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):
Is Verdi Square to eventually become as blinding as Times Square?
This video billboard was switched on Monday morning atop the soon-to-open Duane Reed at 72nd and Broadway. To say that it's blaring images at night totally ruin the charm of this Upper West Side neighborhood would be an understatement.
Who green-lit this obscenity? I thought NYC had said that video billboards were only going to be allowed in the Times Square district.
Time for folks in the UWS to get up in arms and get this thing taken down before it has time to take root and ruin the neighborhood.
Average snowfall for New York is 21 inches, we've had 36 so far, and it's coming down again today. Plus there's another storm scheduled to arrive from down the coast tomorrow. Snowpocalypse? Snowmageddon? Amazingly, I've still got that "I'm a newbie and I don't hate the snow" mentality. Wonder how long it will last?
Times Square almost completely clear of snow. Roads passable. Most transit starting to return to normal. Airlines trying to catch up.
It was New York City's sixth-largest blizzard ever, and it was a blast. For all those who feared my Southern butt was toast, rest assured I handled it fine. In fact, managed to get to the office while most of my Yankee co-workers couldn't make it. Rest assured I gloated about that for a while.
A day after the storm, after everyone here had time to enjoy an extra day home from work, New Yorkers got down to what they do best -- complaining. You'd think Mayor Bloomberg had executed puppies and had them served to him for breakfast the way they're ripping into the city for handling the blizzard.
The most fascinating part of the whole weather event: ThunderSnow! With snow dropping out of the sky Sunday night at 2-3 inches an hour, and winds whipping around 60 miles an hour, there were flashes of light and booms of thunder overhead. Frikkin' bizarre!
Final snowfall tally at our place was 20 inches, although the wind drifted snow over two feet against the front of our building. Figure if I can handle this, I can handle anything Northern weather can throw at me. Bring on winter, you Northern wimps!
The final count was 13 inches of snow. In front of our building, the snow is much deeper, since the 60 miler-per-hour winds blew huge drifts up against our building. My first snow in New York City, and the first time I've seen this much snow since my childhood in the hills of Tennessee.
Irony warning: I made it into work this morning. Was the first one in, and 95 percent of the Yankees in my office aren't here. Feeling pretty smug right now, needless to say.
Winds were pretty fierce last night, and you can read on the news of motorists being stranded, people being stuck on train cars for eight hours, etc. As for this hillbilly, got to stomp through theigh-deep snow last night and this morning. Pretty amazing. I'm not in Kansas Georgia anymore.
Here's a few photos of the snow in Central Park this morning, and one of the beagles despertately trying to find a drift where they can go to the bathroom. Major canine confusion, needless to say.
For you CBS Sunday Morning and Wait Wait Don't Tell Me fans, Mo Rocca says hi. He was filming a spot in front of my office last week. Was actually the second time I've met him (the missus and I went to a WWDTM taping in Chicago two years ago). Mo checks in as my first celebrity sighting since moving to the city in August.
I thought it was a myth. It's a dyed-in-the-wool reality.
There really are two speeds when you're walking the streets of New York: "New Yorker" and "Tourist."
This has become abundantly clear to me as I walk to and from my new office in Times Square, and occasionally walk through the Rockefeller Center area to have lunch with the misses near her office.
Both areas are chocked full of tourists. In less than three weeks, I've already been in the background of 18,433 photos of family members visiting Times Square, including four where I actually held up "bunny ear" fingers behind people I didn't even know.
Walking to and from my office -- as I come to work, go to lunch, and head for home -- I bump into tourists. Literally. I'm usually walking at a fast clip rushing to find a quick sandwich shop or hot dog vendor so I can get back to my desk; they're usually staring up at the NASDAQ sign on the ABC News studio. (Useless trivia: My office is directly above the ABC set where they broadcast Good Morning America. I keep jumping up and down on my floor hoping to dislodge a ceiling tile onto George Stephanopoulos's head).
So invariably you have to learn the pedestrian equivalent of defensive driving -- you anticipate what's going to happen and plan escape routes for when a tourist stops in mid-sidewalk or inexplicably reverses course because they want to get just one more picture of the huge "Lion King" sign. You look for the telltale signs: The expensive, but not too expensive, camera slung around the neck. The shiny-brand-new Yankees cap. The New York Subway Map clasped firmly in the right hand, but never quite refolded properly. When you see these signs, you try avoidance, or at the very least keep a safe distance to avoid a catostrophic collision.
I mentioned this great performance piece in a previous posting, but Manhattan Hillbilly fan Catherine Stotts forwarded me the video, so enjoy:
As for me, after eight weeks I'm now moving at New Yorker speed. Except when I walk past the Wall Street Journal newscrawl . Whenever I first come out of the subway, I always stop dead in my tracks to read -- just like a tourist.