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Articles By: albert josé-antonio lópez

Albert José-Antonio López, Writer-New York: Originally from Los Angeles, Albert is a Cuban-American living in New York while studying Architectural History and Theory at Columbia University GSAPP. A lifelong interest in folk music and transportation (trains, specifically) merged over the past few months to produce his newest project, the “Subway Series”  for Untapped.

I sensed the gentle vibration in my ears and on the soles of my shoes. Yet I could not determine its source. Was it from the engines down below, signaling to me an earlier arrival in New York than expected?

The incandescent warmth against the cool, white, graceful columns of the vast dining room and the elegance of the genteel men and women in their finery reassured my eyes that all was well; a glass of 40-year tawny port similarly reassured my spirit. Yet the expressions on everyone’s faces”¦the uncanny look that somehow everything that we were doing was scripted”¦that it all happened before”¦that we knew what awaited us at the end of this delightful night.

An unfamiliar music that echoed in the hall brought me to my senses. The vibrations came neither from gargantuan pistons and crankshafts roaring like primeval beasts far below us–nor did they come from that mountain of ice that had signaled the end–rather it had come from a crowded “N” train as it rumbled its way into the station of Union Square. Violently pulled from the depths of an induced nostalgia, I soon realized that we were no longer in 1912, but instead a hundred years into the present. It was April 14, 2012.

This induced nostalgia was a mark of success to the marvelous extravagance that had been orchestrated by Jonathan Cristaldi and Chefs Rob McCue and Adam Banks, our lead players in this danse macabre that memorialized the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic so long ago. Few details of the period had been omitted, thus causing the feeling of transportation to another era; yet exceptional care had been taken to remind the audience of the reinterpretive nature of this gastronomic adventure. However, with dozens of recreations of the final dinner served that evening at long linen covered tables around the world, we could not say that our venture into that bygone era of wealth was unaccompanied. Fortunately, with the creative and collaborative genius of a young team that makes a point of assembling only the finest materials that the culinary world has to offer, this first-class ticket to yesteryear was surely the most unique.

Taking his inspiration from our collective fantasies of time-travel, Cristaldi, the evening’s producer who also brought the city such memorable event as the infamous “L-Train Luncheon,” went to great lengths in creating the experience. With an air of Edwardian theatricality, we were given a mysterious invitation that instructed us diners to meet a girl with a yellow flower in her hair on the northwest corner of 18th and Broadway. The carefully calculated recalibration to an alternative reality had begun.

From the Dining Saloon:

Ascending the three floors to our dining space perhaps did not seem to most like a dramatic experience, but the exiting of the elevator car into an airy room filled with the sounds of cheerful chatter and the clinking of glasses could not be described in any way other than transcendent. Though one felt as if they were suddenly transported to another era, we were gently reminded by the musicians that we were not entering the over-complicated age of our forebears. Replacing the waltzes of Archibold Joyce and operatic excerpts of Offenbach were the contemporary and entrancing strains of fine Brooklynite musicians such as Chrome Canyon (featuring Icky Doom of Shad[]wb[]x on that delightfully infernal device known to us modern men as the “computer”) and Megan Sears on that more civilized and patrician instrument, the cello.

Over glasses of period cocktails and fine scotch (Glenmorangie was among the sponsors), women clad in long silk shawls laughed alongside gentlemen in full evening attire. Despite the morbid nature inherent to this commemorative event — a fact not lost on our respectful hosts who called for a moment of silence at the hour that our fateful ship struck the iceberg in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic — happiness prevailed. This was perhaps the greatest success of the evening, and a goal fulfilled for the event’s organizers. The transmundane ambience of the dining room benefitted not from the gloom that accompanies a wake or funeral, but rather from the gaiety of the diners who, much like the historical individuals that they were standing in for, likely did not have a care in the world as they sailed toward their as-of-yet unknown fate. It was a tribute to how this cosmopolitan class once lived, not perished.

From the Galley:

To best understand how this group of people enjoyed life, it was paramount to understand how they ate. From the kitchen, those epicureans of renown, Banks, from Bravo’s Chef Roble & Co. and McCue, from Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, had conjured up the lucullan feast that will for many years be remembered by those who attended. Their story began many weeks before, in the tireless and often suspenseful moments of preparation. With a mission to ensure that the nostalgic palates of the time voyagers would encounter all of the same elements that had been savored that fateful evening a century ago, they went to extreme lengths to procure the numerous delicacies that were present that evening.

