03/31/2008 01:06 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Subterranean Drumstick Blues

I was listening to the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album for the umpteenth time, dreamily sauntering through a steamy southern landscape when -- Ay Carrumba! -- the Mariachis arrived. Still playing Feliz Navidad, 3 months after Christmas. I heaved a big, dramatic, audible sigh. Before we'd reached 42nd St. on the 2 train, they'd be passing the sombrero. Then on to the next car and La Bamba.

Despite these daily interruptions of my musical reverie, I almost always give. I kind of think anyone who's trying to make an honest buck, especially with music, deserves it. But funny, I am often the only one who does, which sort of embarrasses me. Like all the other straphangers are thinking, "What a chump!"

This is not to say that I don't find a lot of these subtertainers annoying, though they are perhaps less so than the street level chuggers (charity muggers) who accost you in the same spot every day, looking for you to sign away your debit card to marginal, if worthy, causes. Gamely manned by aspiring actors - no doubt not from these parts - it assumes you can get a rush hour New Yorker to break pace, put the Blackberry down, and listen to a spiel. Do these guys get extra pay for working Manhattan, like the telemarketers who work the New York beat (who, it is said, get time and half, though that is perhaps an urban myth perpetuated by New Yorkers.)

I wonder what the musicians fundraising strategy is. Do they switch trains every day? I swear I've seen the doo-wop, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" guys 20 times. They're actually pretty good. But they should learn a new song.

Do they have better luck on the West Side lines (a more charitable bunch?), or on the 4 and 5, Upper East Siders on their way to Wall St.? Do they switch trains at the end of Manhattan, or do they work the boroughs too? Maybe just on their way home, like every NYC taxi who won't pick you up at their 4pm shift change unless you're going to the JFK.

Then there are the spoken-word supplicants. Anyone who says something funny gets my vote and my money. I am less inclined towards the woe-is-me monologue if it's from a career beggar, instantly recognizable by the monotonous drone of the delivery, a sad story recited more times than the Stones have played Brown Sugar. Them, I don't give to. Unless they're Vets (have they been doing this since '67?!).

But sometimes you see someone who is just so filled with humility (and perhaps humiliation), and who seems to have truly fallen on hard times, that the giving fatigue lifts and gratitude enters. While we all encounter challenges in life, it is likely that those in the position to beg have either had greater ones than I have or were less able to bear them, and have had fewer advantages than me as well. The cynics don't understand that some people are just not able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, try as they might.

Out on the platform, a Chinese man is playing dissonant music using a scale unknown to western ears on what appears to be a made-up, made-at-home instrument. The South American pipe players would still rather be a hammer than a nail, yes they would, if they only could. The break dancers (isn't that passé yet?) are still between the N/R and 1-2-3 at 42nd St. There must be turf wars for these prime spots, expensive real estate, the transit cop as booking agent.

On my way home from Penn Station, I encounter my sonic nemesis, the Plastic Tub Drummer (reader warning: platform 2/3). I'll assume he's not reading this blog. As my mother would say, "He's no Gene Krupa". He offers a toneless, rhythmless, relentless bashing on industrial size tubs which until recently housed coleslaw and kosher pickles.

I nearly jump on the downtown train just to get away.