N.Y.C.’s Subway Musicians Return to M.T.A. Platforms

Sean Grissom hit the stage — the 28th Street cease on the No. 6 prepare — promptly at midday on Friday and performed the primary notes on his cello simply as a clattering prepare barreled previous him and drowned out the music with a deafening screech.

But Mr. Grissom, 60, smiled broadly.

He has performed within the New York City subway for suggestions since 1988. But he stopped in March 2020 when the town grew to become locked down through the pandemic. Riders had disappeared from the subways and so had most subway performers, deterred by the hazard of catching the virus, and the shortage of passengers to play for.

On Friday, after greater than 14 months, the music was again.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority restarted its Music Under New York program, which organizes Mr. Grissom and a few 350 different performers at a few of the hottest underground spots.

Not that the musicians returned to any huge crowds on Friday. Even with an infection charges at all-time lows and ever extra New Yorkers getting vaccinated, many riders are nonetheless leery of returning to the subway.

Mr. Grissom didn’t appear bothered that his taking part in typically went unheard and unacknowledged. When one passenger lastly threw a greenback into his hat, he stood up and bowed.

“After a year of no applause, I’ll take anything,” he mentioned. “Anything is better than not being able to play.”

That passenger, Kevin Shuker, 61, a bodily therapist, mentioned he was glad to see extra musicians again on the platforms.

“What’s been missing in New York is the music,” he mentioned. “It gives you the feeling that New York is returning to normal.”

Sean Grissom has performed his cello within the subway since 1988. He and different musicians returned to their spots within the Music Under New York Program, which paused in March 2020.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

During the worst of the pandemic in April 2020, weekday subway ridership dropped to 300,000 from over 5 million. Today it’s at roughly 2.three million riders a day, nonetheless nicely under regular.

Foreign vacationers and workplace employees — each huge tippers — have nonetheless largely not but returned, and subway vehicles and stations nonetheless appear dramatically empty in contrast to the sturdy prepandemic crowds.

The departure of musicians from the subway was profound. That sprawling thoroughfare within the Times Square station the place blues bands and gospel teams typically entertained throngs of vacationers was abruptly silent. And at Union Square station in Manhattan, which boasted an offbeat brass funk band and different acts that wowed even the hippest of New Yorkers, most musical acts disappeared as nicely.

The return of the authority’s music program appeared like a festive opening day and a milestone within the metropolis’s reopening.

“It was a terrible silence,” mentioned Sandra Bloodworth, director of the authority’s Arts & Design program, which presents visible and efficiency arts in subway areas. “But it’s sounding like the subway again.”

“Something is better than nothing but it’s been very slow,” mentioned Jean-Pelet Matheus, who performed his trumpet for suggestions at Penn Station.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Of course there have been security precautions. Decals on the ground round many performing spots bore warnings reminding folks to stand six ft aside. The authority requires musicians to put on masks and even supplied a trumpet participant acting on Friday a masks with a small gap for his mouthpiece.

Ever the jokester, Mr. Grissom strapped a masks throughout the physique of his cello, explaining that, “It’s not vaccinated yet.”

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New York’s subway system is the most important within the nation and the lifeblood of the town, however additionally it is a efficiency venue like no different.

For a long time, numerous musicians have staked out dirty spots on bustling prepare platforms, subsequent to busy turnstiles, and even inside crowded prepare vehicles to play passionately for suggestions from the hardest of audiences: commuters who’re often too hurried and harried to cease and hear.

Blues bands vie for efficiency spots and suggestions with mariachi teams, classical violinists, doo-woppers and beat-box rappers. Famous singers like Bono and Miley Cyrus have made appearances.

Music Under New York started in 1985 to assist codify the customarily chaotic means of musicians selecting the place and when to play. Program officers choose the musicians and permit them to guide prime places sanctioned by the company all through the system. (Many subway performers are usually not a part of this system.)

Ms. Bloodworth mentioned the company thought of restarting this system in September however backed off as infections started to rise with a second wave of the virus.

“But as the vaccine came, we thought, ‘Yes, we’re going to be able to do this,’” she mentioned.

 Luis Vilcherrez, 52, who performs the Andean pan flute, mentioned he was hospitalized final yr due to the virus and remained bedridden for 2 months. Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Solo performers returned to 15 of this system’s 35 places, she mentioned, and on June 14, the authority, which restored round the clock subway service on May 17, will start permitting group performances at most websites.

Although the authority paused this system, it by no means banned musicians from the subways, and a small handful continued to present up, even through the peak of the pandemic when a whole bunch of New Yorkers a day had been dying.

Some musicians appeared to have integrated the trauma of the pandemic into their performances.

“It’s been a long journey — some made it, some didn’t,” intoned Charles Davis, 75, of Brooklyn, between songs, as he crooned for commuters close to Track 19 in Penn Station. “But music is a healing force.”

Leonardo Love stored taking part in his saxophone all through the pandemic. He mentioned important employees had been his viewers. “They told me, ‘Keep playing, keep us going, brother,’” he mentioned.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Mr. Davis has performed the spot for 30 years, coaxing applause and suggestions with soulful variations of songs starting from Otis Redding favorites to Frank Sinatra requirements, and at all times competing with the crackling observe bulletins over the general public tackle system.

Musicians who returned to the subways months in the past mentioned their earnings have dropped dramatically due to the shortage of crowds.

Those who do hear appear to maintain a distance, mentioned Inti Paucar, an Ecuadorean immigrant from Queens who on Thursday was taking part in the Andean pan flute within the Herald Square station.

“A lot of people are still afraid to walk up and give us money,” he mentioned, including that he now makes maybe $30 a day, roughly a 3rd of his normal take.

Another Andean flute participant, Luis Vilcherrez, 52, a Peruvian immigrant who was taking part in in Union Square on Friday, mentioned he was hospitalized final yr due to the virus and remained bedridden for 2 months. Many mates in his neighborhood, Corona, Queens — one of many hardest hit areas within the metropolis — additionally bought the virus, he mentioned.

Leonardo Love, 63, a Jamaican immigrant from Queens, mentioned he continued to play his tenor saxophone within the subways by way of the complete pandemic.

VideoLeonardo Love, 63, mentioned he continued to play his tenor saxophone within the subways by way of the complete pandemic. “I figured if I died, I’d die doing what I love to do,” he mentioned. “But it was a ghost town down here. The only passengers were people risking their lives by going to work — maids, construction workers, food workers.”CreditCredit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

“I figured if I died, I’d die doing what I love to do,” he mentioned. “But it was a ghost town down here. The only passengers were people risking their lives by going to work — maids, construction workers, food workers. They told me, ‘Keep playing, keep us going, brother.’”

Some subway musicians took their act exterior, for security’s sake.

Jean-Pelet Matheus, 43, a trumpeter from New Jersey who performs church hymns in a subway hall close to Penn Station, started taking part in on the road on the East Side of Manhattan.

“The office workers and tourists are still not around, and the blue-collar workers don’t really stop, so I might make maybe 20 or 30 bucks day,” mentioned Mr. Matheus, who added that he typically sleeps on midtown streets guarding his trumpet from being stolen. “Something is better than nothing but it’s been very slow.”

But Mr. Grissom mentioned that returning to taking part in in public was uplifting, particularly after seeing eight of his musician mates die through the pandemic.

At the start of his set on Friday, he performed the nationwide anthem, which he mentioned was “in honor of the first responders and essential workers.”

As for the skinny subway crowds, he was optimistic that will change quickly.

“The thing about New York,” he mentioned, “is people always come back.”