(left) Chefs Adam Banks, Roble Ali and Rob McCue in preparation at the International Culinary Center (ICC)

Take for example, the ingredients of the soup course. Consommé Olga, an Escoffier standard, required a near impossible-to-find ingredient — vesiga, the dried spinal marrow of the European sturgeon. It was originally served at a time when this delicacy of the Imperial Russian nobility was an expensive though not particularly unobtainable commodity in the world of haute cuisine. Lamentably, this is no longer the case. Frantic emails were sent, endless phone calls were made, and translators were even brought in to scour the markets of Brighton Beach and contact exporters from as far away as the Ukraine. At the eleventh hour, a whole sturgeon was located. Granted, it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for, but it had what they needed. I saw the disassembled carcass of the noble fish, bearer of the millionaire’s delight — beluga caviar. Yet there was to be no royal roe at this last great feast. Rather than proffer up its unborn offspring, it instead gave us something far more vital to its physical structure — its backbone. By the culinary fiat of our masters of the kitchen, there was vesiga, boiled and gelatined to the consistency that would have been familiar to Astor or Boyar alike.

With the attention to compositional authenticity, it must be stressed that this was no mere simplistic recreation of the now seemingly ancient dishes that were served that night. Savvy to the sophistication of the first class passengers of that distant belle époque and their tireless pursuit to live à   la mode, our masters of the kitchen ensured that nothing would be sent to the tables unless transformed in a manner suitable to the similar standards that the first class gastronomes of today have come to expect.

Emblematic of such creative transformations was the Oyster course. Though likely served plain and on ice that fateful evening so long ago, our masters of the kitchen followed the direction that many Titanic dinners have taken with the release of Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley’s book Last Dinner on the Titanic and served them à la russe. Unsatisfied with the classical convention of merely serving them in the vodka-tomato sauce that was likened to a Bloody Mary by one of our chefs, they decided to bring this dish into the 21st century. Restructuring the uninspiring relish was an act of art for these men. Seeking a solution that satisfied our modern aesthetic tastes, they created fiery bright red pearls of vodka, tomato, citrus and horseradish to adorn the freshly shucked bivalves. The effect upon the slightly opaque flesh of the sea creature and the gently nacreous shell was perhaps more likeable to a piece of baroque jewelry.

From the Cellar:

To complement the evening’s sumptuous feast, Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine, along with our ever modest Jonathan Cristaldi, a self-proclaimed “Wine-prophet” and creator of The Noble Rot, a travelling wine saloon, brought some of the finest vintages to the table. Both of them had spent many a long night over a bottle discussing the perfect pairings and making sure that all the wine brands used that evening were in existence prior to 1912.

Beginning the evening with bottles off Laurent-Perrier, a champagne of “avant-garde” strain for the evening, though of the period, was a signal of the pleasant things to come. Bottle after bottle brought one or another unique flavor to the table, culminating perhaps with a perfect combination for the heart of the classical French meal. The deep red wine that was paired with the entrée (an exquisite Fillet Mignon Lili that could best be described as a tender piece of heavenly paradise served with flavorful fresh artichoke hearts and a fois gras that melted in one’s mouth) was of a noble and ancient nature — a Bordeaux that tasted as if it had been brought up from the depths of the choppy Atlantic waters that consumed our ship so long ago. Perhaps inebriating us like a fantastic spell, the wines continued to blur the past and present as the evening progressed — an excellent feeling to compliment the similar blur of taste and time inherent to the foods served that evening.

