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.
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.
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?
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 porteÃƒ ±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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you come across him or have seen him before too.