A Day in the Life
By Alex Coe
Montra While Busking:
Fingers pressed against the frets
my lungs breathing between the spaces of melody
biology and energy work together creating a consistent and dynamic output
reserve and release
fall and spring
make sure the lips are in sync with the beat
go til the body is tired but not weak
All of a sudden a lady pops into my periphery from out of nowhere and says to me, “Can’t you see you’re bothering people?!” I look around scanning the crowd I’m playing for on a platform under Times Square. Clearly, I think, she’s the only one that’s bothered. Then I remembered this same lady has tried to belligerently stop me before. “He’s not bothering anyone,” a man I don’t know yells at her but she doesn’t care. “Stop, stop!” she says. My playing gets softer, down to a volume she can’t complain to. She starts walking away but an anxiety has already taken hold of her.
Something’s bothering her and most everyone can see it.
My voice and guitar increase in volume as she walks further down the platform but it gets too loud too quick and she yells at me again screaming, “Didn’t I tell you to stop? Please, you’re bothering people!” “Don’t listen to her,” another subway rider yells, encouraging me to keep playing. I’m reminded of my teacher when the others made fun of how loud I got in 5th grade choir class, who would say, “Keep it up, man!” The bothered lady halts herself as if to make sure my playing stays quiet, like a new neighborhood transplant as they try to sleep through the locals blasting music in the bar downstairs. I hold the volume at a one as she seems to patrol the soundscape at the bottom of the platform stairs in front of my usual spot, waiting for me to try her temper one more time. I remain constant in the energy I leak out. At an active but quiet pace I’m playing “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley, which seems appropriate given the situation. Jogging at the minimum to achieve at least a little distance while I wait for the weather to change. I like metaphors.
“See I grew up in Minnesota and when you grow up in Minnesota, you move away,” said my god brother Derek Hughes, getting a laugh as he prepares for his next magic trick in his comedy routine at the Magic Castle in LA circa 2006. He’s been an inspiration and role model for me since he did a magic show for my birthday party when I was still a little kid. Growing up I’ve always seen Derek more often as an audience member and this particular line was one that always stuck with me. I imagine that’s what many kids think when they grow up feeling alienated in a community that they don’t see themselves fitting into:
when you grow up in ______, you move away.
As a seventeen-year old from the same Minnesota town, watching him go through carefully choreographed motions of magic with perfect comedic timing, I knew he was right. I needed to get out. It wasn’t because I felt hated or despised and my love for family wasn’t lacking, but I wanted the opportunity to explore without the limitations the community I grew up in had drawn around me mentally. Like many transplants, I wanted a fresh start.
Now when you move to New York City, no one tells you how hard it really is. Saving up a good sum of money, then waving goodbye to it after a broker sets you up in a neighborhood you’re not familiar with, isn’t what you think about when trying to find your dreams of becoming an actor. Then the reality of your situation sinks in: I’m one of literally a million artists whose sole purpose is to come up with money to pay rent with. How awkward it is to realize your tininess. How strange it is to realize it’s important to see yourself as a white male gentrifying a neighborhood that doesn’t know or care about you. How horrible it is doing nothing but going back and forth on the train working 8-12 hours a day just to find time to perform a three minute audition piece once a month for the acting job you have a small percentage of getting.
One of the things I fell in love with on my mindless back and forth journeys for work are the subway performance artists. One performer in particular is a man by the name of James Johnson, a Harlem native who plays some of the simplest licks on the guitar but has an energy in his voice that you only find on the subway only once in awhile. You won’t find him on the internet, but he has a regular spot in midtown below Port Authority on the A platform going downtown and he always has a knack that gets the people going. “Take Me to the River,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Billie Jean” are only some of this guy’s specialties. The crazy thing was, he would show up on some of my worst days and lighten my spirit, just for playing in a place so full of people and so usually devoid of sound sans the echo of the train cars and announcement voices.
What a good way to send positive energy out into the universe.
So, when I did get a break with a really good acting gig for three months out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, enough income was generated for me to make what I came to realize was one of the most important investments of my life: a good guitar. When I came back to New York with this beautiful 0016 Martin Acoustic, I took some inspiration from James and chanced it by just going out into the subway and performing for the hell of it.
If I was bad, I could at least make a meal out of my attempt from pity money.
I chose a spot across the way from where I knew James played. It felt familiar, almost like going to church. I had five songs I knew I’d cycle through, thinking they were hits I knew people would like to hear. What I wasn’t prepared for was the surge of anxiety I’d get from just going to the spot and opening the damn case. It took me forever. I had a huge fear of strangers eyeing me up wondering who’s this douche with a guitar. Once I did however, my feelings were immediately put to ease with getting a dollar on my very first song. It was one of the greatest feelings in the world to know I had a support system down in the deep echoey platforms of the subway. My career as a musician had taken off in the most unexpected of ways. These days, I cycle through a lot more songs.
Busking is definitely an amazing piece of conversation material. People always wonder: Is it legal? Do you ever get bothered by the cops? How much money do you walk away with?
Yes, yes, and none of your fucking business.
Honestly it’s a complicated system when you get into the legality of the situation. Subway rules state one thing: Section 1050.6 (c) of the New York City Transit Rules of Conduct permits “artistic performances” within the subway system, provided the performances do not impede transit activities and are conducted in accordance with the Rules of Conduct. The term “artistic performances” includes musical performances. Then, some cops state another: they argue you’re a danger by generating a more crowded subway platform. Disputing the rules and size of your crowd with them isn’t the best situation to display when trying to convey a positive vibe with the people you’re performing to, although a fellow busker and friend named
Jadon Woodard could tell you a story of how he won a suit against the NYPD
for wrongful arrest while rapping on a platform. There’s always a constant reminder of systematic rule when it comes to police and whether you’re allowed to do something in public, especially in New York City. I choose to comply but continue to question the way the police choose to exercise their authority on minuscule situations such as busking. This kind of rabble-talk is what led me to be invited into the strange and wonderful world of Brooklyn Wildlife, a cultivation of local artists rallied through and around a man named Chris Carr aka Stonehenge Parnhashnakovsky, a wordsmith I would soon have the pleasure of collaborating with in a band we would simply title “Parnhash & Coe”. The culture Chris has created over the years takes the spotlight away from mainstream music, and centers it right where I and many others feel it should be focused: on the local artists in the community. I support it wholeheartedly, just as people on the subway platform choose to support me.
Fast forward to the current day. It’s Wednesday, April 12, 2017. I’ve just finished recording two tracks with James Johnson, who has offered to record me at his studio up in Harlem. We seemed to have developed a mutual respect for each other’s energy. I’ve stopped at his Port Authority busking spot like I told him I would in order to generate some income for a meal and also warm up before a show I have with Chris called “Where The Wild Things Are,” a Brooklyn Wildlife event at the Bizarre Bar in Bushwick which is held every first Wednesday of the month. It’s the two-year anniversary of the show’s running and has a combined roster of hip hop, comedy, poetry and aerial acts.
We’re back to the beginning where this bothered lady appears. “Stop! You’re bothering people!” These moments don’t happen often but they do serve to teach a lesson about handling yourself in the face of someone telling you to quit. “Keep going, man,” someone says. For some reason she just stops and stares at me for a good five minutes at the bottom of the platform as I played at a volume she wouldn’t yell at me for. Was she still policing me? Was she listening? Was she still angry? She turns, walks up the stairs and out of my life for now. I have the sense she’ll show up again.