At the end of the evening, all of our senses had been stimulated to a near ecstatic level — open laughter and lively discussion over ports and cognacs were signaling that the grand ceremony of the feast was drawing to its conclusion. A gentle vibration could once again be felt beneath us — a Proustian moment that conjured up memories for an event that none of us had lived through. It perhaps evoked that gentle sensation that woke up few and could only be felt by the group of men that played cards and drank cordials in the smoking room of that ill-fated vessel. There was no sight of an iceberg rapidly passing by the windows that instead looked down on the busy traffic of Broadway. It was once again the New York Subway, reminding this writer that a departure from the world of reinterpretive nostalgia was imminent. Strolling along with my photographer to Union Square, the both of us in formal evening clothes, we were certainly quite the sight. At the conclusion of our cigars in the park, it was nearing two o’clock in the morning, close to the time that our liner disappeared beneath the icy waters one-hundred years ago. Time flew so quickly with seven courses and seven wines in the stomach — indeed, how little time, it now seemed, the original diners of the Titanic must have had to grasp the full scope of what was to occur. The dinner was over, and the profundity of the anniversary had suddenly arrested me. Yet whatever sorrowful mourning that should have been performed at this commemoration could have never seemed more inappropriate. For why should we have remembered the lives lost by recalling the tragic moments of their demise? Rather, to live as they lived, at least for a brief moment, was perhaps the most appropriate tribute.

By the time I was born, Cuba for my family had evolved into an elaborate fairytale, replete with its castles, heroes and monsters. I suppose that with its chief antagonist perpetually clad in green, the mythical land even had its dragon. With only 27 years having passed since their departure and my birth, the grudges were still very much alive and the scars fresh – these things tend to persist longer than normal according to Cuban tradition.


This article is part of an on-going series of reviews on titles from Princeton Architectural Press.  

Twelve years have passed since Princeton Architectural Press first published John Loomis’s Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools.  In the time that has passed since its humble introduction to the architectural world, landmark events have occurred both here in the United States as well as in Cuba, the setting of this book’s story, that may forever change the course of history for the Art Schools of Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Gottardi. Of primary focus for us here is the role that the book has had on the public’s conscious, both in the Antillean metropolis and abroad. Within months of its release, serious discussion was generated about the troubled history of the Schools, their fall from official grace in 1965 and resulting neglect and ruin, and the possibilities of their restoration and even completion. As the preface to the updated edition mentions, even Fidel Castro had managed to obtain a copy, prompting him to declare his unequivocal love for the buildings at a conference in 1999 and the necessity to “finish the schools — but completely!”

Of course, the schools remain unfinished. Numerous overtures have been announced, such as their addition to World Monuments Fund Watch List in 2000 as well as their inclusion in the list of National Monuments by the Cuban Government in 2010. Though a partial restoration occurred earlier in the past decade, the completion of the complex has not been achieved for a variety reasons ranging from the practical to the political. In an island nation with limited resources due to homegrown structural inefficiencies, a fifty-year-old economic blockade imposed by its neighbor to the north, and list of new construction priorities that are aimed chiefly at the country’s emerging tourist economy, the schools have managed to remain by the wayside — at least in terms of the brick and mortar realities that it requires.

This has not stopped the cultural and artistic construction of the building’s legacy and image, however. As Loomis mentions in the epilogue, it has spawned numerous projects amongst Cubans and non-Cubans alike. Cuban performance artist Felipe Dulzaides began his provocative project Utopà ­a Posible back in 2004 along with the help of Gottardi, the architect of the School of Dramatic Arts. Since then, the projected was taken to the Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and was reconstructed at the Havana Biennale in 2009. In American circles, the schools have continued to attract much attention from a public that continues to be mystified by the unattainable island just 90 miles away from its southern-most tip. San Francisco area-based filmmaker Charles Koppelman was inspired by the schools’ story and sought a medium that would unify all of the arts embodied in the schools. His work, an opera in five acts entitled Revolution of Forms, after the book, was partially previewed in May 2010 at New York Opera’s VOX series. Most recently, the story has been retold by Alysa Nahmias, a former undergraduate at New York University. Her film, co-directed by Ben Murray and appropriately titled Unfinished Spaces, recently screened at the IFC center and will continue to be distributed limitedly until an as-of-yet announced broader release.

It is this growth in the School’s recognition, combined with Cuba’s entry into the market economy and the recent relaxation of travel restrictions by the Obama administration that have made the release of the updated edition so timely. Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools is an impressive text that artfully manages to display the need for its chief mastermind, Ricardo Porro, to anthropomorphize, humanize and sexualize the cultural hopes and struggles that had embodied the early period of the Revolution. In addition, it dramatically portrays the struggle between aesthetics, ideology, culture and politics that led to its abandonment by the Cuban government so many decades ago. With its novel-like prose, wealth of literary quotes and rich interweaving of personal accounts, it has become the embodiment of a style reflective of the schools themselves— narrative driven and enriched by timeless traditions and human values. In addition, with its lush color illustrations in the first pages, vividly portraying the baroque imagery of a forgotten fairytale of earthen breasts and vine covered entrails, it has effectively triggered an uncontrollable nostalgia for a lost city and an almost forgotten dream.

