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.


The Subway Car’s Daily Dose Of Culture

My train ride into Manhattan today reminded me that yesterday’s lament about the possible lack of adequate ‘cultural consumption’ in my life in this city was sorely missing one aspect of my urban experience: the culture that this city’s residents  experience and ‘live’ by the mere fact of being in this city.

This morning, I dropped my daughter off at her daycare (one run by a very hard-working and well-organized Haitian lady) and then caught the uptown Q.  To describe that train’s usual complement of passengers as a veritable United Nations is a running cliché in Brooklyn; this morning was no exception. (The Q starts at Coney Island and terminates in Queens.) I could hear at least four different languages–Russian, Spanish, Bengali, English–around me as I sought a position in my crowded car. Having secured one, I opened up my book and began reading.

Distractions came easily. Standing next to me, and leaning against the subway pole in a manner that might soon require a reminder in subway etiquette from a subway rider more cranky than me, a young, fashionably dressed Orthodox woman read the Torah, swaying her body as her lips moved. Across from her, a thirty-something hipster, inadequately dressed for the cold, his lips, nose, and ears a bright scarlet, began loudly muttering to himself. A young couple, one standing, the other seated, held hands, and gazed soulfully into each others eyes, perhaps preparing themselves for the moment when the intended destination for one of them would induce a tearful and kiss-inducing separation. And so on. (For some reason, morning rush-hour trains do not feature, quite as often, the musical performers, break dancers, and various panhandlers who are a near-constant accompaniment in the evening hours.)

Such descriptions of the ethnic, cultural, and psychological diversity found in a New York City subway car have the status of cliché now: Oh look, so many different ‘types’ of folks and behaviors! How interesting! How fascinating! For all of that, the resultant edification remains the same as it ever was.

The substantive point here, of course, is that such experiences constitute a very distinct and pleasurable kind of cultural phenomena; they are not second-rate or low in comparison to attendances at classical music concerts, museums, ballets, operas and the like. They enable an education; they refine our senses; they introduce us to distinct ways of living (I have observed many, many, diverse techniques of wooing, childcare, passive and overt aggressiveness, reading, listening to music, and the like on subway cars). They bring us into contact, sometimes a little too closely of course, with those we share our urban spaces with. Yesterday, like a good New Yorker, I complained: about the lack of time and money and attention and energy. This morning, I was reminded of other riches in my possession.

Note: As a reminder of some of the mixed blessings of a subway ride, as my train pulled into the 34th Street Station in midtown Manhattan, a malodorous aroma indicating an overly rich breakfast or an upset stomach, or both, wafted around the car. The car emptied in a hurry.

A Persistent Reminder Of A Hardened Heart

A few weeks ago, as I approached the entrance to the subway station I use on my way back home after a trip to the gym, I noticed a familiar figure standing by its stairs: a man of indeterminate age who stands at the top step, next to the door for a deli, asking for change from subway passengers and deli customers (his location is strategic and well thought out.) His normal tone of request is never aggressive; just a little plaintive with just the trace of a wheedle. And he is persistent, repeating the same plaint: his down- and-out-ness, his desperate need for the smallest bit–a penny, a dime, a quarter–that anyone can spare to move him along just a bit toward the desired goal of a full stomach.

On this day, his tone was significantly different. He had shifted into a more insistently repetitive tone: his vocal delivery of his plea had become a monotone, delivered once, and then followed up, immediately, with a precise copy on its heels: “Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have; Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have.” And on, and on. Whereas previously, he had only directed this plea to emerging or entering passengers and held his peace otherwise, now it seemed a tripwire had been hit, and he had been catapulted into a new state of being. He now sounded jarring and harsh, and the persistent repetition of his lament was now more invasive. It made me move quicker–past him, down the steps, and into the station. Anything to get away from that  Chinese water torture–it was like having a cup with a few coins rattled, again and again, in my face, under my nose, their jingling threatening to unravel me, bit by bit, thread by thread.

As I walked on, I remembered I had never, ever, given that man any of my spare change. I have, over the years, become impervious to the many beseechments that are sent my way in this great city: from those who lie on sidewalks, a cardboard sign detailing the precise state of their misfortunes, economic, personal, or medical; from those who walk into my subway car, announcing the loss of a job or home, the parlous state of their family and children, their hunger, their desperate desire to convince us that the money given out as alms will not be spent on alcohol or drugs. I have, more often than not, simply looked a little closer at the book I have been reading, and turned away. Perhaps I fear charlatans; perhaps I have become numb; perhaps I think my efforts at ‘helping’ are better directed elsewhere.

Now, I had fled from a scene of escalated desperation; I had turned away, again, unable to respond adequately to this nagging reminder of how, in this city with its fortunes and misfortunes, with its too-big-to-process tragedies and comedies, I had let my heart harden just a little.

