I found myself sitting in a Cuban restaurant on Broadway near Columbia University. It was an early spring afternoon, and outside of the tropical bubble of golden suns and Rum and Coca-Cola were a pale grey sky and an incessant light rain. In front of me sat Nick Moyer, a fresh faced kid, probably only a few years my junior, but with that uncanny appearance of never-ending adolescence. He is the young busker of the subway tunnels of Morningside Heights.
Whenever I take the 1 train I often run into him playing his accordion or trumpet while keeping rhythm with a baking dish and a stick lashed to his shoe. Sometimes he can be found at the 110th street stop or up at the station on 116th, while at other times I have seen him down at 103rd. Whichever station one finds him however, he’s bound to be playing a lively eastern European melody or a cover of indie-folk songs with a cheerful fast tempo that lightens the mood of the generally sullen commuters. The carnivalesque atmosphere that he creates, more akin to the boulevards of Paris or Prague or outside a German beer garden, is always betrayed by the look of calm meditation that he carries when at work. He swings his head from side to side with the rhythm that his fingers make on the accordion, only breaking the peaceful expression with the occasional smile at the passerbyes that drop him a few dollars from time to time.
I always wondered about who he was — was he from here, or was he just passing through town making a few dollars like the other musicians that I have spoken to? I had an idea of speaking with him about his music and what it was like to perform in the subways as I did with the last musician that I wrote about, but with finals approaching where was the time? It was by chance when I received an email from our editor about this “incredible young musician” by Columbia. I had a feeling that we were thinking about the same person, and sure enough she described the same act. She even went a step further by getting a hold of his contact information. I now had an interview to arrange.
He suggested meeting at Havana Central, a move that immediately cheered me up since the thought of the food that my grandmother used to make made me forget the massive papers that I had yet to begin. He hauled in all of his equipment into the restaurant, leaving the hostess a bit flustered. After putting his things out of the way, we soon found ourselves speaking over a basket of fried plantain chips, while I asked the “why’s”, “where’s” and “when’s.” Despite my attentiveness to his story, however, I could not help but be distracted by the bandage on his left hand finger — what had caused it? Was it during a performance? Had it put him out of commission for a while?
It turned out that he is an undergrad at Columbia, studying mechanical engineering (I’ve never met an engineering student without an interesting hobby). He’s new to the city, having transferred here last summer. Spending those hot months getting his current musical act together, he added the cool brassy voice of the trumpet to the current sound that he had established with an accordion borrowed from his sister. He explained that it wasn’t difficult to pull off the two instruments along with keeping rhythm with his foot — he used to play classical piano and the two hand motions along with the control of the pedal was similar. He took to performing for money, which he charmingly referred to as “busking” during the long breaks in between semesters, a radical move from his previous summer jobs when he use to work on a pea farm in Washington state. Before moving to New York, the biggest city that he had ever lived in for an extended period of time was Walla Walla.
In his time here, however, he has learned the rhythm of the city as well as the places where people frequent and the spots where he can earn more money. He knows that the platforms are less regulated and that his audience is captive. Within the time that he has spent here, he has also experienced many a “New York moment” — those times when the bizarre or unexpected hit and can only find explanation with the overused phrase “only in New York”¦” One of his most humorous descriptions of these moments was about the time a vagrant walked up, knelt down and proceeded nonchalantly to take a dollar from what he had collected, smiling and winking an eye while face-to-face with him. He continued to play, undisturbed, causing one female bystander to approach him and ask, worriedly, if he was blind.
I asked him what inspired him to play the music that he normally did, and he explained that he was raised in a town with a large Scandinavian population, and along with that northern European musical tradition, he also grew up hearing Eastern European polkas. This formed the backbone of his repertoire, which probably explained why I heard him covering a Beirut track once. His tastes were more diverse than I had originally thought, and he explained a love for Latin jazz and Brazilian music, later demonstrated with a fast rendition of Luis BonfÃ¡’s famous song “Manha de Carnaval.” He hinted that this interest in the folk music of the Americas will likely broaden by the time that he returns to the tracks next semester when listeners may even find him experimenting with a another genre that has sparked his recent curiosity — zydeco.
After finishing our food, we headed out to the station at 110th. Unfortunately, it was already occupied with a man on the guitar. With respect for his fellow musician, he decided to travel further down the line. Following the screeching arrival of the train, we hopped onboard headed for greener pastures — the wide platforms of 103rd. There was no competition there, so he promptly set up, taking his equipment out of a large black bucket which doubled as a stool. After a brief warm up, he began his usual sets, performing much of what I previously mentioned. I was fortunate to be given a broad sampling of his music during the period that I filmed him, which you can see here.
He works hard at what he does, as I witnessed that day filming him and as I also recalled from the first time that I ever encountered him. That time when, waiting for a train, a loud booming voice echoed from the top of the stairs: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this man deserves an applause.” The performer’s most vocal fan was a Metro employee, who I imagined could hear him up at the ticket booth on the mezzanine level.
I suppose it was then that I began to realize that the subterranean street musicians all over the city’s vast labyrinthine metro system were not just momentary occurrences in a New York day, though that is what we most often see as we stampede through the tunnels to our connecting trains or up the stairs to the light of day. Rather, they become fixtures for however long they chose to occupy their spaces. Their personality and their story, in time, begin to shape the character of those spaces. Their sounds and the echoes produced become part of the audible voice of the architecture that is the New York City Subway.