The sounds of the subway offer a fascinating study into New York.
Just by listening, a commuter can determine the time of day. In the early or weekend morning and very late at night, each car is usually quite silent, the sound of the metal-on-metal of the tracks, the screeching of the brakes, the ding of the doors combining into a surprisingly soothing tune, an urban lullaby for those tired enough. During the morning rush hour, even though the train is at capacity with work-bound travelers, everyone must be either struggling to wake up or upset about the impending workday, for they are still quiet. The sounds that punctuate the morning commute are the sounds of cheap headphones turned up too loud (to a volume that creates concern for the listener’s future auditory capabilities) and blaring Beyoncé, the desperate “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me!” as someone shoves to get off, and the annoyed conductor’s “Please stand clear of the closing doors so we can go!” At midday, the sounds of conversation begin to filter through each car more pronouncedly, and in the evening…wait, was that laughter? Remarkable.
Of course, at any time of day, crazy condemning and cursing people can show up to cause an unwelcome ruckus…that is pointedly ignored.
But then there are the performers. The subway buskers. I love the variety above all. The 34th Street Stop in Herald Square, my workday destination, is actually a great stop because there's an area where a pretty decent music act usually sets up: a jazz band, a crooner, a violinist. In any given week, I can be treated to a mariachi band, an impromptu hip-hop duel, or a solo girl guitarist who tries unsuccessfully (and painfully) to resurrect Mariah Carey’s glory days of the ‘90s. I’m still waiting for the day when a group of people consisting of a pot-smoking ex-professor, his transvestite boyfriend, an ex-rock star and his stripper lover, a lesbian performance artist and her lawyer girlfriend, and a filmmaker start weaving in and out of the poles singing about restaurants and Santa Fe.
One Sunday, on my way to the Manhattan-bound A-train at Nostrand and Fulton, at about 8:30 in the morning, I turned the corner and heard the sounds of Cyndi Lauper emanating loudly from an off-key 40-something man four blocks away. “If you call, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting…time after time.” But by far, my favorite so far has been on the platform of that subway stop. I found a spot between two pillars that was free of other commuters (that Isolation M.O.) and opened my book to wait for the train. But I only got a few sentences in. Drifting slowly into my awareness was the classic, feel-good sound of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.” Strolling down the platform were four men, probably in their 50s, singing a capella harmonies. Musically, they weren’t incredible, but I could sense such…pleasure. They weren’t dressed alike and actually looked like they had been headed to the office or to a leisurely family event (or, in some cases, hopefully to the laundromat) when all of a sudden, they caught each other’s eyes, recognized the shared desire to harmonize, and spontaneously burst into song. They weren’t pandering for tips, though I would have gladly provided one, they just sounded like they loved to sing. That’s what they sounded like: delight.
It’s something I recognize. Although I have no great gift for singing, I absolutely love to do it. I desperately miss being in choir, not only for my friends there and that community but for the pleasure and honor of worshipping in that way. And I miss my car, the one place where I could sing with abandon. My car sessions were intense, I’ll tell you – full of Broadway fantasies, soulful expressions, and not a few accompanying dance moves. The walls are too thin in my apartment to justify singing with any real volume or dedication (although I love to sing, I never said I was all that confident in it…). I miss my pitiful guitar-playing, the hours I would spend striking the few chords I knew just to sing to something.
I now look forward to mornings at the A stop platform, for it brings me joy to hear those men enjoying singing. Perhaps it’s only my own wishful longing to sing that I project onto them, but I don’t think so. All I know is that I’ve never heard the songs of The Temptations sound so good.