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Notes From a Polite New Yorker: Captive Audience


If you ride the New York City subways with any regularity, you will be subjected to appeals for alms, sermons and dance and musical recitals whether you want to or not...

If you ride the New York City subways with any regularity, you will be subjected to appeals for alms, sermons and dance and musical recitals whether you want to or not.

Your average commuter’s heart sinks when they hear someone raise their voice with the words “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen!” because they know that they will be stuck listening to someone they don’t want to listen to, to someone who is taking advantage of the fact that they are stuck in this subway car (it is illegal to walk between cars while the train is in motion—the police can give you a big fine—and many of the doors between cars are locked) for several minutes.

For newcomers to the city, or any city, the subway performers are a unique treat, a great staple of city life rarely seen outside of a big city. Subway dancers are usually a small group of young black or Hispanic youths who dance to music. Some of these dancers are very good, and it’s impressive that they can perform many of these dances and acrobatic stunts on a moving subway train without kicking someone in the head. The problem is that once you’ve seen about three of these groups perform, you‘ve seen it all and will be seeing the same basic act every single time. They even use the same old banter with their captive audience. “Show time, ladies and gentlemen, show time. … If you see something you like, clap! (They clap.) If you see something you don’t like, you still clap!” (They clap again.) If you laugh or smile, it means you haven’t seen this 200 times already this year.

There are vendors in the subways as well. About 10 years ago, the subways were flooded with Chinese vendors selling trinkets such as small toys for children, noisemakers, glowing sticks and so forth. They seem to have disappeared. There are a lot of young people selling candy, but they’re not around as much as the Chinese trinket vendors used to be. They used to announce that they were selling candy to raise money for their youth league basketball team, nowadays they announce that they aren’t selling candy for a basketball league but “to stay out of trouble.” Instead they should just announce that they’re selling candy. New Yorkers don’t really care what charity you say we’re helping with our purchase, we don’t believe you anyway.

People To Whom You Should Never Give Money:

Beggers. I’ve seen the same people give a pitch about just having lost things in a fire and they’re looking for a job, staying at the YMCA with their 8-year-old son and only need a few dollars to pay for their temporary room another week – still seeking that room rent five years later, though the story varies, it’s still bullshit. You might as well just buy them drugs or alcohol, sucker. Your local crack dealer thanks you. New York comedian Bones Rodriguez took to the subways once as a kind of anti-beggar, handing out spare change to riders while providing his own version of the standard panhandler’s pitch. And yes, a sloppy homeless man belting out a few pathetic songs as he shuffles along counts as a beggar.

Bullshit charity collectors. This scam is not as popular any more. The subways used to be flooded with people claiming to be there to feed the homeless and there are still a few die-hards pulling this scam. They usually carry some sandwiches and bottles of water and juice. They begin their presentation by saying that if anyone in the subway car is homeless or hungry, they have “fresh juice and sandwiches.” In all the years I have seen people pulling this scam, I have only seen one person accept food from one of these so-called homeless outreach workers. So if you think it might be a good idea to get a free lunch out of these people, please be advised that your sandwich will probably be six months old.

Bad or repetitive performers. This is a subjective category that will require the commuter use his or her judgment. The subway performers that thrill some who are new to the subways my only annoy or bore regular commuters who have seen the same dance routine over and over again. Also, beggars posing as performers do not count as performers. There is one homeless couple that have been performing the same song on the subway for well over 10 years. “Ain’t no joke, for sure we’re broke… We do not steal, we do not rob, but we sure wish we had your job…” The seemingly crack-addled couple performed together, usually with some combination of keyboard and drum, sometimes with a flute. Lately though, they have been performing separately. They are still doing the same lame song though.

Religious proselytizers. While beggars are usually bad liars looking to amass enough currency for their next bottle of booze or vial of crack, religious preachers are probably the lowest form of life, because they’re goal is not something tangible and real like the spare change in your pocket, but the great unknown afterlife of your soul. Their abuse of the captive audience for their own self righteous bleating is purely arrogant and detestable. One can only hope that if there is a hell, it has a special designated circle for the mass transit Pharisees that plague our subways.

However, there are a few really good subway performers that you should always give money to if you have the chance.

People To Whom You Should Give Money:

Ed Fennell and the 9th Street Stompers. I’m not sure if they still perform. Ed Fennell has been leading this jazz band for many years. I saw him playing on the platform at Astor Place about eight years ago and the last time I saw him was in Penn Station maybe three or four years ago. He’s from Canarsie, or at least he had been living there for many years when I spoke with him and wrote about his band.

Horse man. This is someone who wears a stuffed horse around his waist with artificial legs that hang down, making it appear as if he’s riding a small horse through your subway car. He dances and sings in both English and Spanish. Seeing him perform will be one of those “only in New York” moments that will make you smile no matter how jaded you have become with city life.

The Homeless comedian. I’ve only seen him perform a few times, but there is a homeless man who performs stand-up comedy on the subway. He’s actually very good and makes jokes about his homelessness. “Get these newspapers cleaned up. I’ve got company coming over later.”

The subway magician. The subway magic of Olmedini, El Mago Magnifico is one of the finer, and rarer subway sights. I’ve only seen this subway magician perform twice, and have not seen him recently. He tends to drop out of sight for long periods of time. While there are other people who perform magic acts with cards on the trains, Olmedini wears a magicians costume and does the elaborate tricks you would not expect to see on a subway, such as turning a handkerchief into a dove.

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