Violins in the Subway

12th September 2011

When I worked in publishing, I loved my commute. I enjoyed the solitude, the chance to listen to people and observe them without having to interact. In the evening, I switched off my brain so I could navigate the subway, being pressed by strangers on all sides. And when I stepped on the escalator, I played a personal lottery, hoping I might emerge from the heat and pressure of the subway and hear a violin in the station above.

Violins in the subway have always been a private pleasure. There’s something about the contrast of being so close to people you can smell the animal on them, and then the absolute civility of a string instrument. Those juxtapositions are the best thing about living in a city. They give you incentive to be grateful.

For years, I’ve wanted to give an extravagant tip to a violin-playing busker. I added it to my Life List and started plotting. I imagined standing out of view and handing small bills to other commuters, asking them to tip the busker on their way out of the station. I thought it would be fun to use two-dollar bills, so the busker would feel appreciated, but also know something was up. Of course, I wanted to film it for the site, so all of you could see it unfold, maybe take some photos of the violinist too.

I told Bryan about my plan a couple years ago, and he surprised me with a stack of crisp two-dollar bills from the bank. I started thinking more seriously about logistics. I’d need some friends — someone to film, someone to pass out bills while I took photos. We’d need to head out at rush hour so there were sufficient passersby to help us tip, and to provide cover. It might take a few days, because we’d have to ride the subway around in search of a violinist, and violinists are a little elusive in San Francisco. Maybe it would take a week.

You can see where I’m going. In my head I was taking a simple pleasure, a moment distinguished by its serendipity, and turning it into a three-person, week-long slog. The plan was pretty in theory, but it was built to surprise and delight everyone but me.

This past year I’ve had to put my Life List on hold, but a few weeks ago I happened to be on the subway by myself for the first time in a long while. I stepped onto the escalator, and listened with my heart in my mouth.

There he was.

So I wrote him a check.

And I dropped it in his violin case before I headed upstairs.

The Mighty Summit and Camp Mighty are coming up, both events we’ve built around the concept of Life Lists. It finally feels like the right time to get back in the game. So here goes.

Give $100 to a violin playing busker? Check.

78 thoughts on “Violins in the Subway

  1. Sophia

    I love this … hooray for picking up the life list again. Would have been awesome to his face when he saw the value on the check.

    You inspired me to write my own life list last year, and this weekend we are going to the Boonville rodeo so I can check “attend a rodeo” off of my list … now if I only had some proper boots to wear to that. Hah!

  2. Elizabeth

    I find everything about this to be just so lovely. For some reason, hearing the story of how you hatched an elaborate plan, rethought said plan, and then just decided one day to ditch your plan and cut a spur-of-the-moment check for a violin player made me think that this final execution of the gesture was so much more meaningful and gentle. This might be my favorite completed item on your Life List, thus far.

  3. Green Beauty Girl

    The fact that you put a lot of thought into giving shows how important this gesture is for you. Glad you went for it! There is satisfaction in accomplishing a long awaited task. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Victoria

    Wow, this just totally slays me. Thank you.

    Of course the idea itself and the completion of the goal are just so quietly perfect, but I also love this post because of your writing:

    “There’s something about the contrast of being so close to people you can smell the animal on them, and then the absolute civility of a string instrument. Those juxtapositions are the best thing about living in a city. They give you incentive to be grateful.”

    I grew up in Sacramento, CA, but I’ve lived in New York City for eight years, and that paragraph is the best summation of urban living and commuting I’ve ever read.

    Maggie, I’m giving you a real legt thumbs up for all of this.

  5. Anna

    I agree! I’m not an emotional person but I was almost moved to tears the other day when I heard a violin in my NYC subway station. The long, melodic notes were in such stark contrast to my hustle and bustle. Thank you for your sentiment that expressed the appreciation of so many of us. I’m sure it will be appreciated for a life time!

  6. Gray

    If you haven’t seen the recent “Subway/Pamela” episode of “Louie,” you should seek it out. The opening segment, which involves a violin busker, is so wonderful.

  7. Maureen

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for NOT turning the tip into a whole production number for your website. As you were going through the planning requirements I was starting to become queasy that you were going to wreck it by over-choreographing it all. Planned spontaneity sucks. Good call with the cheque.

