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.

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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!

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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.

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!

 

8/3: Parrots, buckets, and my burgeoning love for the NYPD

Today, Milo and I spent a few hours doing outreach. What I’m learning is that community organizing is a bit-by-bit process: every day brings a few new conversations, a few more names on the mailing list, and a few more t-shirts out in the world. That may sound romantic — but is it ever slow-going as well.

Still, we’re building something important. Today at 14th St, we saw a large green parrot on someone’s shoulder on the platform — and we also ran into Don the bucket drummer, playing a Kikkoman soy sauce bucket like the world was about to end:

Don

A couple hours later, we ran into a cellist who had already seen Don in his shirt. So, we know that word’s spreading!

I also busked for about an hour and a half, in two different stations, with Milo taking some pictures. I learned that I have an incredible ability to make weird faces while playing:

Peek!

Would you tip a guy who looks like that?

Anyway, one more story from today. When we arrived at the 59th St 6 station, we saw a police officer across the platform. Like I mentioned in the last post, I’m feeling a bit tired of going to jail for music — but ever hopeful for the best, I unpacked and asked Milo to take video if she came over.

Indeed, she came by within five minutes and asked if I had a permit. “What permit?,” I asked. “Have you ever seen one?” “No,” she said, a bit sheepishly, “although you do see those banners.” I then showed her my rules, and after taking a careful look, she had this to say:

“Thanks for showing me this. Now I know.”

Now there’s a hopeful sign indeed. (If only — if only — but if ONLY the NYPD offered training on this!)

8/1: Courtesy, professionalism, respect

So, two li’l stories from today:

1. While I was playing at Metropolitan Ave., a cop walked the length of the platform to my spot. No panic — cops there always seem well-trained on the rules. But then he turned just as he got to my spot — uh-oh — and heck, he gave me a thumbs-up. OK!

2. At the northern end of 81st St — where I’ve been escorted out once and arrested once — two cops came down the stairs and ordered me out. Now, although I may seem to enjoy getting arrested now and again, I too have my limit. And my limit is especially low when a court date (moving into late September) potentially conflicts with my Fulbright grant (starting in October). Harassment doesn’t always come at a good time, and I’m just not sure how many more arrests I can do this summer.

That said, I took a big gulp of air and asked why. “Because you can’t ask for money,” one answered. “Well, let me show you the rules,” I said. Then I read aloud:

“The following nontransit uses are permitted by the Authority […]: public speaking; campaigning; leafletting or distribution of written noncommercial materials; activities intended to encourage and facilitate voter registration; artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations.”

Then I handed over the rule pamphlet and pointed to the passage in yellow. The guy took a quick look. “Enjoy,” he said, handing it back. “‘Scuse me?” “Enjoy,” he said — and they were off back up the steps.

Busking log 11/07: flash mob contra at Grand Central

Today brought two new examples of the diversity and the high quality of the arts performed in the NYC transit system. (I suppose I’m preaching to the choir here — but it never hurts to remind ourselves of how broad this community is!)

  1. I had the chance to perform for a contra dance in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall. Can’t beat the location! It was organized by local dancer as a “flash mob” event. The band and dancers were sauntering about incognito, then quickly lined up for a dance, and were gone again as soon as it ended. (Video will come soon). Passers-by greatly enjoyed the show, and although police did arrive to stop the dance, they were persuaded to hold off for a few minutes until it ended. Thanks, officers, for letting the music continue.
  2. In the 14th St tunnel from 7th to 6th Ave, Milo and I happened upon a truly, truly outstanding cellist. Of course, more than a few people perform the cello suites underground, some for practice, and some for art. But not all of them are, like this guy, Eastman School of Music graduates, and very few of them can light up a tunnel like this. Thanks, Wayne. Keep it up, and we’ll see you around!

Busking log 10/07: he plays pianoforti

I’m dead tired after a long day of commuting, busking, frisbee, and BuskNY conniving with Milo and Kalan. Three quick stories from today:

  1. 68th St Hunter College: a man approaches and says, in the thickest of Russian accents: “You play pianoforti?” “Alas, I play only the violin,” I tell him. “I play pianoforti.” I nod. There’s a pause, then a train begins to pull in. “Next time, I bring pianoforti. We play.” Rest assured, I’ll update you all immediately if (when?) this occurs.
  2. 68th St, ten minutes later: a woman tells me I remind her of “the music they played when I grew up on P.E.I.” What a great compliment! (Well, except that I was playing Irish tunes. Apparently the Iona session is having its effect on me). It’s surprising how many people have experienced traditional dance music in our hemisphere not just as “folk,” but as a living tradition. Always great to hear!
  3. 81st St: ’tis the season for kids’ summer programs, and that means the museum is filled with visiting groups. I get the most amazing reactions — imagine a stream of 40 ten-year-olds coming by, and half of them saying “wow, a violin! Can you play something?” They were on the move, unfortunately, but I played them snippets of the Bach violin sonatas, the Accolay concerto, and the cello suites, and asked which they liked best. Their group leaders kept telling them not to listen, which made me a bit glum. (“Don’t be distracted, kids!”) But then, just at the end of the last group, one group leader took a different approach. “Keep walking,” she said. “But listen!”