by Elizabeth Haak
It was the tail end of the morning rush. The No. 6 uptown subway car was full. Close to the pole stood a thin woman with bleach blonde, stringy hair that hung down to her shoulders. She wore fire-engine red lipstick and a pensive smile. Her guitar was strapped across her flat chest. An empty coffee cup protruded from the pocket of her denim jacket. We all thought we knew what was coming. But we were unprepared for the screechy off-key sound that issued when she opened her mouth. It quivered in the stuffy air in search of a melody. Half-awake riders straightened up. Readers lowered their folded newspapers and raised their eyebrows. Straphangers craned their necks toward the source of something that sounded more like a cat fight than a Broadway love song, or a rock ’n roll hit.
___A deep voice from the other end of the car boomed, “Miss, I will pay you not to sing!”
___All up and down the car, heads nodded in a consensus unusual among strangers. A woman with a Metropolitan opera tote bag on her lap said, “I’ll chip in.”
___A man in a black fedora who’d been startled awake began to rummage in the inside pockets of his camel hair coat and said, “Me too.”
___She stopped in mid-screech and looked disappointed. Perhaps she thought she had a gift to share and now she was deprived of giving. But then folded bills were passed down the aisle to her. She brightened. She probably collected more money by not singing than she had hoped to get when she started out.
___The subway screeched to a halt at 42nd Street. As passengers rushed out, she murmured, “Thanks. God bless.”
___I forgot about that ride until a year or two later. At the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue, I thought I saw her again. It was hard to tell with the blue mask covering half her face. She sat on the sidewalk, strumming “This Land is Your Land.” I stopped to listen. She played riffs and variations on the tune with practiced ease. She made no attempt to sing—didn’t even hum. I dropped a fiver into her cup. She looked up and said, “Thanks. God bless,” without missing a beat.
___Where are all those subway serenaders now? The brothers who sang “This Little Gospel Light of Mine” a cappella? The blind guitarists, the hip hop rappers and blues artists? Not singing in the subway anymore.