Friday, May 14, 2010

A Hyacinth for the Urban Soul

Did you know that the subway, contrary to its reputation, is actually the safest place in New York City? According to a TV news program a while back, the subway is seven times safer than your own home, and thirteen times safer than the streets.

I ride the subway all over, at all hours. At night, I prefer to wait for my train in the designated area near the token booth, but this is not always possible to do. And what of entering and leaving the station, standing on lonely platforms, and walking through pedestrian tunnels? What of the surrounding streets at night? Here's a safety tip that's better than a bulletproof vest. I sing folk songs, loudly. It's great fun, and any would-be perpetrators who might be lurking in the vicinity scurry away, dismayed and confounded.

Some years ago, after a party on Christmas Eve, I found myself waiting for the A train at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn, at 2 AM. Around me on the platform were about a dozen large men of varied hue. None of them seemed very sober, and all of them seemed to be leering in my direction. So I burst into song. Foreign languages are best for such occasions, so, in keeping with the seasaon and the apparent condition of my companions, I began with "Al Voll," a medieval German drinking song:

Al voll (6x).
Bist du voll?
So lege dich nieder,
Shteh auf fruh
Und esse dich wieder,
Das ganze jahr,
Den abend und
Den morgen

(Dringers: All full.
Barmaids: Are you full?
So go to sleep,
Wake up early
And eat some more,
The whole year long,
In the evening and
In the morning.)

As I was modulating into my next number, The French drinking song "Chevaliers de la Table Ronde," I looked around and discovered that I had half the platform to myself. All those men who a moment before had appeared so menacing were now backing further and further away from me, and looking distinctly uneasy, even anxious. This is not the response that I yearn for when I perform in cafes, but on subway platforms and dark streets it suits me fine.

I realize that what I'm doing at such times is exactly what the small birds do: I'm marking out my territory, my turf. Some animals do it with scents or bodily fluids. Many Americans think they need guns to do it. They're wrong. Like the little birds, I create my personal safety zone not with guns but with songs.

Carole Rose Livingston

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