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Fun in Buskerville

Anywhere you go in New York City, you can find some kind of musician hard at work, singing for their supper. I’ve seen a sitar player performing at an Indian food restaurant on Bleecker St., two hopped-up crack smokers jamming out to the music in their heads in a seedy dive in Alphabet City, and at a coke bar in the outskirts of Brooklyn, I was thoroughly entertained by a Polish lady as she sang a native song, sans microphone, to a tape playing in a cassette deck.

That’s just a glimpse of the above ground New York music scene. But down below, there’s a whole other music scene that is growing and morphing into something bigger than anything anyone ever expected it to become. Take any train in any direction and get off at just about any stop in Manhattan, and you’ll see the ‘underground’ music scene, alive and well. Take the A, C or E train going up or down town, and walk through the long tunnel that leads from the A, C, E train to the N, R, 1, 9. There, you’ll see a man with one arm, beating a drum, slowly and just south of rhythmically. You’ll see a three piece Mexican guitar band, complete with sombreros atop the head and ponchos thrown over the shoulders. Don’t try to tip them in pesos, though! They only take American dollars and change.

Get on the N or R and take it downtown to Union Square. There on every platform is a musician exercising a different genre of music. Near the stairs to the L train, a 14-piece band complete with oboe and accordion gives passers-by wedding-y sounding songs to think about their problems to, while two girls pass out literature about the band’s upcoming performances. On the L platform, a very handsome young guitarist and his friend who plays the ground, garbage pail and various buckets with a set of drumsticks create a really nice pop and roll sound that the Brooklyn-ites can really dig while they wait for the train to take them to the Bedford stop.

This is a much different music scene, and subway experience all together than it used to be just 5 or so years ago.

“When I used to come into the city, I hated to take the subway, I tried never to take it at night. It was not well-lit and it was filthy. Only homeless people and degenerates were down here,” says James, 36, a graphic designer from Monmouth County, NJ.

Now, not only is the subway illuminated by a series of fluorescent lights that runs in a chain from one end of the platform to the other, but it is a hustle and bustle of people from all walks of life, all background and financial income brackets.

The MTA allows musicians to play down under on their turf mostly because, according to a poll that was taken in the 70’s, the sound of the music and the fact that it is real people playing that music gives the public a feeling of safety and calm. Technically, you are required by the MTA to have a permit to perform in the subway. But as far as anyone with any say is concerned and this is known simply by taking a look around you on any given day, anyone can play in the subway, homeless, creepy, talented or not. Panhandling is illegal according to NY law. It is also illegal to use an amplifying device such as an amp or cordless microphone. However, it is not illegal to just hang out and play your guitar. And, if by chance, someone thinks you’re doing a fine job and would like to give you a tip, that is what is known as a ‘loophole.’

The MTA does issue permits once a year. There is a whole rigamarole that goes along with trying to get a permit. You have to send a tape in, and an application, and it’s a process. Then, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even get one. While most stations won’t hassle you if you are playing on their platform, there are some places where it is more difficult to get away with playing without a permit. At Grand Central Station, they will promptly escort you out of the terminal train area. If you are lucky, they won’t ticket you, but they can and certainly will. Most musicians won’t meet too much opposition, though, and can play wherever they like, for as long as they like, and that’s that.

Some people are really against musicians playing in the subways. They think it takes away from the homeless people who are singing and trying to make money panhandling. But let’s face it, many of the homeless people playing music out there aren’t that good. They have no rhythm, they can’t hold a note, and they have no sense of musical style. They’re not in it for the love, they’re only in it for the money. Some are pretty decent. I’ve seen one or two singing on the actual subway cars in deep baritone voices, cups out, garbage bag shoes on, really making an effort.

There’s always a funny story we’ve heard with an interesting angle a person has taken to make a few bucks, such as the man who gets on the subway car and sings in the most hideous voice ever. Then after a few minutes he says to the people, “Pay me to stop!”

People who perform in the subways for money are known as “buskers” and are actually much more common in Europe. Really within the last ten years is when they started to pick up in the US, and mostly in New York City due to the large subway system. A sharp rise is always noted during the holidays and weekends when the subways are filled with tourists.

I did a short stint as a busker a year or so back. It was pretty fun, except for a few things that sucked. One thing was, I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, ten blocks from the subway. So I’d have to travel with my guitar to the subway, and then take the subway into my spot in Manhattan. It was almost harder then just getting a regular job. Then, to make matters worse, I’d have to carry my guitar in a hardcase because I didn’t have one of those soft backpack guitar cases that all the richer, cooler guitar kids had. It was very heavy and I kept having to switch hands. Due to that, my forearms got big and strong, like Popeye, which looks weird on a girl. Also, at first when I started, I decided to go to the A,C,E stop on West 4th, because it looked like a busy spot with a cool, rich, generous young crowd. I was right. I’d clean up there, making sometimes $50 or so bucks in an hour. But then one day, a crazy guitarist came along and made me leave. He was like, “Hey, this is my spot.” And I was like, “Well I don’t see your name on it.” And he was like, “Listen, bitch, I’ve been coming to this spot for four years. You’ve gotta go.” And I was like, “Let’s ask the people who they want to stay, you or me.” And he was like, “You’ve gotta finish your song, close your case up and go.” And I was like, “Whatever. ‘You pave paradise…put up a parking lot! Shooo! La La La La!” And he was like, “I’m talking to you, bitch. You better beat it or else I’m gonna get really pissed off.” And he hissed at me. And he was missing some teeth. And he was willing to fight over the spot. And he looked very ready and able to hit a girl. He looked like he’d probably hit many girls over the course of the years, which had not been good to him. And then I realized what the people meant when they said things like, “You shouldn’t play in the subway because it’s dangerous,” and by people, I mean my mom. And I also realized what other people meant when they said, “You shouldn’t play in the subway because you’re taking a job away from a homeless person.”

So, I rounded up my $35 in change, packed up my guitar, packed up my busking stint, and got a job no homeless person could take away from me – a job at Barnes and Noble. And so far, they have never asked me to play my guitar in the store, or in front of the store, or even behind the store. They like me to be as quiet as possible, generally.

Lots of people have a good life playing in the subway. They play songs, and they make a CD, and maybe a record executive hears them and gives them a lucky break, as was the case with Patty What’s Her Face on the 1995-ish album ‘Between the 1 and the 9’ (named after the subway line she could regularly be found performing on) featuring that song, “I can roll myself on down the line, telling everybody that I’m just fine….” You know the one, don’t you? Well? Don’t you?

Subway musicians come and go, and come and go and lately they’ve been coming more and going less. It’s getting pretty busy down there, what with the musicians and religious word spreaders, and the plain old change beggars, and then the actual people who ride the train. But if you live in or are even just visiting New York City, you have to take it all in and accept it, because it’s not going anywhere. As long as there’s a subway, in the subway, there will be panhandlers and beggars and commuters and performers and dancers and freaks and rats. It’s just a small sliver of what makes this city so stinkin’ neat.


© 2005 BIGBreakNY, LLC. No material may be reprinted without permission.