  8. Rachel

    Elizabeth (5) wrote what I was thinking. I really liked the plan, thought it was so fun. Then that it just kinda grew (losing the original sentiment), and you allowed it to change. Flexible spontaneity rocks, right Maureen?

  9. Tamara

    I LOVE moments like that. I was in SF once, not long after I first saw La Vie en Rose, which I loved. I wandered upon a busker coming back to our hotel, an Asian man playing it on his violin. Its far better (for me) when not planned. Kudos to you for a terribly glam check on the life list!

  10. Cathy

    This part struck me the most- “The plan was pretty in theory, but it was built to surprise and delight everyone but me.”

    It’s a delicate balance act trying to please others and yourself at the same time. Looks like you’ve figured it out!

  11. Rev. Back It On Up 13

    Weird. I used to give extravagant tips to a violinist in Grand Central Terminal. He would play at the top of the escalator that led to the Bronx-bound 6 train, where almost nightly I would be accosted by hostile crazies and in the mornings I would be imposed upon by drunk people. That violinist was always a little pocket of calm for me. Nice to see I was not alone!

  12. Lisa

    Maggie, welcome back to your life list, and thank you for letting us all tag along for the ride!
    This one in thought was wonderful and in practice is as beautiful as the music enjoyed by all.

  13. Michelle

    Been waiting for one of these for a while. I’m glad this happened! I hope you have a bank that uploads a photo of both sides of a cashed check to your account. I would look forward to seeing his signature. Or maybe he is the type to write FOR DEPOSIT ONLY instead of signing. I hope not. I wonder, too, about the length of time it will take him to cash the check. Will he hold onto it’s significance or cash out immediately? Will he send a handwritten thank-you note? Will he take a walk past your house some evening and wonder about you? This all feels very Paul Auster-esque, and when I finished City of Glass I threw it across the room. Looking back, I think it was too good.

  14. a.

    Beautifully written, beautifully done. I’m so glad you got to do this.

    I’ve had a couple of subtle-like-an-anvil recurring lessons emerge from my life list pursuits, and have started keeping a little list of them alongside the life list itself. Flexibility and simplicity are definitely on there. Also the power of anticipation.

    Another one, which finally sunk in after a few tense moments while traveling, is, “everything gets easier when you no longer need to pee.”

  15. sarah

    I love this story. It seems like the perfect jump start to working on your life list again, not a moment planned but a moment you took advantage of.

  16. Sassafras Mama

    Your life list project was an incredible blessing to me at a rough patch in my life. It continues to bring me happiness. Today, I introduced myself to my students by talking about some items on my life list and asking them to envision one of theirs and write about it for me.

    In short, I owe you one, Miss Maggie, and I am so happy to hear that you’ve turned your list back on. Most happy!

  17. Colleen

    Boy, if that isn’t a perfect metaphor for life. We launch into the world with such high hopes and elaborate plans (I’m a part-time college instructor and see a bit of this :-) and then … well, sometimes we just have to write a check. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s probably better. More inspiration to just shut up and do it, whatever it is.

  18. Desi

    Beautiful. It’s on my life list to eat an ice cream cone on a bench, in a park, in the sunshine. It’s become this huge momentous thing – it has to be the perfect bench, the right ice cream, and maybe I should involve my whole family.

    Or, maybe, I should just go and do it.

    I love this post. Absolutely love it.

  19. Leah

    It seems an apt time for this quote: “then, when it seems we will never smile again, life comes back.”

    Welcome back to the game, Maggie :-) So good to read this post.

  20. Jeremy Hatch

    What an awesome post…

    So, I’m a busker who often plays his violin in BART stations and on the street — and no, that’s not me in the photo!

    I think I just want to say that it is especially heartening to read stories like this, and comments like these, which imply that most of the people who walk by really do appreciate what we do, whether they tip or not. I actually can’t get by without those tips, so on one level, yes I am doing it for the money, and a big tip always makes my day. But I’m mostly just doing it to improve people’s day, and so any show of appreciation is very meaningful, whether it be a little smile, a handful of coins, paper money, or standing and listening for a while and talking to me.

    My very first tip for playing in public was a crumpled-up $2 bill, which I have kept in my case for good luck ever since (I tell the story on my website), but I think my favorite tip ever was when a little girl carefully placed a purple-flowered salvia stem in my case. I kept that flower in there for weeks, until it dried up and fell to pieces.

