Ramón fights and wins in Grand Central

This is Ramón Peña. He’s from Puerto Rico, he’s got pipes — and he’s also one of the bravest subway performers we’ve met.

IMG_1347

I met Ramón in Grand Central between the 456 and shuttle, as he was being ejected. ‘Ejected’ is a funny word: in Ramón’s case, it means that two police officers were requesting him to immediately exit the subway system, with the alternative being arrest. Yes — because he was singing.

Ramón wasn’t having it. He got the police to specify further: they said a call had been made to them by the station agent, and that any responsibility for the ejection was with the MTA, not them.

Ramón took them at their word. Together with me and Yuri, a friend of his, he went out to the station booth. The station agent didn’t back up the cops: to the contrary, he said, Ramón was just making music, and that hurts no one. (I admire him, but he was adamant that his identity not be publicized).

He did, however, direct Ramón to his higher-up, the station supervisor. We waited.

The station supervisor eventually arrived, and began to run us through a list of excuses. Ramón isn’t in MUNY, he said, and wasn’t in the MUNY spot [neither of these things are legal requirements], and couldn’t he just move, and would we please turn off the camera.

We didn’t.

Ultimately, the station manager talked himself into a corner. He accepted that Ramón had the right to play, but insisted that the MTA required him to call the police over any complaint, even a wrongful one. (I asked whether he would use his discretion on any complaint — he said no — and whether he would call the police if a rider complained, quote, “that I was gay.” He said he would).

Still, he had agreed that Ramón was cleared by the rules. Ramón asked if there was any objection to his performing an encore, and there wasn’t. He reclaimed his spot, and this is what we heard:

Power changes everything, indeed, Ramón. Keep telling ’em, and keep ALL music alive beneath New York!

Advertisements

Regarding Charity

Hello everyone, my name is Arthur Medrano. I am a contributor on this blog and a fellow busker. I am hoping to inform you today about the nature of charity.

Busking in the subway today is a very hard job. Performers often play over a lot of noise and conversation. Sometimes, they are ignored and often go hours without making a ton of money, but if you’re like me, you love what you do and you keep coming back. The nature of buskers is to bring as much culture back into the city as possible while netting a few bucks to help pay for their stay. However, this often seems like an insurmountable task. There have been days where I’ve felt like I’m only worth what I’m making and at times, yes, it was $2 per 2 hours of playing. Still, it’s not a reflection of my talent or anything that I bring to the craft, it’s a reflection of the people around me.

A few weeks ago, I was playing on a subway platform in lower Manhattan and I wasn’t doing too hot for the first 45 minutes. I stuck it out though because I figured there’d be someone out there who would appreciate what I was doing. Those days, I played in a similar area and I saw a man who’d come every day at the same time to pick through the trash. He was homeless. He carried around bags of his belongings and often he’d score some grub from the trash can. Well, as I played, I saw a man approach the homeless man with an apparent look of concern. He fished through his wallet and pulled out two ones. The homeless man humbly refused the money. The man looked surprised, but instead of looking to me as I was playing, he put the money back in his wallet and walked off.

Although I was performing, I could feel my jaw just drop. I was unable to process the context of the situation with its relation to my situation. That man, who was willing to give money to a homeless person, refused to give money to a busker who was in proximity of this situation.

Now, if you’ll understand me correctly, buskers are not rich people. Most of the buskers that I know supplement their income with the money they make from playing. A few buskers manage to pay their rent and live frugally with their winnings. Still, there is a divide which many people cannot see – without that supplementary income, many buskers would have to give up their passions so that they could provide just enough to get by.

Busking isn’t ordinary. It’s extraordinary. It has the power to change people’s minds and shape how they feel for the rest of the day. Why is it that people aren’t aware that buskers deserve to be paid for sharing their passions?

If you see a busker, do me a favor, go up to them and at least talk to them. Busking can be an alienating venture, but if more people are wiling to engage performers not just with donations, but with words, we would be better off and maybe we wouldn’t have to worry where that next dollar is coming from.

Disobeying: letter from the front lines

I recently got this email from a friend and fellow performer about an incident at the 53rd St mezzanine. I immediately knew I had to share it, not for the nice things she says about our work, but because her description of what’s involved emotionally in standing up to a wrongful order from a police officer is spot-on. I’ve been in her shoes, I know how scary this is, and I’m glad she got it on paper:

“Just a note to let you know how empowered [BuskNY] makes buskers feel. At one time we had no one to stand along with us when we were harassed by policemen.

I had an incident tonight that went over pretty well.  Once again, I was singing at 53rd Lexington, (Upstairs on the mezzanine where MUNY performers are scheduled). This is the exact same place I received the first ticket and summons.  Well, to make a long story short, everything was going quite nicely until an officer walked up to me and said, “You have five more minutes and then you wrap it up. I’m at this station now.”  My response was why did I have to leave.  He told me it was because I did not have a permit. I then informed him that I had a right to perform on that mezzanine without a permit and that Tim Higginbotham of MUNY told me to contact him whenever a policeman approached me about that location.  Well, the officer did not want to hear it and told me when he came back he wanted me to be gone. I told him I had the same problem with Officer Valdez because he was not informed that performers had a right to play at that station. I told him that if I were to be ticketed that I would sue this time.  He said, “do what you want but you have to leave.”