Albert Jose-Antonio Lopez is a student of Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Studies of Architecture at Columbia University.  His work involves the analysis and critique of the evolving architectural narrative of pre-revolutionary Cuba.  In conjunction with the Buell  Oral History Project that he is working on with Ricardo Porro, the architect of the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance in Havana, he is organizing a lecture by the architect will be presented at Columbia University this October.  

Soup Dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai

The swelter of the New York summer bears down like an invisible deluge of bath water. The oppressive stillness is broken only by the occasional blast of vaporous wind that could have only been emitted from of a gargantuan tea kettle that I imagine lies somewhere beyond the western horizon. It is inescapable.

We have descended upon Chinatown, an enclave seemingly suited to this weather. As our group walks down its narrow and winding streets, we sweat uncontrollably. The trees sweat. The signs sweat. I imagine that I have left Manhattan. I am in Hong Kong.

A stench rises from the aging sewers of the metropolis that fills the air with an aroma that can be sliced through with a knife. It is added to by the putrid smells that waft from the alleys behind restaurants and the curious odors that come from the plethora of holes in the wall offering herbs, tea leaves, and the dried parts of exotic animals that claim to cure men of all ailments.

It was amongst the throngs of locals and tourists that we were making way through the delirious landscape, constantly being stimulated in all ways visual and olfactory. It was this last sense that perhaps steered us the strongest. Despite the unpleasant odors that the heat had made even more acute, there was always a pleasant smell of food waiting somewhere around the corner. There is no mistaking the scent of fried goodness.

We are on a Dumpling hunt. We have a few hours on our hands, and very, very empty stomachs.

The first place that we enter is on 13 Doyers Street, a crooked narrow thoroughfare once known for being the street with the highest numbers of murders in America.   There, the old Chinese tongs would battle each other on the angle with hatchets leaving rivers of blood streaming down toward Pell St.   The establishment, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, was opened back in 1927, perhaps a little late for the massive battles that once took place on the street.   Nonetheless, its tensely quiet interior with pressed tin ceilings and ancient electric fans likens it to a more dangerous era of New York, and makes one imagine what its walls could say if they could speak.  It is also reportedly the oldest tea house in New York.

It was here that we set out the rules of the adventure.   We would rate each place by their dumplings, scallion pancakes, and one recommended dish, no matter what it was.   And what did Nom-Wah offer us?   The stuffed eggplant. A seemingly benign dish until presented to us.   Filled with shrimp and covered in peanuts, it spelled sure death for the other two members of our group, one with allergies, the other a vegetarian.   This was not going to be an easy journey.

(A note on the score system.   Everything is rated on a 5 point system, 1 being near death, and 5 signifying that we would bring our Chinese grandmothers here — assuming that we had one.   Also, Michelle. has allergies, Albert eats anything and everything, and Aldo is a vegetarian who is also weary of foods that imitate meat. That being said, ratings could be harsh, but if you see a rating above 55%, it’s most likely a place that you should try out)

Our appetites merely whetted, we depart, strolling around the bend towards yet another famous place for dim sum.   At 9 Pell Street we find Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant, a more popular destination in the neighborhood that reflects the evolving demographic.   With its pink and green neon lights that bordered the interior walls, and large family tables with lazy-susans, it has an atmosphere that rivals the previous establishment, if not for architectonic character than most certainly in clientele.   A clamor fills the dining room in the midday.   It is filled with locals and tourists alike, spinning the plates in the center and devouring enormous servings of food.   The volume of patrons befits the quality of food.   There, we are served some excellent soup dumplings, that would soon find the high mark on our lists for the remainder of our journey.   Before leaving, I grab a card to remind myself to come back.   Others have done the same, and Joe’s has two other restaurants in the city to satiate the palates of loyal customers.