  21. Eithne

    This story has put a smile on my face – bravo for knowing when to follow the spirit and not the letter of the law of the life list! Just lovely.

  22. Kelly

    Awesome you Maggie, glad that you’re in a frame of mind and heart to get back in the game of your Life List, I’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing. You’re an inspiration to me — I have even been playing with the notion of starting to blog because reading about your thoughts and life make me feel that I may just have some things to say, do and share as well. All the best.

  23. Christy

    Yay for Maggie! A great story with wonderful heart and a fantastic purpose. Let’s all kick our life lists into high gear!

  24. K8

    If you ever have the chance, watch The Underground Orchestra, a documentary about musicians in the Paris Metro. So much lovely music, so many wonderful stories. I try and find reasons to use it in classes because it is so good.

  25. andi

    I love this. I’ve also had a fascination with musician buskers, and violinists in particular. It just seems such an affluent, privileged persons instrument, and therefore the story of how someone who plays it well, and on the street, is probably one riveting story. I grew up in Vancouver, BC, and also lived in SF – both places have amazing talent on the street. An SF street-guitar legend became one of our friends, someone we helped get off the street. He’s now recording his music in a studio, where he belongs. I’m back in Canada these days, and have to smile at having a small hand in helping him straighten up when I hear his music on Dan Akroyd’s Sunday blues show. That $100 is well spent!

  26. haya

    everyone tells me that i should hate my (pretty long) commute, but i secretly love that time.

    musicians in the subway are my favourite! especially in the mornings – what a lovely way to start the day. i haven’t seen a violin player in a long time, but lately when i get off my commuter rail and head underground, i pass a steel drum player. great way to make things feel a little vacation-y.

    p.s. love your spontaneity!

  27. emily

    awesome post/life list item. especially appreciate the grand and intricate nature of your original plan and then the realization that the simple thing was gesture enough. when working on writing/design i constantly find myself adding & embellishing, thinking it will lead to better results. and then i begin the process of paring it all back. you inspired my life list a few months ago – a work in progress and something to which i hope to add and embellish (in this case, a good thing!).

  28. Laura

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today.

    Bravo to life lists and simplicity and flexibility and getting back on track!

    (And to rambling run-on sentences.)

  29. Lydia

    I was going to comment with the Gene Weingarten article from the WashPost, but a few people already supplied the link. It’s a fantastic story, I highly recommend everyone read it.

    I always tip street buskers, though they tend to look at little edgier by my house, haha.

  30. Jami

    Four years ago I was able to FINALLY visit NYC. I had never used subway systems before but prayed, fervently, that a violinist would be found. My husband got me a sufficient bill ($5? $10?) that I tucked into my pocket daily, with a whispered prayer.

    One day, I found him. I was lost in the wonder and beauty of the music for the time allowed and slipped the much prayed over bill into his case.

    Your story flooded me with all those heady memories.

  31. Sharon

    LOVE it. Powell St. station? I think I’ve seen/heard him. I feel the same way as you do re: musicians in the train stations.

  32. Saw Lady

    I have been busking in the NYC subway for 17 years (not a violinist…but a musical saw player). Among buskers, when one gets $100 from one person – that is called an “Oscar” (it’s like you got an Oscar award).

    Whenever someone gives me a $2 bill – I save it. I don’t use it for as long as I can, because they are so special. They very rarely come by.

    Sometimes people give flowers or other non-monetary items – I made a list of the unusual things people put in my donations box: things – each one of these gifts made my day, not because I needed them, but because they conveyed human kindness and inventiveness.

    Thank you for your kindness and for your beautiful spirit.

    All the best,

    Saw Lady
    This is me playing in the subway:

  33. Miss K

    You are a gift to us all.

    So happy for the return of the life list…can’t wait to hear all the stories that come out of Mighty Summit!

    Keep it up, kiddo.

  34. Annie

    A lovely gesture! Music makes me happy, daily and I love to support the buskers.

    The Washington Post magazine had a story a while back in which they had Joshua Bell busk in the subway to see if anyone would notice or recognize him. Only a few people noticed the incredible music, and only one (as I recall) recognized the musician. So sad!

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