By the end of March, ridership on the New York City subway system had plummeted by 90 percent. Unwilling to use a service where the risk of contracting COVID-19 felt too high, everyday New Yorkers lost their go-to means of commuting, and the freedom to travel throughout the city. Natalia Paruz, who'd been busking in the subway for 25 years, lost everything.
Before the pandemic, Paruz performed underground almost every day, earning a cult following by playing the singing saw in stations all over Manhattan. Regular listeners knew her by her nickname, "The Saw Lady"; newcomers often stopped to hear her play, ask her about her strange, hauntingly beautiful instrument, and drop a dollar or two in her tip jar. Paruz loved the intimacy of performing for people standing two feet away from her, and the magic of stumbling into conversations with complete strangers through her music. For her, the subway was like a second home—but when the rest of New York abandoned it in March, she did too. She hasn’t busked in the subway since.
"It's like I don't even know who I am anymore," Paruz said. "There's this interaction, this energy, and you feel like an integral part of the city. You get to be the soundtrack to people's lives. Being a busker is so much of my essence that not doing it, I don't recognize myself."
For buskers like Paruz, playing music in the subway isn’t just what they do for a living; it’s what defines their lives. But for the past six months, almost no one has felt safe enough to play underground, according to buskers, busking organizers, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials who spoke to VICE. As is the case in Chicago, L.A., London, and beyond, the pandemic has left New York City's subway buskers without a place to do what they love—and, in turn, without a sense of purpose.
"It feels like there's something huge missing," said Sal Aversano, a singer-songwriter who’s been busking in the subway for about two years. "I have a medical condition that keeps me from working, and it keeps me from driving. So I have doctors telling me, 'Just take your pills and stay home.' Busking is the excuse to get out and be around people. Even if it's just for that moment they walk by, I'm being heard."
You’d think that subway buskers would simply move above ground during the pandemic, setting up their instruments and collection jars in public parks and on street corners instead of train platforms. Some have tried to make the transition; but several buskers told VICE that playing for tips amid COVID-19 just doesn’t work, no matter where you are. People don’t tend to stop and listen to you perform, and they don’t want to come within six feet of you. Lawrence Wilson, a bass player who’s been busking in the subway for 19 years, said that after playing in Washington Square Park one afternoon in July, he made less than $20. Wilson is 58, and he has emphysema. To him, a little pocket change didn’t compensate for how uncomfortable he felt playing in public.
"Something was missing—that vibe was missing," Wilson said. "I made a few bucks, but it wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth the risk to my personal health."
Like so many musicians, Wilson, Aversano, and Paruz have hosted online performances on platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live during the pandemic, but they each wound up frustrated by the experience. Aversano can’t seem to get many people to actually watch them, he said, and the few who do don’t donate. While Paruz had some early success with virtual shows, she found herself disillusioned with how impersonal they felt.
"It puts a barrier between you and the audience," she said. "It takes away this sense of connection that busking gives you—not to mention that the sound on Zoom is terrible. It's not really a substitute. It's just a crutch for the short-term."
Jesse Cohen, a singer-songwriter who’s been playing in the subway for a decade, is the only busker VICE spoke to who’s performed underground since March. But the experience hasn’t been the same as it used to be, he said. Where he might typically make $100 to $300 in a day, recently, he hasn’t made more than a few bucks. That’s due in part to how few people are taking the subway—ridership is still down by 75 percent, according to MTA data—but also because those who take it seemingly don’t feel comfortable approaching him.
"Because [buskers have] been gone for so long, if you do it, people really like it, but the plethora of people dropping dollars isn't there," Cohen said. "I haven't really had anything but a dollar or a quarter thrown in here and there."
Cohen said he hasn’t played in the subway for a while, and he doesn’t plan to anytime soon. He doesn’t feel safe underground anymore, he said—and not just because of COVID-19. On one recent night in a Brooklyn subway station, a man charged towards him and threatened to push him onto the tracks, he said. The experience shook him, and he’s had a hard time convincing himself to play underground since.
"Every time I've been down in the subway, there's been somebody who's like the subway station terror," Cohen said. "There are a lot more instances of random violence. I don't want someone to damage my instruments, or throw me into an oncoming train."
All of the buskers VICE spoke to are eager to start playing in the subway again, but none of them have a firm idea of when they’ll get back to it. Wilson has been living off his savings for the past six months; when money gets tight, he said, he’ll be forced to go back underground. Aversano and Paruz said that they’re waiting for the MTA to resume its Music Under New York program, which—even though you don’t need permission to busk in the subway—they view as a green-light to get back to work.
The program, in which buskers audition for the ability to play at an MTA-sanctioned location in the subway, has been on hold since mid-March. Sandra Bloodworth, the director of MTA Arts & Design, told VICE she doesn’t know when it might get back up and running.
"I need to turn on the TV and hear that something of a comparable nature has been running for a few weeks, and it looks to be working," Bloodworth said. "I need to believe that it's safe, and then I need to ask the experts that speak for the MTA on issues of safety."
Until that day comes, New York City’s subway buskers are trying to stay busy, and taking whatever gigs they can get. A few weeks ago, Paruz played a small show in her neighbor’s yard for about seven people. Aversano has continued to post videos of himself playing music online. Wilson is trying to get back into the habit of practicing regularly. In July, Cohen played a socially-distanced set at a block party in Park Slope. He only performed a few songs—but even that, he said, was the best experience he’s had since March.
"You could tell people were really thrilled about it, and that made me so happy," Cohen said. "There were probably about 20 feet between me and these people, and that was nicer than even the feelings I had busking when people would surround me. It was a homecoming feeling. It was cathartic. It was like summiting Everest or something."
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