Briefly exhausted from having gorged ourselves, we continue for a brief walk south on Mott Street, stopping for a red bean ice at Silk Road Place.   It was perhaps the mistake that sealed our fate, since the extra liquid in our systems would eventually make it even more difficult to continue with our marathon.    We soon leave, and head east, this time for an establishment that would offer a change of pace.

A glimpse of the scorecard, in progress

Passing the massive Beaux-Arts entrance to the Manhattan bridge, we continue further east until reaching the more “rough and tumble” residential areas of Chinatown, less visited by tourists, and more occupied by local residents, new immigrants, and young post-grads looking for cheap rent.   It was here that we found Prosperity Dumplings on 46 Eldridge Street.   Barely containing enough room for a kitchen, this place offered three stools, a marble patterned formica counter, stainless steel walls, and an electric fan, which was no substitute for the air conditioned interiors that we had previously dined in.   Combined with the heat of the kitchen, and the throngs of people that happened to arrive just after we sat down, it could be likened to a post-modern entrance to Hell.   Ah”¦but there is salvation at the end of that tunnel.   The woman at the counter gives us boxes filled with some of the best vegetarian dumplings that the whole of New York’s Chinatown had to offer.   We stuff ourselves until we can no longer.

Note: the $8.75 includes 1 Snapple and a soda purchased for $2.50 total.  

By the time we departed, we were already in serious pain.   We had eaten more than enough, and yet we still have at least one more place to visit before considering this trip a success.   The three of us waddle down Eldridge, huffing and puffing past men doing business in the street and children playing on the sidewalks.   We enter our final stop, Vanessa’s Dumpling House, on 118A Eldridge.   Its prices are comparable to Prosperity’s and it is air-conditioned, a necessity for us by this time.   It is mainly filled with tourists and hipsters though, and in general lacks the more authentic atmospheres of the previous places.   This is perhaps owing more to the clientele than the actual space, which does have the pleasant benefit of opening out over the counter towards the kitchen.  The graffiti-clad bathroom is worth a peek though. When the food arrives, however, none of that matters, because it is generally good fare, and the recommended dish of Spicy Wonton manages to offer an exemplary coup de grâce.

Unfortunately, I am probably the only person left in the group who can still manage enjoying what is on their plate.  Our leader on the adventure is already out of commission, and our fellow comrade was restricted to vegetarian dishes, an impediment that perhaps hurt him on this trip, but which nonetheless led us to the fantastic vegetarian dumplings at the previous place.   Despite the casualties, the mission is deemed a success.   In just over three hours we managed to have a variety of dumplings at four different places in Chinatown, each with a distinct character and history, and have survived to tell the story.

Next up: A quest for the perfect gnocchi. What would you like to see on another food quest?

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 Bonfá’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.

albert josé-antonio lópez has been writing the Subway Series for Untapped, an exploration into the musicians we come across in our daily transit.

This is the first in an Untapped New York series about street and subway performers

Running frantically, darting between slow walkers, elbowing through the crowd at the height of rush hour, we find ourselves descending into the bowels of the earth. Down narrow staircase after grimy narrow staircase, with one hand on our bag, and the other on a cup of scalding coffee, we begin our quotidian journey in this constantly moving city. Whether it is from our homes and to our places of labor or on the maddening return from the stress of work and to our comfortable sofa that awaits us, we repeat these actions in ritualistic fashion. We enter into a place devoid of natural light, that smells of damp; a realm of rats. And perhaps it is not the small four legged tailed creatures that deserve to be classified as such, but rather their two legged counterparts. For lack of fur, they don wool suits, overcoats, skirts, and blouses. If they travel alone and have no one to look at with interest or compassion, their eyes become cool with indifference – glassy, like those of rodents. With headphones in their ears, they hear nothing, with only the thought of their final destination ahead of them, they see nothing.  It isn’t difficult for riders of the New York subway to fall into this existence. When we lose interest in our commutes and our surroundings during said traverse, it is easy to ignore the many things of beauty that we may cross in the cavernous white tiled stations of the MTA.

I was headed to the East Village one night, not to work or any sort of daily grind, but definitely in a hurry to meet a group of friends for dinner. Religiously tardy, I hurriedly ascended the staircase from the platform for the 2 train, and rounded the bend into the long passage that connects the 14th street/7th avenue station to the 6th avenue station of the L train. I passed hundreds of travelers, some going uptown, others going downtown, late night workers from the banks, midnight revelers on their way to Williamsburg. A cacophony echoed off the walls; I marched on disinterested in the myriad of faces, in the brightly colored posters. From a distance, however, over the clamor of the crowds and the trains, I heard the sound of a guitar.

