I’ve begun to dread the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I please have your attention,” phrasing that has a rather ominous ring to it to begin with since it seems easily followed by the words, “We need you to evacuate the premises,” or “The tiger has somehow gotten out of her enclosure.”
As I have regrettably come to realize, though, these words can also announce an equally frightening event: the in-car subway performance.
Subway station performers are pretty standard, of course, and anyone who has ever lived in a place that has subway trains has seen these urban entertainers playing guitar or trumpet, their instrument cases by their sides open for donations. But in New York, the performers do not limit themselves to an audience of hurried commuters rushing past in pursuit of the next train. Rather, they have decided in favor of a truly captive audience: the commuters already on the train.
The first time I experienced in-car “entertainment” was at the end of my third full day in New York. Heading home for the evening from my internship, I had just fallen into the drowsy passivity that the swaying subway cars often induce, when I was suddenly jolted out of my trance by a boy of about nine years old who entered the train carrying a portable stereo and shouting, “Attention, ladies and gentlemen….” He was loud and bold, like a military sergeant barking at the new recruits. But right after he asked for our attention he seemed to get nervous, and the rest of his speech was a loud mumble of words spoken too fast to be discerned. Still, it was apparent what his announcement was all about once the three other boys who were with him dropped to the ground and started break-dancing in the subway car while the first boy blared music on the stereo he was carrying.
The group performed for the length of time between the station where they boarded the car and the next station en route. As the train approached the next stop, the boys went around the car collecting money from those who offered it.
I found the whole thing rather cute and charming, especially because it was so unique at the time. “How cute!” I thought, “And how brave of them!” They were cute to watch in the way that McCauly Caulkin was cute to watch, way back before his agents and his family members forced him to act in thirty sequels to Home Alone.
In the weeks since this first performance, however, I have seen these boys on my train quite regularly, and–just like McCauly Caulkin–they are no longer as cute or as interesting. They are as over-exposed as Caulkin came to be, when people everywhere said to themselves, “Oh my God! I’m so sick of this kid and the entire Caulkin family. Enough with the sequels to Home Alone!”
The same goes for the other people who’ve performed on my trains in the six weeks I’ve been here; they all have begun to grate on my nerves. In addition to the break-dancing, I’ve been treated to the following way, way off Broadway productions:
- a guy sort-of playing guitar and singing “Hard Day’s Night” in a very thick Mexican accent. He got many of the words wrong, didn’t even sing the whole song, and still roamed the car with his hat out, as though his half-hearted and half-assed rendition deserved our hard-earned money.
- Three different mariachi bands, two of which actually wove themselves in and out of the standing commuters on the train as though it were a restaurant and they were coming by to serenade us at our table.
- A woman “singing” opera. Of all of the performers so far, I found her to be the most offensive. She had the worst voice I’ve heard in a long time; plus, there is something truly excruciating about being held hostage in a crowded subway car with a woman singing opera at the top of her lungs (and doing a bad job of it).
- So many “spoken-word” performances that I’ve lost count. These come from people who apparently have no talent for which they feel they could solicit donations, so they opt for the, “Let me tell you my down on my luck story so you can take pity on me and offer up some change.”
In the “spoken word” milieu, the speeches run the gamut. Some are short and to the point: “Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have your attention. I’m homeless and hungry. I’ll take anything you offer. Thank you.” Others are longer and more specific. One woman got on the train looking, to my mind, like she was on her way to a club. She had a large bust, and the top she was wearing was strapless and not really…containing her. She wore lots of big jewelry, trendy jeans and sandals, and she said she was a widow raising three kids alone. I noticed that more people put money into her cup than what I typically observe when someone gets on the train to ask for donations. This woman certainly made out better than the guy who was on my train the day before in ripped pants and shoes full of holes. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he had scars all over his back. He said he had AIDS, and the minute he offered up this information, a guy near him jumped up out of his seat and ran toward the doors that connect the cars. The skimpy-topped widow also fared better than the man on my train the other day who did a spoken-word/poetry/music combination. He boarded the train with a portable organ, sat on the floor in front of it, called for our attention, and then began his rhyming:
“I do not steal and I do not rob, but I’d sure love to steal your job.” He pressed a few keys on the organ to underscore his point, and then repeated the line, but this time, he extended it into his dance mix version, saying, “I’d sure love to steal your job–and your job, and your job, and your job, and your job,” pointing at specific people in the car each time he said “your.” I wanted to ask him if that included my unpaid internship. I believe he netted about thirty-five cents.
I hate to be all down on these people, but I’ve really begun to resent being held captive to what are often simply awful performances, especially because they so often occur at the end of my day, when I just want to relax and decompress as I ride the train home. I’m not interested in listening to mariachis or hearing a sob story or watching some poppin’ and lockin’. I’m not seeking out this entertainment, and I therefore get annoyed that I’m being subjected to it. To put it another way: I would not like it in a plane; I do not want it on my train. And judging by the looks of my fellow commuters–many of whom continue texting on their phone or listening to their iPods or reading their books while someone is break-dancing two feet away–I’m not alone. Is it too much to ask, in this crowded city with so much heat and so many people rushing everywhere all the time, that we just get a half hour’s peace and quiet on our train ride home?
Ladies and gentlemen, if you agree with me, may I please have your attention, and a little of your spare change?