Friday, May 1, 2009

'Well I started out to God knows where,
Guess I'll know when I get there...'

Every story starts somewhere. This one starts in midtown Manhattan on a bright, chilly afternoon in March.

It’s the day before my 48th birthday and things are not, shall we say, working out as well as I’d hoped.

I’ve been a journalist for about twenty-five years – arguably journalism's most interesting quarter-century - and every day I'm watching the promise of new technology tailspin into an accelerating meltdown of some long-standing media institutions. At the same time, a general dumbing-down and relentless pursuit of the trivial has meant it's harder than ever for good journalism to prosper.

For reasons you'll hear more about as we go on, I haven't had a 'real' job for almost a year, and the search for work has been taking its toll. The fact that the economy is tanking and my chosen profession is self-destructing around me doesn’t offer much encouragement that things are going to get better anytime soon.

I’d just come from lunch with my long-suffering wife, who’d been trying to 'snap me out of it', and my last words to her before I walk to the subway station are: “I never thought I’d feel I have nothing worthwhile to offer anymore." She sighed her usual little tolerant sigh, we said goodbye and I got on the subway at 51st and Lex, to ride the V train downtown to 14th Street, where I'd change to the F and go home to Brooklyn.

On the F train platform, I stood looking at the oncoming lights and wondering - as I’m sure many people have done on many platforms - what it would feel like: a brief moment of flight, and then nothing. But the train stops, I get on and for the next couple of stations I’m numb, thinking about how, deep down, I’m too big a coward for what would be the ultimate selfish act.

But then something amazing happens.

The doors open and three young African-American men bound into the carriage carrying huge, bright red bongo drums. In the crooks of their arms they have small folding chairs. They’re dressed like they brought their own rainbow with them, and they start by announcing the usual “sorry to disturb your journey folks…” that subway riders hear pretty much every day.

With that, the guy who’s talking looks straight at me.

Whether it’s just being overwhelmed by the sudden flash of color amid the drabness, or whatever, I realize I’m smiling. And he says: “That’s right! We’re only here to put a smile on your face and let you know that whoever you are, the groove can touch your soul.”

They unfold their chairs, sit down by the doors with the drums between their knees and they start to play. It’s perfect. It’s a rhythm they must have hammered out a hundred times together, as they kick in with flawless synchronization and catch each other’s eyes when it’s time to slide the tempo up, and then stop, simultaneously, with a series of slaps.

In those two minutes or so, there is something undeniably infectious and even life-affirming.

Their timing is impeccable: the train eases into the next station as they fold up their chairs and get ready to leap back out onto the platform, while one of them dances from passenger to passenger, proffering a smile and a colorful upturned hat.

There must have been about twenty people in the carriage - admittedly, one man holding a cat in an animal carrier got up and moved away shaking his head once the stealth percussionists arrived – but at least half of them, including me, put some paper into the collection.

But the thing that hit me most while they were playing was looking around at my fellow passengers and realizing that most of them were, like me, either smiling or tapping their feet, or nodding their head. Only a few were making a point to look away.

And it struck me: this isn’t about money. This is about making a human connection in a world where there are way too few. This is one person – or in this case, three – putting themselves out there and saying ‘here we are: let’s try to make all our lives a little better, even in the time it takes to travel between stations.’

There are two things that we sometimes take for granted: the city we live in, and music’s power to reach us. A combination of the two is, for me, irresistible. I want to find out more about this world under Gotham; who chooses to do this and why, what it means to them and what they get out of it.

That’s why I plan to spend this summer – this unprecedented summer of mad money and media meltdown – singing and playing under the streets of New York, and getting to know some of the musicians whose stage is a subway platform.

Between June and August, I’ll busk for a couple of hours a day, starting out at forty-eight different subway stations around the MTA map and see where the day leads, and the subway musicians it leads me to. I’ll keep a diary of who I meet, what I see and what’s going on in the ‘real world’, as well as a list of the songs I play and how much money I make.

We only get one go round, so even for a little while, I’m going to try to connect music's universal language with people's everyday lives and see if we can’t find something joyous beneath the surface.

At least there should be a few good stories to tell. And that, I think, is what I've been missing.

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