Track 5, Guitar Player of the L

In this instance, I should have ignored it; I had no time to listen to music. I could not help my distraction, however. The sounds that came from a source unseen at the end of the platform of the L line were different. It was not the usual standard that we hear being twanged out on an acoustic guitar, accompanied by the belting of sunken cheeked hipsters in their best Bob Dylan voices. No, there was no human voice, but rather the singing of strings. It was, if I recall well, a chaconne by Bach.

Behind a staircase, there sat a young man, a little over twenty, with a short clipped beard, and a knit cap over his head, holding a classical guitar in his arms. He caressed its body with gentle passion as if it were the woman that he loved. His left hand smoothly went up and down its polished wooden neck, his fingers fluidly in movement as they shifted rapidly from chord to chord. The other hand seemed to float over the strings, barely plucking them, perhaps not touching them at all, but instead commanding them with his fingers to intone the notes that the left hand had dictated. His eyes were closed, and his brows were pointed upward, giving him a soulful yet melancholic countenance. He was a painting from Picasso’s Blue period come to life.

Before he could finish, the westbound L train roared into the station. He continued, unperturbed. I unfortunately had to board.

Track 6, Guitar Player of the L

Some weeks later, I took the same line, this time in the opposite direction from a night in Alphabet City. I got off at 6th avenue to get to the uptown trains, and found him again in the same place. He was playing a series of Argentine tangos on the guitar, with incredible skill. Why was he not playing in a concert hall? He was incredibly talented, above par when compared to a large portion of the entertainers that one finds around the city. I stopped and listened, deliberately missing two trains that were going my direction, and left him a few dollars.

Who was this man that was mastering the strings beneath the streets of Manhattan? I had heard that the musicians on the subway were actually organized by the MTA. I looked this up, and sure enough there existed a site for a program known as “Music Under New York.” There was a list of a few dozen registered street musicians and buskers who occupy many key spaces along the transit routes, such as Times Square or Union Square. There was not, however, any mention of the guitar player of the L. His identity remained a mystery.

Some months passed, and I continued to take the train like a rat in the race, blind to all that was around me, deaf to all that sounded around me, lost in my thoughts. I was leaving a restaurant in Union Square, and descended down the grimy steps into the station, marching towards the L train. To my surprise, as I stepped onto the platform, I heard the distant echoes of well played counterpoint. The guitar player of the L had moved up a couple of stops. Perhaps the tips were better here?

Track 12, Guitar Player of the L

I was in a hurry, but this time, it didn’t matter. I stood with a couple of other fellow travelers, forming an audience for the young virtuoso. A few trains passed, yet I paid no heed to them. I stood quietly and listened. Unfortunately, after hearing a decent sampling of his repertoire, I could tarry no longer, now considerably late. Before jumping on my train bound for 6th avenue, I decided to buy a CD off of him. I approached him, and inquired about their price. To my surprise, he gave me a puzzled look. Had I not spoken clearly? I repeated myself, and he then made sense of the message that I was trying to get across. I then asked another question about the amp that he had connected to his guitar. Giving me another look of confusion, I soon realized that the guitar player of the L didn’t speak English. Fortunately, he did understand me when I asked him where he was from. In a thick porteà ±o accent he replied, “Buenos Aires.” No wonder he played tangos so well.

After conversing with him briefly in Spanish, I thanked him for the music and boarded my train. I haven’t been on the L in a while, though I imagine that he still plays his meditative baroque tunes, whether at 6th avenue or Union Square.

When we ride the trains, consumed by the hustle and bustle that carries the commuting crowds, it is easy for us not to pay attention to the many beautiful things that are all around us. Lost in our own little worlds, we may fail to see the art that is discretely hidden behind a column or underneath a staircase. In this case, the art was a young man and his music.

Though he normally performs on these platforms at the 6th Avenue L train stop during the late hours of the night, the Guitar Player of the L has been absent every time we’ve set out to photograph him…an elusive character indeed. Send us some pictures or tips at info@untappedcities.com if you come across him or have seen him before too.