By Mike McPhate
Riding the subway in New York can be an assault on the senses.
Steel wheels shriek.
Commuters move like herds.
Cutting through the clamor though, a lone cellist, head bowed in meditation, strums “Ave Maria.”
Such displays are cherished by most New Yorkers. “I think it’s one of the greatest things the city’s got,” said Susie Tanenbaum, an official in the Queens Borough President’s office and a historian of subway performance.
For every expert musician though, it seems there is another who is drunk, rhythmically handicapped or just obnoxious.
There’s the man who bangs erratically on scrap metal in the trenches of 42nd Street, the boom-box-toting break-dancers who enter train cars and sometimes bump into seated passengers, the baritone preacher whose hell-fire sermon to early morning riders of the A train recently prompted a woman to cry out, “Shut up!” (He didn’t.)
A new documentary, Downtown Locals by sisters Robin and Rory Muir, premiered in Manhattan this week. The film explores the lives of six subway performers and raises questions about the city’s regulation of the trade.
The craft of subway performance, known as busking (from the Spanish word for to seek), has been legal in New York since 1985, when a judge ruled that it is protected free speech. It had not been so for five decades since Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called subway performers beggars and outlawed the trade in the 1930’s.
The climb to legitimacy stretched long, but never before have New York’s buskers enjoyed so much freedom, say subway historians. Still, there are rules: Panhandling remains banned. So does amplification on the platforms. Performers cannot entertain inside the trains nor block foot traffic. And under no circumstance can sound exceed 85 decibels.
That nonetheless leaves the field open to many of questionable talent. The MTA has sought to root out lesser performers with its Music Under New York (MUNY) program, formed in 1987. With the stated objective of bringing high-class art into the subway, each year entertainers audition before a panel of musicians and transit authorities, who select their favorites. About 100 MUNY performers get access to the choicest subway locations.
Many buskers though say that the program has in effect turned non-MUNY performers, the vast majority of the trade, into renegades. Confusion among law enforcement has led many to conclude that buskers must have a MUNY certificate to perform, they say. It’s not only rule-breakers like drummers whose rhythms exceed the 85-decibel sound limit, but acts that cops deem inept that get expelled.
While the official view of buskers has warmed since the late 1980’s, when they were treated as part of a range of nuisances in the violence-riddled subways, some cops continue to treat them on par with beggars and thieves, said Gene Russianoff, a lawyer with the Straphangers Campaign, a New York City-based public transport advocacy group.
“They’ve done everything to try to get me to stop,” said performance artist John Del Signore, who’s curtailed his trips down to the subway in recent years. “I just got tired of dealing with the cops,” he said.
Tony Rosetti, a plain-talking cop who used to patrol the mid-town subways, said some performers just make a racket. Rosetti would often encounter the scrap metal musician of 42nd Street and each time he’d tell him to move along. Sometimes a discussion would begin. “He’d say you don’t recognize music,” said Rosetti, who notes that he plays the organ. “But what do I know?”
Such censorship-fraught decisions should be forbidden, says subway historian Tanenbaum. She tells the story of an officer who informed a bucket drummer one day that buckets are not, in fact, musical instruments. “Everyone has a right express him or herself,” said Tanenbaum. “I think once you start making those distinctions you run the risk of setting limits on first amendment rights.”
Del Signore says his run-ins with the law have had more to do with the cop’s ego than quality of life issues. Del Signore performs as the Mercury Man, dousing himself in silver paint and standing atop a milk crate utterly motionless. The act poses a counterpoint, he says, to the madness of the subway.
He’s been ticketed twice, arrested once. Profiled in the documentary Downtown Locals, Del Signore said some cops just enjoy throwing around their weight. One time when a cop told him to leave, he pulled out a Xeroxed copy of the MTA rules stating his right to be there. The cop refused to look at it. “He said, ‘Down here I’m the law,’” said Del Signore.
Stephen Baird, a busker and founder of Community Arts Advocates, said whether good or bad, performers counteract the loneliness of the city. “Artists put a human face on urban isolation,” he said. “After 9/11, I got so many reports that one of the things that made New Yorkers feel better was that there were subway performers down there.”
Just like any business, buskers ultimately must answer to the public. It can be a brutal audience whose attention span is measured by the arrival of trains. While the best performers can earn lawyers’ salaries others take in little as $10 in a full day.
Accordion player Helen Stratford, who makes quote signs with her fingers when mentioning the “real world,” jokes about only knowing three songs and failing twice to make the cut at the MUNY tryouts. She says people tend to view her kind as one step up from a bum.
“Sometimes,” she says, “all we have to survive on is a smile.”
On the net: