Ode to New York: Francisco’s Reflection on Subway Music

Text: Francisco Collazo

[Julie’s note: Francisco has always loved subway music. Fair enough: here’s his reflection from today’s subway concert.]

It’s a cold Saturday afternoon in New York.

The news– television, radio, and print– is depressing: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the economy, the interest rate, the housing market.

I am heading to the city with all this on my mind.

Train service is changed due to maintenance; the #7 isn’t going to Manhattan. Instead, take the Q or the N to Lexington Ave., switch to the 4, 5, or 6 if you want to go to the East Side; do other changes and maneuvers if you want to go to the West Side.

Ah, well… this is New York City, and it’s a weekend, I tell myself. I am used to this, like millions of New Yorkers.

I get to the Union Square stop. The music is loud, pleasing, refreshing, and moving. People are dancing in the station.

An Oriental man with a Caucasian woman, a Black woman who is visiting New York with another woman.

People are clapping, photographing, and having fun. The spirit is high, the problems of every day forgotten, at least for a moment. It all seems suspended by the melodies and the lively steps of the dancers, the cameras’ flashes, the coming and going of the pedestrians thru the subway tunnels.

It is very therapeutic and refreshing at the same time.

I want to dance, sing, be one among the many.

The music is the best Americana; you can’t get better than that in the New York City subway on a cold day.

We are all here, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Russians, Bangladeshis.

This is who we are and I wish you were here with us. We are receiving the unplanned and unexpected gift of music and joy.

This is New York City at its best.

Let’s dance!

Subway. NYC. January 3, 2009.

Text & Video: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo

There was a moment last year when I realized–suddenly–that subway music pisses me off.

I was making my way through the masses of people waiting to catch the N train when I heard drum sticks beating on an overturned plastic bucket. An irrational annoyance flooded me that hasn’t really left since.

Almost 10 years in New York, the musicians of the underground (varying considerably in both genre and quality)–the nearly hunchbacked Jewish man pulling his worn horsehair bow across a beaten violin at Grand Central; the Mexican trio playing accordion, guitar, and singing on the 7; the Chinese man playing the ehru at 14th and 8th–don’t bring me pleasure anymore– if they ever did, which I can’t really remember.

They were a novelty, perhaps– coming, as I did, from the South (where we rode in cars–not subway trains)–but I can’t say I ever really liked the music on the trains or in the stations. They seemed invasive, intrusive, even obnoxious, making me think about lots of things I don’t like to have on my mind when I’m shuttling between points A and B, nose in a book: the intersections of poverty and creativity, immigration, 9 to 5 jobs, the intense need creative people have to be heard or recognized.

There were occasional exceptions– the doughy woman sitting on the platform of the E train at 5th Avenue, who sang like Ella reincarnated. God, she could sing. Hearing her, I got off the train and listened and listened and left a dollar and thought about her all afternoon…and think about her still.

And today. January 3. The Tin Pan Blues Band, who blew so hard and sang so gravelly and grooved so fine that I was certain they’d been swept here from some crazy wind blowing up from New Orleans. Couples danced– really–in a space that had opened up in the middle of one of the busiest stations in the city.

Later, a six year old kid would play his two song repertoire (“Fur Elise” and “Jingle Bells,” one followed by the other and then a medley of both) on a Casio keyboard, over and over while a man on the other side of the platform had a heart attack. The boy’s father (dressed just like his son from the waist up) would sit and read from religious tracts while adults wondered what to feel and whether they should drop a buck in the bucket regardless (“What’s their story?” “There’s a recession.”). I waited for the train and tried not to think about it–about what made the man bring his kid down here to play the horrific mashed up tune again. And again. And again.

Instead, I thought of Tin Pan….