Archive for the ‘Urban Living’ Category

Notes from the underground—above ground too

February 13, 2008


Beatbox flute and cello duo in a New York City subway station.

On the way home from dinner in Chicago’s Chinatown last Friday, we switched from the Red Line train to the Blue Line downtown at Jackson and Dearborn. It’s a busy subway station, and there are almost always performers trying to make a living there. Many are fairly ordinary, but sometimes they are wonderful.

Like Friday night. As we came up out of the tunnel to the platform, we first heard the jazz clarinet and a drum—a West African djembe drum, to be exact, an odd but beautiful match for the clarinet. Two young men stood watching the musicians more intently than most of the others on the platform. As the clarinetist nodded at one of them, we soon knew why: He began to dance.

The bright staccato clicking of the taps on his shoes added to the music. His movements were tight and precise, not the big, sweeping athletic moves of Gene Kelly. But he had his flourishes—long, rapid-fire bursts, for instance, punctuated with dramatic pauses as he balanced on his toes.

The younger man was a little less confident, a little less poised. But the clarinetist kept nodding at him, kept drawing him out, and you could see him open up a little more to performing each time. Our train pulled into the station, but Marion just said, “Let’s take the next one.” It was that kind of moment. And yes, we tipped well.


Japanese folk musician, in a New York City subway.

Subway stations and the trains themselves are home to all manner of performers. They offer at least a modicum of climate control compared to the streets and at least temporarily captive audiences. Both in Chicago and New York, performers have to audition for licenses, so there’s at least a baseline for talent too. And in New York, competition can be fierce for the best spots in the best stations.


Auditions being held in Grand Central Terminal for the MTA’s Music Under New York program.

Watching these clips—and remembering countless subway and street performances I’ve seen—I’m struck by how many people not only don’t tip, but don’t even acknowledge the performers. And I’m reminded of these lyrics of a wonderful Joni Mitchell song about seeing a musician playing a clarinet on a street corner, For Free:

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free

Yes, there is plenty of, well, crap. But when it’s wonderful, it’s truly wonderful. Marion tells the story of someone on the Paris Metro who suddenly strung up a curtain between poles and performed a short but brilliant puppet show. And once when I was in New York, a half dozen teenagers suddenly turned on a boombox in a subway car. Expecting an uninspired rap performance, I jammed my hands in my pockets, determined to keep them—and my dollars—there. Instead of rap, they broke into a well-rehearsed tumbling routine, doing cartwheels and backflips; grabbing wrists and ankles to form two-man wheels, rolling through the moving car, carefully judging the placement of the center poles as they did; hands came out—even the most jaded among us applauded. And tipped.


An especially impressive group in New York. Note how one of the horn players makes sure they get paid.

Perhaps the most amazing moment like this for me happened above ground, in Paris. My brother and I spent a week there, doing museums, cathedrals and cafĂ©s during the day and looking for music and booze at night. Every night, we would drive around aimlessly, looking for clubs. When we found a promising neighborhood, we would abandon the car. Legal parking was non-existent, and people would pull up on medians, the sidewalk or wherever and leave their cars. We did too. Unfortunately, we would always rush off without bothering to note where we’d left the car. So we would end every night wandering whatever neighborhood we’d landed in until we found it.

One such night [well, three or four in the morning, if you’re a stickler for detail] while searching for our car, we happened on a duo just setting up on the sidewalk. They had strung a couple of ropes from a tree to a ladder, one about eight feet off the ground, the other about two feet. The apparent leader, dressed in a circus ringmaster’s red coat with tails and a top hat [and inexplicably, with a big, bouncy kangaroo tail protruding between the coat tails], grabbed several people from the crowd, including me, and had us hold the vertical ladder. He told us dramatically [and in French] that the other performer’s life depended upon us.

The other performer, dressed as a mime, but by no means silent, reluctantly climbed the ladder, protesting the whole way. He then proceeded to walk the makeshift tightrope, urged on by the ringmaster’s orders, threats and whipcracking [did I forget to mention the whip?]. Soon, he was juggling too. The ringmaster worked the crowd, collecting money in his top hat. When someone tossed in a mere ten centimes, the ringmaster took it from the hat with an angry flourish, spat on it and threw it into the street.

For all the drama, the finale was serenely surreal. The tightrope walker balanced on the top rope, juggling flaming torches. The circus ringmaster balanced on the lower rope [we’d all wondered what it was for], balancing a cello in front of him and playing a sad sonata. It was like a moment from a Fellini film, only better, because it was real and it was Paris.