Missing Music in New York

Saturday, October 20, 2018

New York is the home of the Broadway musical. Countless famous bands got their starts playing in bars and nightclubs in Manhattan. There’s the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There’s Carnegie Hall. (My mom and the rest of her church choir actually sang there once—that’s a story for another time.) Musicians audition for the privilege  of playing in subway stations, and though it’s illegal to perform in the moving subway cars, many more serenade riders between stops and pass the hat afterwards. How could I possibly miss music in New York?

One reason is because everything is expensive in New York and music is no exception.

At over $200 a ticket, going to musicals is a pleasure I don’t often experience except when Jane’s landed an actor/musician role. Then, if I'm lucky she’ll have some comps (complementary free tickets to distribute) for us. The same is true of concerts and even bars and nightclubs that have live music. Those, too, are rare experiences, at least for us fixed-income folks. 

I love listening to the performers in the subway, but since one of my main pleasures in New York is walking, I’m only in the subway when my destination is too far away to walk, and then I’m usually in a hurry. I rush past the performer, feeling bad that I can’t stop and listen. Yes, when I’m trapped in a subway car racing between stops there’s often enough time for the illegal singer or player to belt out one song over the clanking and screeching of the cars themselves. But because at age seventy, I’m trying to preserve what hearing I have left, I’m usually wearing earplugs. 

In our Wisconsin farm community, in the country and in the villages, it’s quiet enough that you can actually hear the music. Any gathering is an excuse for the guitarists, banjo and fiddle players and drummers to pull out their instruments and start up impromptu old time music bands. The heart of old time music—at least in our community—is the opportunity to play with whoever shows up, whether you’re 8 years old or 80, whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been playing for a lifetime. One night you’re the student, the next you’re the teacher. The music isn’t perfect, but it’s fun to play and fun to listen, and that’s the point. It’s just fun.

So you can imagine my delight when, walking down the street near our Brooklyn apartment one evening just at dusk, I heard snatches of banjo music. For once I wasn’t in a hurry. I stopped, looked around, and finally located the player—sitting out on the fire escape of his apartment, about 10 floors up. He was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt; his beard was long and his hair was gray. He would have looked and sounded right at home at our square dances on the farm. As far as I could see, he was playing just for himself. And he was having fun. I stood and listened until the sound faded away. He started in on another song, but I had to get back to my Brooklyn life. I never saw or heard him again. But I’ll remember that little bit of southwestern Wisconsin right in the middle of Brooklyn for a long time. 

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