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Stand by Them

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I left the office late—the end of another grueling workday in “The City,” as the locals called Manhattan. The elevators, filled with people on their way home, took forever. It was the same every night.


The bell rang. I turned and located the open door behind me. It was full. “Excuse me.” I apologized and squeezed between a woman with a suitcase at her feet and a businessman with a laptop bag hanging by a strap from his shoulder. “Thanks.” I mumbled. They  grunted barely audible acknowledgements and stared at the numbers above the door. I was an obstacle on their journey home.


The elevator made its way to the first floor. I endured the man’s laptop bag digging into my ribs and stared at the numbers as we descended. When the doors opened, I was forced into the foyer by those behind me. They pushed past and rushed to the exits. I followed, stepped out on the sidewalk, and waited for a break in the pedestrian traffic to slip into the stream of humanity flowing into the subways.


A mass of people entered and exited the hole that led underground. I held the railing to steady myself. Men and women pushed passed me as I descended the steps. It was mayhem at the turnstiles. Commuters rushed in every direction—a typical New York rush hour.


At the bottom of an escalator that stretched more than two floors under the ground, people of all ages jammed four and five deep on the platform. The train squealed to a stop, the doors opened, and thousands of people rushed forward into a thousand more trying to exit. Metro transit workers attempted to direct the hordes. “Stay to your left! Don’t push!”


The train rumbled to life and disappeared down the tunnel. The platform was empty for a brief minute. The only person left was a man sitting on a folding chair, playing a sitar for spare change. I wandered closer and listened to him. His eyes were closed, completely involved with his music. My train screeched into the station. I turned to become one of the masses, but not before I glanced back at the musician. People rushed all around him. Only a few stopped to listen, reach into their pockets, and drop a few coins into the plastic bucket in front of him.


At each stop, men, women, and sometimes groups of people performed on the platforms. At one stop, I saw a woman in a black dress play a violin. She was dressed like she was ready to perform at Carnegie Hall. Again, most people ignored her. I tried to hear her music when the doors opened, but the commuter noise drowned her out.


At 42nd Street, one of the biggest transfer stations for buses and subways in the city, I changed trains. On the walk through the station to my next train, I passed several more performers: a guy with a large boom box singing along with music, a lady playing a flute, and a group of three men playing guitars. A few people stopped to listen, but most ignored their talents in their rush to make the next train.


On my last train home, a group of four men with bongo drums got on the subway at 59th street at the southwest corner of Central Park. For the next fifteen minutes (sixty-six blocks) they entertained the packed car with their talents. Before we reached the other end of the park, they quickly roamed the car for donations, and then departed to ride the train back to where they started.


I got off the subway at 175th street, made my way through the turnstile, and walked to the tunnel that led to my bus across the George Washington Bridge. My co-commuters stared straight ahead, focused on getting home.


We started up the steps leading to the tunnel. In the distance I heard a horn. I followed the crowd around the corner. In the distance, halfway up the tunnel, was a thin, grey-bearded man. He sat on a milk crate and balanced a saxophone on his crossed legs. This man was a master on the horn. I stopped to listen for a few minutes and dropped a dollar in his hat before I moved on.


He became my daily treat. Every morning and evening during the rush hour, he sat in the tunnel and played for change. During the four months I worked in “The City,” I looked forward to hearing him play. On Monday mornings, depressed the weekend was over, he gave me a bit of cheer. On my way home from a bad day, his horn lightened my load.


Before I moved from the New York area, I often stopped to talk to him. His name was JC. Born into a poor family in Florida, JC’s family struggled to survive. He told me, “I was raised on music.” When he was a baby, his crib was in an old console stereo/television. The TV was removed, but the stereo still worked. In the section for the TV was a layer of blankets where JC slept between the speakers. As a young boy, he taught himself to play the recorder. He was a natural. One couple often picked JC up at his home and took him home with them. They’d feed him a good meal. In return, JC entertained them with his music.


When he was thirteen, JC saved enough money to put a deposit on a used saxophone. They went to the store and his mother signed the papers for him. That afternoon, JC went to the pool hall, stood by the jukebox, and played his new horn. Like the recorder, he was a natural. A few weeks later, a couple members of a band were in the hall, heard him play, and asked him to play with them. JC was reluctant, but his mother insisted he do it. It would be good experience for the young man.


After school each day, the band picked him up and took him to where they were playing.


I’m not sure what happened between then and the life he now leads in New York. Perhaps he had a bit of bad luck. Besides playing for commuters, he occasionally teaches aspiring musicians and helps a few composers with arrangements. 


JC told me he once had a playing job. It did what he does now, play in the subway. There was a group of people who worked at the World Trade Center. Every Friday, they collected donations for JC and that night presented him with a check. JC signed the check and they gave him cash in return. This ended when the planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001. Those who paid him were gone.


Many of the performers have stories to tell, but no one stops to listen. They don’t care. These people just need someone to stand by them.


Well, there is one group who does care. It’s an organization called, “Playing for Change.” I was so inspired by a video that I saw, that I looked them up and spoke to Kim Estlund in their public relations department. I learned “Playing for Change” was born out of the idea that we have to inspire each other, come together as a human race, and that music is the best way to do it. The project started with a street musician, Roger Ridley, on the streets of Santa Monica, California. They recorded Roger singing the song, “Stand by Me” and then traveled the world recording musicians who never met each other. It was the music that brought them together and the belief that we can do a lot more for this world if we work together.


I invite you to visit this site and listen to “Stand by Me” and come back here to read the rest of their story. (Note: I am not allifliated with this group in any way. I heard the music and learned about their mission. I think it’s an honorable one and wanted to share it with you.)


The CD they created went on sale this week. Proceeds from sales are used for educational purposes.


Their current funding focus is the new Ntonga Music School they are finishing in Guguletu, South Africa. They provide trained staff, educational materials, and other necessities for children facing extreme poverty who will gain hope and inspiration from this safe haven of creativity. This school is the first of many they will build in poor communities around the world, including the U.S. They will share updates and music from the students so people can see and hear the impact they are making in their lives.


Visit playingforchange.com to read more. You can also do a search on Youtube for “Playing for Change” and hear more of their work.

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