Wednesday, July 07, 2004


Subway's Greatest Hits, Part 1

Subway’s Greatest Hits, Part 1

In the city so nice they named it twice there’s a transportation system that is easily accessible to all. For two bucks a ride, anyone can get just about anywhere on the cramped overpriced island of hustle.
I ride the New York City subway system almost daily, and have done so for four years now. In my capacity of part-time teaching artist in the city’s high schools I have now worked two school years in four of the five boroughs, spending more time on the subway going to and from various schools than I have spent in the classrooms. The things I have witnessed on the train cars and on the platforms could not be believed by the uninitiated. Some of the most memorable follow.


My favorite performers, bar none, were the E train gymnasts. Three inner-city youths who made a very good living (I know because I gave them money every time I saw them, along with almost every passenger on the car). They came on with a boom box, blasting rap music and taking turns using the bars as parallel bars, spinning on vertical bars and doing floor exercise stunts I had previously only seen in the Olympics in the aisles of the subway car, culminating in two of them on their hands and knees while the third ran the length of the car and did a flip over the two in an Evel Kneivel like daredevil maneuver. All this performed on a moving subway train. I saw them several times, and nobody ever fell during a stunt and no passenger was ever injured by errant body parts.


Some very skilled musicians that I have encountered include: A Tracy Chapman look-and-sound-alike (hell, maybe it WAS Tracy Chapman) on the E platform at Lexington and 53rd Street. A classical string quartet in the passageway between the 6 train and the F train at Bleecker Street. A four piece Blues band in the station at 34th and Broadway (I bought their CD). All manner of players of exotic Asian stringed instruments. A Mexican duo playing acoustic guitar and accordion skillfully singing Mexican folk songs. An outstanding a cappella do-wop quartet. These people play for change and dollar bills for long hours, and most of them are a breath of fresh air. Conversely, there’s…


There is an acoustic guitar player who has steadily improved over the years. He has truly gotten to be a skilled guitarist. His problem: he insists on singing. This is a man whose voice sounds like his nose, larynx, and testicles have been seized by an army of living clothespins. I’m sure that military intelligence will be using him shortly at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan to excise confessions. I know I would confess to just about anything after a few hours of this guy.

Just the other day I was on the R train and a highly skilled sax player who’d reached the end of his rope was blasting “Pop Goes the Weasel” and followed that with abstract trills that could make rats go cannibalistic. When people began screaming at him to stop he screamed back that he would stop when they gave him money. “Give me money and I’ll go away! I won’t stop until you pay me to leave!” He achieved his goal and moved to the next car and began his blackmail by audio torture on a new set of commuters.

On occasion there is a singer-guitarist that pollutes the L line. I have seen this guy at Union Square and at Bedford Avenue. At Union Square I heard him slaughter “No Woman No Cry” and asked a fellow traveler on the platform if he thought Bob Marley would be flattered or appalled at the sound of this. The traveler listened for a couple of seconds, looked at me and laughed as we both said “appalled” at the same time. This guy is one of those people who screech louder at the end of each verse for punctuation. I wanted to be in possession of a stun gun at that moment. At Bedford Avenue I saw the same guy wailing random notes until I figured out that he was singing John Lennon’s “Just Like Starting Over” and came to the conclusion that he only performs songs by dead songwriters to lessen his odds of being assaulted by an artist. When I heard him on the Bedford Avenue platform I prayed that the train come as soon as possible, not just to be carried away, but because I thought that the sound of the train’s braking system would be a pleasant change.

Whenever I hear a substandard musician or someone trying to be a substandard musician (substandard being a quantum leap upwards for some of these people) I recall the story of Sonny Rollins. The jazz great became unhappy with how he sounded and disappeared from the scene for two years. He played under a bridge where nobody could hear him play, his sound drowned out by traffic noise. Two years of playing several hours a day where nobody could hear him, until he was satisfied with his technique. There have been some subway musicians that I have told that story to, hoping they get the hint. On one occasion, when the offender listened to my retelling of the story of Sonny Rollins, smiled and nodded and took up his instrument for a fresh assault, I said bluntly “I’m telling you to go play under a bridge for two years.”


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