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Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

Captive Audience

I would very much like to take a poll, if such a thing were possible, so as to determine precisely what percentage of the populations of major cities felt a yearning need for entertainment while awaiting public transportation. Was there, I wonder, considerable demand for such musical services? Did commuters find the daily wading through crowds while navigating the various tracks and walkways too quiet of an experience? Was their time on the station platform somehow not culturally satisfying enough?

I ask because as far as the Curmudgeon is concerned, I would just as soon forego the accompaniment. I find that calculating routes, verifying locations, avoiding screaming children, and dodging lunatics is more than enough activity to hold my interest. The addition of a self-taught drummer blessing the public with a raucous, impassioned, never-ending solo on pie tins and plastic buckets is considerably more than I need.

Honestly, I don’t know anyone who signed on for this. And yet, even in the nerve-jangling press of New York’s rush hour, there they are, these aggressive music makers, taking up much-needed space (both physically and within our decibel capacities) for what would seem to be completely unrequested performances.

Perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps, if these artistes were barred from serenading us as we travel between appointments, there would a public outcry for their return. I can’t say for sure, which is why I’d like to take that poll and get an official headcount. But my strong suspicion is that most commuters would check the box marked “Please for the love of God make them shut up so I can travel in relative peace and quiet.” Indeed, I believe those surveyed would check that box several times, using the heaviest markers available, lest tabulators misread their answers and instead register them among those respondents who checked the “By all means, please enrapture me with your piercing steel drum rendition of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’” box.

I know that not everyone shares the Curmudgeon’s musical tastes. Baffling as that may be, I accept it as fact. Musical preferences are subjective. As it happens, I’m not the most avid fan of the Peruvian pan flute. To be frank, I find the sound brain-severing, as if someone were repeatedly stabbing my eardrums with a metallic shish kebab skewer. A single pan flute playing in a distant meadow might be tolerable, maybe even almost pleasant. But the entire band of the cursed things, piping away into microphones, accompanied by a prerecorded audio track (also amplified), which one often encounters deep within New York’s heavily trafficked Times Square subway station, during rush hour . . . well, I cannot imagine there’s anyone who is enchanted by this type of performance. I cannot imagine there’s a single traveler who, upon descending into this bustling depot and finding these musicians absent, would exclaim, “Oh darn! No pan flutes!” It’s just not something I can picture happening.

Now here’s an alarming bit of information: there is no law protecting us from these unwelcome entertainers. Performing in public transit venues is not against the law, and requires no license unless electronics are involved. (And yes, that means that some idiot gave the amplified pan flautistas a license—a license—to wreak their aural mayhem. I pray I never meet this reckless, license-issuing madman, as I would prefer not to be imprisoned for murder.)

This also means that performers aren’t auditioned, and aren’t even required to have experience. And so, we’re at the mercy of their self-assessment. I once listened—against my will of course—to an old man who’d clearly taken up the keyboards as recently as three or four minutes before his performance. There we stood, my fellow commuters and I, trapped on a subway platform as the ancient amateur searched feebly for the proper notes on his portable electronic piano, correcting errors while we waited in pain for him to find his way back to a recognizable tune. And while one could occasionally make out disconnected shreds of melody, the hope of him finding any sort of rhythm was squashed with each wretched measure that passed. I very nearly paid him not to play.

From time to time, deep within the tunnels of our nation's public transit systems, one comes across a virtuoso or two, offering elegant music that soothes the soul. I’m always grateful for their presence. Because rather than adding to the cacophony, these artists seem to help iron it all out. They bring peace in the midst of madness. But if I had to choose between indiscriminately accepting all performers and banishing them all forever, that choice would be easy: I’d gladly sacrifice the opportunity to hear some lovely classical music if it would stop all the awful banging and squeaking and piping.

Still, if I’m ever in charge of all things (as I ought rightfully to be), I will outlaw anything louder than a cello, and require conservatory training before a single note can be played. If you’re upset at the thought that you might not be able to hear your favorite Peruvian pipers, I have good news. They’ve recorded a number of CDs, allowing you to hear five simultaneous pan flutes any time you have the hankering. I feel confident they have plenty of copies in stock.

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