Subway spellbound

New York City street musicians are the best. I’ve yet to witness better players.

Not long after I arrived in Manhattan in 1985, I heard eerie pan flutes echoing through the labyrinth of tunnels connecting subway lines beneath Times Square. I heard them before I saw them, sound waves from an ancient time leading me through the scrum of rushing humanity to an anonymous crowd encircling eight or so placid-faced Peruvians dressed in traditional garb, as though beamed in directly from the Andes.

The anxious scurrying of commuters had ceased. Spellbound, many dozens stood cheek-by-jowl in a windowless chamber, and just existed within the music, freed from the constraints of time for a little while. The clang and screech of the surrounding machinery, the stench and filth, all receded.

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“I bought one of the Peruvian’s cassettes, which I still own. I would encounter them several more times in my New York years, and always stopped and let them fill me up.

Then there was that walleyed guitar-playing kid, maybe 20 years old. Again, I heard it before I saw it. The distinctive reverb offered by the 34th Street R train station expanded his grosgrain voice. I know it was the Nineties because he was singing the Oasis song “Wonderwall.” I followed the sound, mesmerized. The voice contained the quality one hears in Van Morrison, John Lennon, Jeff Buckley, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse. It’s not the hitting of the notes, or the vocal acrobatics; it’s the sound of soul released into the air. The hair stands up on your arms, chills your spine. The kind of voice someone with money and power will surely want to ensnare, and quantify.

He was sitting on a box, junkie-thin, walleyed gaze on the middle distance, in ill-fitting clothes, looking like he probably stank. Absolutely killing that song, perfectly thrashing a substandard acoustic. His elfin girlfriend, also junkie-thin, with lank, dark hair, in a tank top, low-slung jeans over protruding hipbones, smiled wide, with oddly perfect teeth. She walked the semicircle of spectators, held out a battered top hat, saying with absolute conviction, “He’s going to be famous, he’s going to be famous.”

I gave $10, but never saw them again. I still hear that guy’s voice in my head.

There are many more, but I’ll leave you with the African American kid playing the pickle buckets. Late Eighties-early Nineties, my most dramatic street-performer memory. Once again, under 42nd  Street. The percussion filled the entire station, mixing with people hollering, cheering, losing themselves – primal human sound, instantly identifiable as unrestrained, communal joy. All drew me in to a crowd of New Yorkers either agape in wonder, or making exclamations at a kid – maybe 16, bathed in sweat – pounded out rhythms with drumsticks on white plastic pickle buckets, the kind restaurants use. He was seated on a pickle bucket, too, in shorts and a drenched white tank top, tirelessly executing polyrhythms like three drummers at once, ropes of muscle in his arms pulsing, eyes closed as he nodded, perspiration flying. Strangers danced, high-fived, and locked eyes with other strangers in that way that says, “We are witnessing something magical, my friend, isn’t is great?”

I gave him $10, too. I’m glad to say I saw him more times over the years, always with a pickle bucket full of happily forked-over cash.

None of these acts became stars, of course. I don’t know where they are now. I do know, however, that their music has gone: deep into my soul, where it dazzles and sustains me still.