Subway Buskers And Life’s Soundtrack

This morning, as I alighted at a subway station, I was greeted by music and song and melody. A subway station busker–one of New York City’s most familiar residents and features–was holding forth with instrument and vocal chord; his chords and notes and full-throated voice floated up and around and over me as I made way for myself past the incoming hordes at the door and began my walk out and up to street level. As I walked past those who were headed to work, to play, to other destinations and occupations unknown, I felt, yet again, the presence of a familiar feeling: that this scene, this tableaux, being presented to me, one of humans like me engaged in their daily endeavors, each living life as best as they could, each dealing with inner joys and sorrows as best as they could, had found its perfect soundtrack–a song that seemed to speak in tones of acceptance, of love and striving and the perennial puzzle of life. I could not even make out the lyrics distinctly, but I did not need to; the voice and melodies were enough. I was set up to receive its ‘message;’ I was listening to it in ‘the right place,’ seeing ‘the right things’ as I did so.

Once again, a subway busker had effortlessly provided a soundtrack that turned my weekday traveling in the subterranean domain that lurks beneath the city into a zone of revelation.

I’ve lived in the city for over twenty years now; in that time, I’ve heard many, many subway buskers. I’ve taken many moods and preoccupations with me into subway stations; the subway buskers have often found, without needing to communicate explicitly with me, the right notes to play as accompaniment to these. Sometimes, I find my mood lifted by the sheer performative brio of a busker, sometimes I smile because I hear a familiar song rendered anew, sometimes a dance performance makes me stop and stare. (There are a few duds, of course, folks who make me cover my ears and run, but they are few and far in between.) The earphone-in-the-ears musical device has long been prized for its ability to provide entrance to a private musical zone; the subway busker does the same in a space within which our personal boundaries are already aggressively patrolled. Because listening is an interactive business we add our own colors and flavors to the busker’s music; we draw from it what we need as musical garnishing for our moods. Sometimes, as we head to ‘confrontations’ the busker’s beat adds a little urgency to our onward movement; sometimes melancholia or wistfulness finds itself echoed or comforted by the busker’s work. (Sometimes, young lovers find a busker playing that little love song that prompts them to hold hands just a little more tightly and to trade kisses all over again.)  And, of course, late on a winter night, the busker provides solace and even a kind of warmth.

We emerge, all too quickly, blinking rapidly, out into the street; or, our train arrives, and we hustle to find a seat; the busker’s notes fade away. But we now have a soundtrack to inform our next steps.

 

An “Intellectual Property” Lesson From A Busker

On Saturday morning, as I sat at 7th Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, waiting for a Q train to take me back home, I noticed a banjo player playing across the tracks from me on the Manhattan-bound platform. The station was noisy as usual, but still, somehow, his urgent strumming and foot stomping (on a percussion device I cannot name) managed to catch my attention. The banjo was insistent and perky, and the beat provided by the foot-drum (there you go, I named it myself), combined with it to produce an oddly compelling rhythm. As befitting a subway busker, his instrument case sat open next to him, awaiting small change and rumpled bills. I thought of making a contribution, and sighed, “If only I wasn’t going the wrong way; I’d have given him some cash; I’ve got a train to catch.” And then, bizarrely, another voice spoke: “Fool! You’ve blathered on so much about voluntary contributions underwriting new economic paradigms for supporting artists in a world free of onerous “intellectual property” regimes, and you won’t cross the tracks to stick a bill in a busking bowl?”

So I got up, checked to see if a train was coming, ran up the stairs, across the divider, down the stairs, up to a startled banjo player, threw in a dollar bill (there seemed to be a few more of them in there), and ran back up the stairs back to my platform. The homeward-bound Q train pulled in, and a dollar poorer, I headed home.