This is what happens when an accordionist encounters a do-wop group aboard the R train on a late-summer Saturday.
“Don’t know much about history…”
The accordionist, the first to begin but far the less talented of the two acts, readily gives way, his plaintive notes sinking under a sweet four-part harmony. He’s a slightly grizzled older man, head ensconced in that type of flat cap known universally, or at least to myself, as a “grandpa hat.” (In Scotland, a bunnet.)
“Don’t know much biology…”
The singular musician stands at the doors, silent, but all eyes on the cars flit between him and the middle-aged do-woppers sashaying their finger-snapping way slowly through the car. No one is certain of the protocol here. The MTA rules of conduct, though expressly permitting “artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations,” lack a hierarchy chart. It’s pretty clear that the do-woppers will act just as they see fit. They are, after all, the prime act of the Metro Transit Authority entertainment scene. All the rest—the mariachi players, breakdancers, flashmobbers—are sideshows next to these guys. They’re professionals, and they’re singing Sam Cooke.
The lead singer reaches my end of the car, gives a last wink to a passenger of the female persuasion in the hopes of loosening her purse-strings, and croons that final line. (“What a wonderful world this would beeeeeee!”) The accordionist waits mid-car, fingering his keys. Is he embarrassed? Angry? Merely impatient for his turn?
The quartet about-faces as one, swiveling to confront their audience as the train slows to a screechy New York crawl, and in a baritone rumble—
“And now, the accordion!”
If they steamrolled him at first, now they offer the busker’s olive branch: a rare introduction. That is, respect. Legitimacy.
“Come on,” another cajoles. “Play us a song!”
The change of atmosphere is palpable. All at once it’s clear that they’re in it together, that an entertained car is a magnanimous one, and that what we, the passengers, all want is the same thing we ask of our sitcoms and our personal lives: a happy ending.
So the accordionist strikes up a tune, a lively ditty without words, and starts up his swaying accordion-dance as the train finally reaches its platform. The four detrain. The one remains. Ready to try his luck with a renewed crowd.
“Ain’t that special,” he muses, beaming, as new targets board. “Ain’t that special.” Bunnet a-wagging, he launches into Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin and John.”
And we all listen.