I always feel a pinch of unease whenever someone begins busking on the subway. Part of this is born of a purely selfish anxiety, a personal calculation of whether I should compensate this performance or merely pretend that I’m not listening. But mostly, my discomfort owes to how strange it is to witness something so naked and earnest in a space that is so broad and impersonal. The riders of a train avoid making eye contact with each other, yet once someone starts singing, we cohere into an audience, if an unwilling one. It feels uniquely cruel to ignore something so heartfelt and unafraid in such close quarters.
I was on my way to see one of Kraftwerk’s multimedia performances at the Museum of Modern Art when a middle-aged man with longish hair and a guitar boarded my train and began singing David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” He strummed his guitar like someone who had been playing since he was a teen, and there was a ragged beauty to his voice, as though the words of this song were not inscrutable but in fact described his own melancholy. I was hypnotized by his impossibly sad rendition of a song I’ve heard hundreds of times but never understood. As the train skidded into the station, I regretted how short this leg of my journey was. I chased down the guitarist and gave him a few dollars. A guy in a hooded sweatshirt remarked to him, “Hey man—you should be on X-Factor.” Searching the crowd for anyone else who had shared in this soulful interlude, he caught my eye. “He should be on, right?”