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Smelling the New York City Roses

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Have you ever wondered about the stories of the people you pass: How did they get to where they are? Who do they love? What is their dream?

Today, I did the New York City equivalent of stopping to smell the roses: I stopped to listen to the train station musicians. I had 20 minutes until my train, and there were a couple of men sitting in Penn station playing beautiful music. As a regular commuter, I was pushing along the crowds to reach my destination, according to that old city maxim: You always need to be somewhere else, fast. (Okay, I made that up.) But I had extra time, and getting to my destination would have just meant standing in a group with other commuters, staring up hopefully at the train schedule like a group of hungry birds until my track number was posted. I'm plenty used to that neck-craning activity, but today I had just come from a dance class, my brain was high off endorphins, and I smiled mentally and stopped to listen to the musicians instead of rushing to stand still.

And they were good. I'm no music expert, but they sounded like people I would pay money to see in concert, should I be so classically inclined (and didn't spend all my extra money on the aforementioned commute). Along with most New Yorkers, I'm accustomed to the daily assault of men and women playing a passable form of music on bizarre instruments to accompanying recordings that make it only just bearable to listen to. But these men played unaccompanied by recorded music, and what they were playing was beautiful. I stopped to listen, and ended up pulling out my phone and recording them. (The song they're playing here is an instrumental version of Rihanna's "Love The Way You Lie Part II.")

I was curious about these men. I pass people every day that intrigue me -- after all, I work in New York City -- but whether because of time pressure or simple discomfort with approaching strangers, I never stop to scratch the journalist itch inside. But this time I decided I would be bold, and find out more.

It turns out the two men are brothers. They have two other brothers who play with them generally, but one was off teaching a music class that night and the other was on probation and couldn't travel from his home in New Jersey to play with them. Their father taught them how to play, and they occasionally do concerts; their main source of income, though, is from playing on a regular basis in Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

"Some days are better than others," they told me, when I asked if the money was good. In the 5 to 10 minutes I watched them, I estimated that they got about $30. Not bad for a 10 minute stretch.

"Does it bother you that people just pass by without stopping?" I asked. I'm sure it would bother me.

"No," they smiled. "Just knowing that they're hearing the music is enough."

"So you play so that others can enjoy?"

They laughed. "I'm not going to lie, we do it for the money," one of them answered. "But we love to play." It was clear that they do.

The brothers were good enough to humor me in answering some questions, but clearly itched to return to playing for the stream of rush hour commuters passing in front of them. They handed me their card, and the violinist started playing again. I took my cue to leave, feeling connected for once to the background noise of Penn Station.