Before people descended into the subway station at 14th Street and 7th Avenue, they could hear his music. At the bottom of the cement steps was a man in a faded red shirt and jeans with tattered hems. The sticks in his hands made the steelpans sing. People slowed down and looked up as they approached him. Instead of a tropical melody, Elvis’s “Hound Dog” rang from the pans. A young woman with long brunette hair, a belted khaki raincoat, and a red umbrella stopped and watched him.
Up the steps and around the corner is a passageway to the subway station at 14th Street and 6th Avenue. At the boundary between the station and the long hallway was a man in a white dress shirt with short sleeves. A dark hat with fine pinstripes was on his head. His fingers strummed the thick strings of a double bass. Up close, the metallic buzzing of the strings hitting the bridge filled the air. Farther away, the deep melody became clear. His fingers moved quickly up and down the fingerboard as he looked around, unfazed with the crowds of people rushing past him.
Posters of female celebrities—Paris Hilton, Tori Amos, Aubrey O’Day; all Caucasian women—are plastered on the white tiles of the passageway. Two rivers of people, moving in opposite directions, flooded the corridor. In one, a man with stringy hair, large black-rimmed glasses, blue skinny jeans, and a red hoodie sweatshirt hurried past. He looked anxious. Behind him was another man with stringy hair, large tortoise shell-rimmed glasses, black skinny jeans, and a tight blue sweater. He was shorter than the first man. And behind him was another man with chunky hair, black-rimmed glasses, blue skinny jeans, and a patterned scarf tied loosely around his neck. He did not know that he completed the three of a kind.
A group of young women brushed past. One teetered by in five-inch heels. A black mini skirt looked as if it was painted on her curvy hips. Hoops nearly as large as her cheeks dangled from her ears. Her black hair swung into her face, momentarily obscuring her amber eyes and cocoa skin. She spoke Spanish to her two friends, who were also wearing high heels, dark rouge on their cheeks, and multiple shiny bangles on their wrists. They did not look at the posters on the walls.
At the end of the passageway, people wandered to the edge of the platform. Occasionally, the rumbling of a distant train echoed through the station. From underneath a set of stairs a drum set erupted:
BOOMBOOM chik! BOOMchik! BOOMBOOM chik! BOOMchik!
and then the bending and falling tones of a saxophone joined it. The melody scrambled over and under the beats; it was loose where the drums were tight. The drummer was looking straight ahead at a point a thousand miles away. The eyes of the saxophone player were closed.
Musicians, like others who create, must release the gifts flowing through them. Stampedes of stern New Yorkers impatiently trying to get home at the end of the workday will not stop them.
So what’s stopping you?