violins

When I worked in publishing, I loved my commute. I enjoyed the solitude, the chance to listen to people and observe them without having to interact. In the evening, I switched off my brain so I could navigate the subway, being pressed by strangers on all sides. And when I stepped on the escalator, I played a personal lottery, hoping I might emerge from the heat and pressure of the subway and hear a violin in the station above.

Violins in the subway have always been a private pleasure. There’s something about the contrast of being so close to people you can smell the animal on them, and then the absolute civility of a string instrument. Those juxtapositions are the best thing about living in a city. They give you incentive to be grateful.

For years, I’ve wanted to give an extravagant tip to a violin-playing busker. I added it to my Life Listand started plotting. I imagined standing out of view and handing small bills to other commuters, asking them to tip the busker on their way out of the station. I thought it would be fun to use two-dollar bills, so the busker would feel appreciated, but also know something was up. Of course, I wanted to film it for the site, so all of you could see it unfold, maybe take some photos of the violinist too.

I told Bryan about my plan a couple years ago, and he surprised me with a stack of crisp two-dollar bills from the bank. I started thinking more seriously about logistics. I’d need some friends — someone to film, someone to pass out bills while I took photos. We’d need to head out at rush hour so there were sufficient passersby to help us tip, and to provide cover. It might take a few days, because we’d have to ride the subway around in search of a violinist, and violinists are a little elusive in San Francisco. Maybe it would take a week.

You can see where I’m going. In my head I was taking a simple pleasure, a moment distinguished by its serendipity, and turning it into a three-person, week-long slog. The plan was pretty in theory, but it was built to surprise and delight everyone but me.

This past year I’ve had to put my Life List on hold, but a few weeks ago I happened to be on the subway by myself for the first time in a long while. I stepped onto the escalator, and listened with my heart in my mouth.

There he was.

So I wrote him a check.

And I dropped it in his violin case before I headed upstairs.

Give $100 to a violin playing busker? Check.

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