I love the irony of the Oz-like voice on the Red Line intoning “This is Grand” right before you exit the train into one of the grungiest stops of the whole CTA. The place sucks. So as I walked down the stairs into the station Sunday night, it was strange to hear the melancholy strains of Swan Lake rising out of the depths. The tile walls make a great echo chamber, but the subway seemed like an odd venue for Tchaikovsky.
The train was late, and the platform was crowded. On one side of the platform was a violinist, a big guy with a long gray ponytail and an open violin case full of change on the concrete beside him. A few yards away, several young men–Joffrey dancers fresh from a party at the Rock Bottom restaurant–were dancing a Cliffs Notes version of the ballet. The swans all had Skechers and Chuck Taylors on their webbed feet, but there was no mistaking their trembling feathers, as the dancers’ hands quivered in the oily breeze. They were just goofing around, but a young couple leaning against the wall took the romantic music seriously–they were making out. Suddenly an excited murmur went through the crowd: in the distance, someone had spotted the train. The music and the swans died away, and a few people tossed coins or dollar bills into the violinist’s case. One guy laid a ten-dollar bill on top of the pile.
The violinist tore into a baroque piece with a slithering cascade of sixteenth notes. It was to be a race between Bach and the CTA. As the rumble of the train approached, he played louder and faster: allegro, presto, prestissimo. Could he finish the piece before the train arrived? His fingers were a blur, and the bow skittered across the strings. He was almost there but so was the train, and the bills in the violin case were starting to tremble like the swans’ feathers. As his eyes darted back and forth between the approaching train and the pile of loose bills, I realized that there was another, more important race going on than the one between Bach and the train. This one was between art and commerce.
At the last second, commerce and the CTA won. As the train roared into the station, the violinist–with a few phrases of Bach left to go–stopped midnote and lunged for the money before it blew away on the dirty wind. He stuffed the bills into his shirt pocket, then played a two-note finale as we squeezed onto the train. I looked out the window in time to see him bow magnificently as the train carried his audience away.