On Avoiding Company And Conversation

Yesterday afternoon, after I had finished teaching, as I hurried to the Flatbush Avenue subway station to catch a train for my evening workout, I saw a Brooklyn College colleague out of the corner of my eye. I walked on; I did not want to say hello; I did not want to stop and talk. This was not because I disdain the perfectly pleasant company of my fellow academic; rather, I simply did not have the energy to engage in conversation. Conversation would entail: first, the exchange of pleasantries and niceties, and then later, quite possibly, an intellectual engagement on which I would have to stay on my toes. Conversations can be exhausting. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sink into a seat on the subway and read a book. I meant no insult or rejection to my colleague. I just wanted to be alone.

I indulge in this sort of ‘anti-social’ behavior  quite often. Sometimes, I will see a neighbor on the street, and will walk past them if they have not seen me. Sometimes, I will carry out the same avoidance on campus, briskly threading my way through a gaggle of students that now provides cover for my escape. Sometimes, at that same Flatbush Avenue subway station, I will see a colleague sitting in a subway car, and will walk on to the next one. (Not always, of course; often, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time.) This avoidance behavior seems to occur the most often on trains; I suspect this is because my time on trains affords me some precious reading time and I’m loath to spend it on conversation. On occasion, it’s easier to justify this shrinking from social encounters: I enjoy varying degrees of comfort with the many acquaintances in my life, and with some of them conversations can suffer from some awkwardness, some shuffling of the feet, some looking for a quick way out. In those cases, it’s easy to justify my turning away, my pressing on.

I feel some guilt about this behavior. I seem to be disdaining encounters with fellow human beings, preferring my own company; I seem to prefer remaining lost in my own thoughts, my own reveries; I seem to prefer solipsism. It’s entirely possible that some of the folks I ‘ignore’ have seen me despite my attempts to remain incognito and have been offended. I may have insulted and slighted the more sensitive of my friends. I mean no harm, no offense. I’m a man of limited resources–emotional and intellectual–and conservation comes easily to me in these circumstances.

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to talk, too tired to navigate the shoals of social encounters. Sometimes I’d much rather read.

Once again, no offense intended.

Readin’ and Ridin’: Transportation within Transportation

Forty degrees and rain, soggy train platforms, and an unhappy toddler–my daughter, not happy at being dropped off at daycare–can make for a miserable start to a day.  It was only partially redeemed by finally finding dry shelter in the shape of a subway car for the ride into Manhattan. After my wife had disembarked at her station in downtown Brooklyn, I rode on by myself, finding companionship, as usual, in a book.

As I read about general relativity, inertial frames, non-Euclidean geometry, the instrumental nature of science, and so on, I looked around me: my subway car was full of daily commuters, reading, listening to music on headphones, some even engaged in quiet conversation. We were traveling over the Manhattan Bridge, and I could see the city’s massive skyline rising up out of the mist, visible through the raindrop-streaked window panes of the train.

At that moment, I was confined and crowded; passengers pressed up around me, hands jostled for hold space on various bars, and newspapers and books had been artfully held or folded to take up minimum space (and avoid the angry glare). I was hemmed in, boxed in.

But when I turned my eyes back to the pages that had been commanding my attention, I felt no such restriction. I was reading a masterful exposition of a fundamental physical theory; I was immersed in abstractions, in foundational questionings of concepts whose meanings are all too glibly assumed. I was transported, away from my immediate surroundings, lost in reveries.

This sounds a great deal like some schoolboy reporting on his first experience with an adventure book borrowed from the local library: “I was traveling distant lands, meeting strangers, doing amazing things, all while at home! Can you dig it?” (OK, that last part is an embellishment, but you catch my drift.)

This similarity shouldn’t be surprising at all. Reading is an intellectually respectable form of escapism and day-dreaming; why wouldn’t we seek, and be entertained by, those same pleasures that so enthralled us as children? To be sure, the form and content of our fantasies and speculations are markedly different from the times we read about adolescents solving mysteries in their hometown, but the primal need to be elsewhere, and the susceptibility to such diversions hasn’t gone away.

I’ve written before about reading on the New York City subway; my experience this morning was a reminder of one of my favorite reading rooms and its distinctive setting. In the subway, I travel to familiar places, surrounded by the familiar: well-traveled streets and bridges pass me by and around me, students go to school, workers go to work, lovers snuggle up, and readers read. But while I’m surrounded by the seemingly quotidian I also find myself absorbed in the distant, the abstract, the esoteric. Sometimes, like this morning, I look up from the pages, experience a slight start, and even smile a little: if only the folks around me just knew where I’d been, what I’d been up to.

The Smells of the Homeless: Unpleasant Reminders of Our Good Fortune

I receive, on a daily basis, many reminders of my singular good fortune, of my having scored big in life’s sweepstakes: I have a good job–one that gives me a sabbatical every seven years, a lovely family, and good health. (Despite a sore shoulder thanks to a persistent case of supraspinatus tendinopathy, two busted discs in my lower back that sometimes occasion a sore and stiff back, sciatica on my left side, a bulging cervical disc, and some other minor niggles here and there, I’m still inclined to this assessment; I do, after all, live an active life.)

