I was talking with a friend last night about the cavalcade of “characters” you find on a weekly basis on the New York subway trains. It’s remarkable, how subway and station performers make their living, panhandling for cash and coin as they go from car to car or pick the perfect spot in the walkway between 7th and 8th Avenue in the Times Square station.
There’s the guy with the steel drums, the Asian man at Bryant Park who I think plays an accordian, and the really fantastic violinist at Grand Central who stands at the top of the 7 train escalator that leads out through the Cipriani building.
On the 7 itself, there’s always this stock bunch of people that I’ve nicknamed in my head. I always kind of roll my eyes or hide a knowing, exhausted, grin when they get on the train and bury myself in my book. This week, for instance, I got both the Mad Violinist and The Mariachis. The former being blind (savvy enough to walk past the poles and go from car to car while the train is moving) and the latter three piece guitar band being boisterous.
Oddly enough, they were singing an upbeat song about some girl named Margarita…after I’d been drinking some, so I was amused. They’re actually really good. It’s just that you generally don’t want to hear rowdy mariachi music after a long-ass day working in the city.
The Mad Violinist, however, isn’t quite as musically blessed. He’s this older guy who used to often navigate with a cane, but he doesn’t use it anymore. He sounds vaguely Eastern European and has this unruly salt and pepper hair and is mostly bald on top (hence the “mad” moniker). And he almost always plays the “Godfather” theme. It’s the only song he seems to know. “Thank you for your donations,” he says, in this Igor-and-Dr. Frankenstein-ish voice, sometimes gesturing to a black leather bag hanging at his side.
But, really, the MV is nothing compared to the quirky being I’ve dubbed “Penny Whistle Yetta.” She’s this little old lady who looks like Fran’s Yetta from The Nanny, and dresses like her, too. Weird colors, tights, layers. And she gets on the train with this little slide whistle thingy and plays random songs like “Happy Birthday” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” very badly. Even if it isn’t Christmas. And she’s totally serious about it, too. It’s just…odd. You have to wonder what’s going on in her head, that she expects coins for such an eccentric and strange little show. I mean, it’s not like you can be a virtuoso on a whistle thingy. Okay, maybe you can, but she isn’t.
Whenever PWY gets on my car, I bust out laughing. I know it’s terrible, but I can’t help myself.
Of course, then you get your non-performing panhandlers as well. Like the kids who sell candy to ostensibly keep themselves off the street. Only you know they probably nicked the candy from some newstand while the guy’s back was turned. And Battery Guy, who peddles batteries from his backpack for a dollar. And, oh, these folks who only show up every couple of months (to give you time to forget): asking for money to bury their daughter who died in a fire. I saw them at some point last year and then they popped up again last month. I was thinking…”Wow, how many dead kids do you have?” and “if it’s the same one, hasn’t she decomposed by now?”
It’s an interesting life. An interesting display. And I always feel a little heartless, a little cold, for holding on to my money, but I can’t help it. I’ve seen naked children in Calcutta panhandling. I’ve seen limbless lepers in dirty local train stations. If I can swallow the urge to try and give my entire earthly possessions to those people, then people with clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet and enough money to buy a subway pass every day aren’t going to move me.
But sometimes…sometimes I’ll ride the escalator up from the 7 and the man with the rumpled sweep of hair and the open violin case will be playing something so achingly beautiful that it breaks my heart.
(One of these days, I should share my rickshaw rant; it’s a variation on the theme.)