The New York City subway system has become a locus of activities that seem to have nothing to do with transit. Unlicensed vendors set up their wares on easily collapsible cardboard display cases, visible representatives of an "underground economy" that grew apace with the economic crisis of the 1980s. 1 Panhandlers are living reminders of political leaders' failure to address that crisis adequately. Members of the Nation of Islam preside over tables of books and incense, and Jews for Jesus and Straphangers' Campaign volunteers distribute leaflets. And then there are the musicians.
In the subways, as in the streets (really sidewalks) above, performance includes magic, comedy, mime, and breakdancing, but music is the predominant entertainment form. Like the vendors, panhandlers, religious devotees, and political activists, musicians are drawn to the subways by the prospect of making contact with riders. They set open instrument cases, shoulder bags, upturned hats, plastic buckets, or tin cans in front of them to collect donations. As they perform, some riders rush past to catch a train; others pause momentarily; but often people gather to listen and also to smile, talk, laugh, sing, cry, even dance, and applaud.
This book is about New York City subway musicians. It explores who these individuals are and what motivates them to perform in an urban space that was not designed with their activity in mind. This book is, moreover, about New York City subway music, an urban ritual that challenges the way we think about public space by promot-