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Home » Officer Columns » Subways, New Yorkers, and Musicians 

Subways, New Yorkers, and Musicians 

  -  AFM International Secretary-Treasurer

I’m a native of the Pacific Northwest, born and bred. We of that soggy land always viewed places like New York City as evil, dark, and scary nether regions, to be avoided at all costs. So, when I moved to New York City for the first time to take a job with the AFM in 1987, it was with palms a-sweating and knees a-quaking.  

All the ills of Western society, as reported by the media, were going to be on full display in the Big Apple. The streets and subways, in particular, were known to be unsafe and fraught with peril. A friend who had moved to New York before us had even warned me never to look at the subway maps posted inside the subway cars because doing so would mark me as a newbie, and I would surely be mugged shortly afterward. 

It was three days into my new adventure as a NYC resident, going home from work, that I stepped boldly onto the wrong subway line. Upon realizing my mistake as the doors closed, and prepared by my friend’s warning, I pulled my subway map out of my back pocket. It was carefully folded origami-style down to the size of a Loonie (the Canadian $1 coin), so that I could unobtrusively consult it in the palm of my hand (to avoid drawing the attention of opportunistic muggers), locate myself in the subway system’s maze, and rescue myself from my misadventure. 

But the subway train’s rapid progress down the tracks outpaced my ability to flip through my map folds. In frustrated panic, I finally opened my map completely to see it better, only to discover that the dampness of my pants pocket had degraded the map along the creases of the folds by wearing off the ink, essentially making it unreadable. Out of options, and with fearful misgivings, I crept as invisibly as possible over to the system map posted on the inside of the subway car to figure out where I was and how to get to where I needed to be. 

And then my worst fears were realized. My cover got blown. 

“Hey!” hollered a guy (undoubtedly a mugger) four seats away. “Where ya goin’?” he bellowed. 

“28th and 8th,” I mumbled as quietly as I could, desperately wishing for a magic invisibility button. 

“Oh! Well, yer on the wrong train!” he trumpeted for all to hear. “Ya gotta get off at 14th and cross over the platform to the uptown local train!” 

“Er, OK, thanks,” I replied as softly as possible. 

“No, no, no!” another mugger yelled from the other end of the car. “If he gets out at 14th, he’ll have to pay another fare to get to the uptown train!” 

“No, he won’t,” a third mugger shouted at the second mugger, “but he should cross over at 4th because it’s easier!” 

“That’s no good,” retorted a fourth mugger, “At this time of day, 4th is a nightmare! He’ll get lost!” 

And in the space of 10 seconds, I had an ad-hoc rescue committee of New Yorkers all raucously arguing with each other about the best way to help me—a complete stranger that they’d never see again—get out of my predicament so I could get home. In the midst of that melee, a bony, papery-skinned hand clutched at my wrist and a white-haired woman with a sister-of-Marge-Simpson-husky-smoker-voice rasped, “Don’t worry, dear, I’m getting off at the stop you need, and I’ll show you where you need to go.” 

My West Coast preconception of an evil and dangerous New York City immediately disintegrated into a pile of dust. New York City, I realized in that moment, was a place where people watch out for each other because, apparently, it’s the right thing to do. In New York, a stranger’s welfare is umbilically attached to one’s own welfare. 

Now in my second iteration as a New York City resident, I find that paradigm undiminished; stronger, actually. There’s something about the shared experience of millions of people, squished onto two islands—rich, poor, and in-between, all navigating together the streets, subways, and sidewalks, deeply conscious of civic welfare—that has manifested as a sort of hive mind. New Yorkers seem to know instinctively that their security and well-being depends on maintaining awareness of everyone else’s well-being. 

When I first joined the musicians’ union, it was much like that. It mattered not whether one was a symphonic player, a club or lounge player, show musician, a general business player, freelance, or full-time. We members of our local were all in the same soup, we watched out for each other, we honored minimums, and we supported our local because our economic lives relied on that interdependence. We set a bottom line for ourselves and we stuck to it. 

As I got deeper into the affairs of the Federation, however, I became aware that setting a bottom line nationally and internationally wasn’t so easy to achieve. Standards are set or bargained, but sticking to them is complicated. Balancing the needs of musicians in various sectors of our work and across different geographic regions, so as not to intrude upon or compromise each other’s economic security, is tricky and has become one of the Federation’s primary imperatives. 

The need to engage in that balancing act I find galling because it arises from producers putting downward pressure on us and convincing us that we musicians stand in the way of producers’ success. The most fundamental task of a union is to take workers’ wages out of the competition between producers. In our business, however, producers have not only succeeded in pushing musicians’ pay into that stream but we’ve come to believe, in some cases, that it’s actually our responsibility to help producers achieve competitiveness by tailoring our union policy to their needs, rather than presenting our own solid and unified face to the producers.  

Our care and passion for our art sometimes obscures the underlying fact that every one of us deserves to make a living as a musician, not at each other’s expense, but at the expense of those who hire us to do that thing we do so well. Our imperative as musicians, therefore, is to keep aware and alert to each other’s welfare—locally, nationally, and internationally as we move through our lives. 

If 8.5 million New Yorkers can do it, we should be able to as well. 

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