Because I live in New York, these reminders are sometimes distinctly pungent and malodorous. I am referring to the unmistakable aroma of the homeless. I am no spring chicken when it comes to foul miasmas. I have traveled and visited many public restrooms from hell; I have vainly hunted for a dead rat in urban apartments; I have thrown out rotting food. But the smell of the homeless is something else altogether.

Sometimes you experience it as you step into a suspiciously non-crowded subway car; sometimes when you step off a train and step past a bundle of rags–with a limb or two sticking out–lying next to a bench; sometimes when you walk under a scaffolding on a sidewalk and spy a pair of cardboard boxes thrown together to fashion a makeshift shelter. If it was possible, it gets a little worse in the summer.

The olfactory assault mounted by these unfortunates is obviously grounded in some straightforward physical facts: they are unwashed and have been so for some time; antiquated sweat and grime have been blended together into a toxic compound; and those that are mentally and physically incapable of taking care of their most basic needs have let urine and solid excrement remain on their bodies.

But what I think makes this odor quite as offensive as we experience it is the knowledge that it is associated with a human being, that a fellow creature is the source of it and is wrapped up in it, that their daily existence is inseparable from it. A sensory assault that we find simply unbearable for more than a second or two, that makes us change subway cars at the next available subway station, that makes us hurry on quickly to the exit stairs of subway stations, is, for that human being, a haze that hangs over their every daily moment.

Wrapped up in that smell is a whole history of things gone wrong, of unfortunate contingencies that ended in disaster every time. Perhaps it all began with a mishap–a lost job, a broken home, a mental illness–that derailed an otherwise fortunate life, or perhaps things began badly and steadily became worse.

Whatever its particular provenance, no other sensory input that I receive in my movements through this great city reminds me quite as unpleasantly of how lucky I have been and continue to be; nothing else causes both the wrinkled nose and the shiver down my spine.

The Subway: Let the Love-Hate Clichés Roll

When I first moved to New York City, I lived on 95th Street in Manhattan and rode down to 42nd Street for my graduate seminars.  My first commute on the subways was blindingly quick: I took the 2 or 3 downtown express at 96th and Broadway and one stop later (at 72nd Street) I disembarked at 42nd Street. Later, commutes grew more esoteric: when I briefly lived on the Mid-Upper East Side and worked in the Bronx, I walked west from 1st Avenue to Sixth Avenue to catch the D train uptown till Fordham Road. The ride was long and the subway cars were invariably empty, having disgorged their loads of passengers at Rockefeller Center. I had ample time and space–riding to and fro from work–to read the New York Times; I’ve never managed to read it as comprehensively ever again. Once I moved downtown, to the Lower East Side, my commutes changed again. I taught as an adjunct at Brooklyn College  and Queens College; travelling there required long subway rides and occasionally inefficient transfers. The Brooklyn College commute was worse: I taught on a Saturday morning and often had to deal with the surprises that the MTA often hands out on weekends to unwary train riders. When I returned to New York after my post-doctoral fellowship, I lived in Harlem and took the 2 downtown all the way to its terminus at Flatbush Avenue. I stood till Wall Street and then after procuring a seat, could finally settle down to reading.

Now, I walk to work and have been doing so for seven years. I miss the subway commute once in a while; mainly for the reading and the opportunities it provided for people-watching. I still ride the subway, of course; you cannot live in New York City and disdain it (unless you are driven around town); but now my rides are mostly quite short; they do not possess the quotidian sense of a daily ritual.

Thanks to walking to work, I do not miss: the rush-hour jams; the ‘sick passenger ‘ , ‘police incident’ and ‘track work’ delays, which occasionally resulted in the momentary, yet terrifying thought that immurement in a tunnel underneath the city would be my final fate; , the reroutings late at night and on weekends; the malodorous reminders of the City’s unfortunate who occasionally choose to make subways cars their home; the men who aggressively sprawl out over two seats and look askance at your suggestion that more space be created; the parents who bring gigantic vehicles on-board, which are ostensibly baby strollers, but which in appearance and girth resemble the kinds of motorized armoured vehicles that might have been used to invade Poland in the autumn of 1939; the incomprehensible squawks, er, announcements about service changes; the too-cold cars and too-hot stations in the summer; the open-air stations in the winter; the loud chattering on cell-phones; the harsh, tinny sounds emanating from a personal music player’s volume turned up too high.

That said, I still love the subway. It’s great and grand and old and tired, yes, but it still keeps the city running. If you didn’t know that you found out during Sandy or during the MTA strike a few years ago. If there is one thing in this city I feel almost warmly paternal towards, it’s the subway.

Note: In a future post, I hope to describe my first encounters with the New York subway–some twenty-six years ago.