedroom. The building is a high-rise, and from the outside, the antenna can be seen bouncing in the air like a fishing rod.
Like many CB'ers, Dr. Love is consumed by the tools of the trade. The shelves in his bedroom are lined with a collection of vintage CB radios and tabletop microphones. Some work and others are "just for looks." Asked how many hours a day he spends prowling the airwaves, he rolled his eyes and smiled.
"That's hard to answer," he said. "A lot."
Norma and Ray Ayala of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bought their first CB in the 1970's, when every home and vehicle in the country seemed to have one. The Ayalas broadcast for years, mostly from their walk-up apartment. But they have largely abandoned CB for ham radio because, they say, CB has deteriorated.
"CB brought me a lot," said Mr. Ayala, 46, a beefy former biker whose arms are covered in tattoos. His handle was Evil Kneval. "I met a lot of people. We'd get together every Sunday. White, black, Hasidic, old, young."
These days, said Mr. Ayala, who works in a local hardware store, the voices on the airwaves are more often those of teenagers insulting one another and playing music. "I don't need it," he said.
Mrs. Ayala, whose handle was Pink Lady, elaborated. "Channel 19 is supposed to be for travelers' assistance," she said. "Channel 9 is for emergencies. Now all you hear on those channels is a bunch of idiots cursing."
Her husband, sitting in his chair before a massive bank of CB and ham radio equipment, nodded. He recalled that in the early days of CB, an F.C.C. license was needed to broadcast. That requirement was abolished in 1975.
"I think they should bring that back," he said.
One of the most distinctive voices on the CB airwaves belonged to Steve Trojnarski, who died last September in his late 50's. Known on the air as Shark, Mr. Trojnarski held various jobs over the years. But his passion was CB.
He gave advice on subjects ranging from the best brand of antenna to the best brand of dog food, from how to make a killer sausage to how to manage a love affair. Whenever he came on the air, a parrot squawked in the background. "Say hello to Thunder, everyone," he would intone in a thick Brooklyn accent, introducing one of his menagerie of 18 animals. The collection included two fat iguanas with whom he and his wife shared their two-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint.
Mr. Trojnarski, who grew up in Queens, bought his first CB in 1959. His hobby became more important after his return from Vietnam.
"People ask me what I did to deal with it," he said, referring to his war experiences, in a conversation about CB last year. "CB was my therapy, my way of reaching out to people."
A pale, ghostly, thin man with shaggy white hair, wraparound sunglasses and chain-link tattoos circling both wrists, Mr. Trojnarski adopted his handle while talking to a woman on the radio. "She asked me: `What's your handle? Who are you?' I didn't know what to say. Then I looked down." He revealed a dark tattoo of a shark on the underside of his forearm, a souvenir from Vietnam. "I told her, `You're talking to the Shark.' "
To Mr. Trojnarski, the joy of CB was simple.
"A black man and a white man who would pass on the street and not say a word will talk all night on the radio," he said. "And for some homebound people it's their only outlet to the world. Buying a CB radio is a good psychological commitment."
Hanging Out at the CB Stop
The crossroads of commerce for the city's CB world is the CB Stop in Bensonhurst, where most New Yorkers with CB's, who rarely see one another face to face, come to buy their equipment, get repairs and meet fellow enthusiasts.
A tiny shop on 17th Avenue at 84th Street, it has a counter in front with two bar stools where customers can chat with one another or with Millie and Ben Cecala, the owners.
The Cecalas, who have been in business for more than 20 years, opened their shop at the height of CB's popularity. There were at least a dozen CB dealers in New York in the late 70's through early 80's, they recall, but nearly all closed. The Cecalas would not give recent sales figures, but said business had steadily increased.
Mr. Cecala, who works in the back of the store, is a quiet man, but his wife, hair in a ponytail, greets her customers by name and gives service with an infectious smile. She seems to have endless energy. Customers are loyal.
"The first time I went to her store," said Mr. Sutherland, the commuter van driver, "I wanted to see whether a particular CB would fit in my commuter van. She took a brand new one out of the packaging and said, `Go try it.' I couldn't believe it. She didn't even follow me out of the store to watch."
The Cecalas have used a joint CB handle, Cognac Base. Mrs. Cecala explained: "My husband used to sit and drink Cognac while he talked on the radio."
To Mrs. Cecala, CB's appeal is simple: it "brings back memories." In addition, she said, people "can hide on the computer."
"They can pretend to be men, women, children," she explained. "With a CB, you can't lie quite as much about who and where you are."
Frank Puma, an engineer at NBC in
Manhattan, talks on his CB radio while
driving to work. "Its a community," he
says of the CB world.