One of the great things about commuting in Manhattan is that you get free entertainment on the trip to and from work -- if you travel by subway.
With the warm weather and the arrival of spring, the number of entertainers in the subways has jumped exponentially. Their numbers will crest during the summer, when the flux of sweaty workers will mingle with the crush of sweaty tourists. Add music and you have the perfect maelstrom of suck.
It’s important to note that all subway entertainment is free -- you’re not obligated to contribute a dime for it unless you choose. The term for performing in public for donations is called “busking.” When I first encountered the term six years ago in London, it was on an underground sign that proclaimed “No Busking.” I assumed it was British slang for spitting.
Subway entertainment in New York City falls into three categories:
- Singers and musicians
One’s more annoying than the other two, and I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the panhandlers.
Singers & Musicians - These are usually found in one of two venues: In the stations, and on the subway cars themselves. Station performers for the most part are pretty good, fairly enjoyable, provide nice background music for your frenetic rush to the office and are often worthy of a dollar bill dropped in their hats or guitar cases. Some singers are also worthy of mention, and are clearly hoping to be “discovered.”
Musicians tend to congregate in the more heavily trafficked stations, like under the Roy Lichtenstein in Times Square/42nd Street (yes, there’s really a Roy Lichtenstein painting in a subway station). They also like Herald Square and the 4th Street Station where most of the subway lines cross. You won’t find them in the Financial District (Wall Street types aren’t the share-the-wealth crowd). I have a favorite band I see now and again at 42nd Street that has eight members and does very impressive Beatles covers.
These performers have to get permits and schedule their appearances with the MTA, and only about 100 permits are issued every year. Singers are always interesting, and are usually very, very good or very, very bad. The good ones, I think, are hoping to be discovered.
On the other end of the spectrum are the solo artists who work the trains. These performers most likely work without MTA sanction. They’re highly efficient, most jumping onto a car right as it gets ready to leave a station, playing a 90-second tune, working the length of the car for donations and then jumping off the car when it pulls into the next stop. Some work a full train, just jumping into the next car and repeating the process.
A cappella singers seem to be popular on the cars, and some are good. I suspect they’re hoping to be discovered. There are groups that would put any doo-wop group to shame. There are also people who aren’t very good, and they’d probably do better using the second form of entertainment to raise money.
Panhandling - Begging in the subway can be jarring to the first-time visitor, but after you’ve lived here for a little while you get used to it. Most of it is passive, with people simply standing on the platform and holding a sign or placing it in front of them while they sit in a corner. I’m always impressed with how nearly lettered and clear the writing on these signs are. I can’t figure out how people with such perfect penmanship can’t find employment.
For those who prefer a more proactive begging system, there are the subway car beggars. They’re a model of process and efficiency, and I don’t usually chip in. You know you’re about to be hit up because as soon as the subway doors close, you here the classic opening line belted out loud enough to hear on both ends of the car “Excuse me everyone ... “ Usually this is followed by a hard-luck story and then a quick pass through the car with a cup or hat and a dart off the car at the next station before an MTA office shows up to shoo them off. But even panhandlers are more tolerable on trains than the last form of entertainment.
Preachers - I’ve always despised street preachers. I understand their religious beliefs impel them to try and spread their beliefs, but doing so to masses of mostly unreceptive and unwilling listeners is both rude and counterproductive. When you do it inside a subway car where people are trapped and forced to listen to your blather and you’ve crossed the line.
Last week I stepped into the back car of my No. 3 train for my 4.5 minute commute to Times Square. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the street preacher in the middle of the car blathering on until after the door closed. Usually I have my headphones on and can crank my iPod up to drown out the stupid. This time, I didn’t have them in and couldn’t reach them because the car was sardine-packed.
He went on and on. He kept skirting the line between stupidity and offensiveness. He castigated several of the patrons, saying we are all going to hell, and we weren’t living our lives rights. Who is this uneducated moron, I thought, and how does he know anything about my life? I kept biting my tongue, but after four minutes everyone in the car was tense, annoyed and uncomfortable.
Perfect incubator for comedy, my instincts told me.
As we pulled into my station, he was prattling on about hell again.
“Who wants to go to hell? None of us. Do you want to go to hell?”
“If it’s like this, with me trapped in the No. 3 with you, then I sure I hell don’t!” I blurted out, then stepped out of the car onto the platform. I heard the relieved and appreciative laughter ripple through the car behind me.
To be fair, there's a fourth form of free entertainment on subways: Fights. I haven't seen one in person, but here's one for you to enjoy (Warning: Language NSFW):