I was so angry but I thought about my equipment. A performer told me that the police took his equipment away from him and he never got it  back. But as I began packing up I thought about BuskNY and suddenly felt empowered. I refused to leave. I continued singing. All the while I imagined officers around me, handcuffing and taking me away. Yes, I was prepared for that. I had made up my mind that no matter what the officer or officers said to me that I was going to ignore them and just keep singing.

After about an hour, the officer came back upstairs, saw me singing and walked past me mumbling, “you’ve been here well over an hour now.”  BUT he did not bother me. I think it helped when I called the officer’s name that ticketed me the first time but also…I made sure to tell him that I was going to put in a lawsuit. I felt it was something I was able to do easily with BuskNY.

I just wanted to share this story with you and let you know once again how wonderful it is to know that someone and something ‘has your back’ as a performer. It’s tough enough giving the best you have of your talent while most people just walk past you without giving what you do a thought, less lone being hassled by policemen.  Your courage has given me courage.”

Performers are wrongfully ordered around by police every day in this city, and standing up to that problem means putting our equipment, our livelihood, our physical freedom, and our safety on the line. It’s scary, it’s very real, and it’s just not going to happen if no one has performers’ backs with legal tips, paperwork, model cases, and moral support. For one, I’m glad we’re doing the work we do.

Zoom Balloons in the 14th Street Sixth Avenue Tunnel

On our way back from Harlem, Matthew and I stopped to pick up some cheese at the Westside Market on 14th St. and ran into balloon sculptor Zoom in the tunnel. We had met Zoom a few times before, and in fact still have a gift from him, one of his heart flower balloons, slowly shriveling on top of a dresser.

This time, we got this great balloon clown. Everyone was jealous of it. Or terrified. It was hard to tell.

Matthew and Zoom

Matthew and Zoom

Nothing seems to lower Matthew’s inhibitions quite like holding a silly prop does.  Enjoying the reactions of strangers to the balloon man, he asked our train neighbor what we should name it.

He responded, “Charlie Sheen.”

Matthew and Charlie Sheen

Charlie and Matthew reflected in the train window

Zoom’s web site at http://www.zoomballoons.com/ appears to be down, but I found an article about him on the blog Manalapan Patch. If you’re in the tunnel between the L and the 1 on the 14th St Sixth Avenue station, check out his work!

 

Cheerios, and how I was depicted

I’ve gotten out of the habit of posting busking updates — there aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes! But today saw a couple things that I can’t avoid sharing.

1. At Hunter College, one man bent over to put a dollar in my case while carrying a baby. The baby was carrying a bag of cheerios, and, in the spirit of charity, decided to pour ALL OF THEM INTO MY CASE. In other news, I still had a great day out — apparently busking while surrounded by cheerios doesn’t hurt your earnings too badly.

2. On the Union Square L platform, I ran into Larry and Sonia Wright drumming. (You should click that link by the way — the video will move anyone who’s seen him play). Just down the platform from them was a guy drawing portraits of riders. And right around him were Larry Wright’s sons, waiting to get on the train and dance.

Needless to say, I got my portrait done, there on the platform, surrounded by Larry Wright’s kids and by the sound of bucket drumming. It felt like home.

busking picture

8/20: How I was(n’t) robbed

Today was toasty below-ground, but I had an excellent day out. (And that’s welcome news, given my struggles early this summer. I’ve been having a blast ever since the week of vacation, so clearly things have taken a turn for the better!)

Speaking of ups and downs, here’s a story from today. After a fun and well-paid hour at 86th St, I played on the 53rd St EM platform, which was one of the first places I ever played at the beginning of last summer. It’s a great spot, and I had a blast playing for a very supportive audience. (At one point, I lost a few dollars to the infamous 53rd St wind tunnel — and lo and behold, a guy came up with a big grin and a $5 bill to console me. My hero!)

I finally fixed the wind problem by closing my case and setting it behind me, then opening up my messenger bag on top of the case to accrue donations. That also gave me added protection against the insidious “blocking traffic” charge by consolidating things behind me:

53rd st case

The only downside was that listeners had to go behind me to deposit their money. But hey: though I’ve had my share of bad train service, angry police, unidentifiable dripping gunk, and worse things in the MTA, I’ve never had a reason to mistrust the wonderful people who ride the trains.

After about forty-five minutes, I needed a break and turned over the spot to a duo of drummers. I counted up my lucre in the train and very pleased. But I went to put it in my messenger bag, I found the pocket open. And the money I had made at 86th was no place!

Once I had looked through the bag, I decided that the money wasn’t a big problem. I still had the tips from 53rd anyway, and I had time for another hour or two later on in the afternoon anyway. But what did bother me was the loss of trust in the riders. Sure, I don’t always love ’em, especially when they don’t give. But from the bottom of my heart, I think city folks are good people — and so this was a bummer!

Anyway, turns out there’s not much of a dramatic ending to this story. I had just put my 86th St earnings in a pocket that I usually overlook, and so there they were. (I was happy as a clam, needless to say.)

So thanks, NYC, for being just as good as I’ve always thought you are. That’s saying a lot!