Subway. N-Line. Crossing the bridge into Manhattan. Three in the afternoon.
The shouting begins.
“’Scuse me, ladies and gentlemen, showtime.”
“Alright alright, ” shouts another. “Showtime ladies and gentleman, showtime!”
A little guy tries out the word in baritone, latter emphasis: “Show TIME! Show TIME!”
They begin blaring the bass to some dirty break beat I’ve never heard on these teensy little tweeters. Then the dancing begins. Break dancing. The moves they employ are the well-adapted grandchildren of moves the original B-boys used to pull.
Your first time to New York, watching an impromptu breakdance session on a subway lead by ten-year-olds is this awe-inspiring moment of wonder, as it should be. And like all things, it takes work to wake the wonder again. It gets old after the third, fourth, tenth time. Call me jaded, but most Midwesterners would never tolerate hyper-loud break beats and all-out dance sessions inside their minivans on their morning commutes. The train is my car. I can’t just hit the power button and turn off the sound.
Which is why most New Yorkers end up with this glaze over their eyes to-and-from work – the city’s loud and huge and busy. Quiet and solitude are delicacies seldom savored.
But if you watch and wait, you’ll find wonder.
When I’m at my best, I try to pay attention to the young men dancing. Their age. Their accents. How they treat one another. Especially how they treat one another – that’s like checking the city’s pulse.
This particular team on the bridge to Canal Street had a ringleader and seven boys. They did stuff with hats I haven’t seen – which is saying something at this point. Some of their stalls off the ceiling rails were original and one of them pulled a slow-mo trick I’ve only witnessed on YouTube. It was great, some people clapped, and they earned some generous tips – a baseball cap filled to the… well… brim.
And then the time came for them to move on to the next car. That’s how it happens – they work a car, move to the next one, wait until the train stops, the passenger exchange, make sure there’s no MTA officers, and then, “Showtime, ladies and gentlemen, showtime!”
But these seven boys didn’t move on. They sat down before and beside me and my bride. They all passed the hats to one of the twelve-year-olds, the one right next to me. He compiled the cash, gave the spare hats back, and then opened his backpack and dumped the load.
When he pulled the hat away, I saw inside. The entire backpack was full of singles, fives, some tens, a twenty.
I couldn’t resist. “Nice haul, man.”
“Thanks.” He said and then smiled. He started making stacks.
“Where you all from?”
“Yeah, man, calling it a day. Calling it a day.”
“It’s only three, ” I said. “Don’t you have like two or three more hours in you?”
“Sure, ” he said. “But we have what we need. That’s enough, man, no need to get greedy.” He divided the daily bread among his fellow gradeschoolers.
I listened as the eldest gave tips to the ones who were cocky, encouraged the ones who were anxious, and told one with stage fright, “You don’t worry about the tips. You don’t worry about the people. You worry about the moves. You’re here to dance, not make money. Dance and the money will follow. We got what we need, see?”
The first kid nodded. “We got what we need.”
Sparrows and lilies. Bread and clothes. Dancers and bills.