By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Somewhere in the bowels of New York's subway there are bongo players and mariachi bands. The tunnels of the Paris Metro are filled with musicians playing nearly every kind of instrument. In button-down Washington? People waiting in sci-fi silence.
That might be about to change. Under a proposal to be presented today, managers are asking the Metro board to entertain the idea of entertainment in stations, which has been banned since Metrorail opened 30 years ago.
The second-busiest subway system in the country is one of the few that prohibit music and other types of entertainment inside stations. And it means it. Repeat offenders are subject to a maximum punishment of a $100 fine and 10 days in jail. After all, this is a transit system built by an Army general and patrolled by police who once arrested a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry.
In the latest of several "customer-first" initiatives, Metro's interim general manager, Dan Tangherlini, thinks entertainment could make the ridership experience "more fun or interesting or peaceful" as the system gets more crowded. Ridership on Tuesday, with a Washington Nationals game at RFK Stadium, was 786,843 trips, the sixth highest ever.
"It's a nice, uplifting way to start the day," said Tangherlini, referring to music he has heard riding the New York and Boston subways. He said he likes reggae, Johnny Cash and everything in between.
The proposal lays out models for music that Metro could explore. The Chicago Transit Authority allows performances at stations with adequate space. In New York, auditions are held every spring, and performers who are selected receive permits to play in the 25 most desirable stations. One performer, singer Susan Cagle, caught the ear of a Columbia Records producer, signed a contract and recently released her first CD. It features six tracks recorded during rush hour at Times Square, a Columbia Records spokeswoman said.
Metro could also do joint promotions. If the circus is coming to the Verizon Center, clowns and jugglers could be part of a one-time promotion at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Station, said Jim Hughes, the agency's chief for operations support.
Metro has tried to bring music to the underground before. But the proposal mostly ran into deaf ears. "It just fell off the radar screen," recalled board Chairman Gladys Mack, who represents the District. Mack, who is fond of Broadway show tunes, said it might be time to consider new ideas.
"We have been extra cautious about introducing anything other than things purely related to transit," she said. "We have a board now that is willing to listen and a general manager who brings us fresh ideas to try."
Last month, the board gave the green light for Metro to pursue a pilot program allowing business kiosks in some stations. The board is also expected to approve credit card payments for parking. Currently, a SmarTrip card is required to exit a Metro lot.
Music in the stations is a concern for Metro police, who worry about solicitation and increases in thefts. If the board signs on, Tangherlini said, agency officials will work with police and local jurisdictions to "make it work."
Passengers such as Dennis Jaffe, who heads the Riders Advisory Council, worry that entertainers could get in the way of riders.
Board member T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County and had previously been lukewarm about the idea, said he would support entertainment if it was limited to defined areas and there was a process for weeding out "mud-bucket rancor."
"In a controlled fashion, if you could add some music to the chaos, it may have a calming effect," said Kauffman, who listens mostly to news but occasionally turns to light jazz and oldies.
Outside the Grosvenor-Strathmore Station entrance yesterday, Calvin Fox, 45, of Northeast Washington played an electric guitar and sang "Stairway to Heaven." At 9:30 a.m., the morning rush had passed, but in a few minutes he collected a few dollars and some change in his open guitar case.
His performance didn't last long. As a Metro transit officer approached, Fox muttered under his breath, "I can't catch a break."
Told that the board might change its tune on entertainment in the system, both men gave a hearty endorsement. "That would be great," the officer said. "Then we don't have to tell people like him to move."
The New York subway system is known for its troubadours. At the Columbus Circle station one recent afternoon, two young guitar players were packing up, sweating in the humidity. "I busted a string," said Jeremy Exelbert, 17, as he stuffed his battery-powered amplifier into a bag. "But we'll be back."
Exelbert and his partner, Aleksi Glick, also 17, have been showing up in the subway a few times a week for about five months. Typically, they play funk rock and jazz and spend about three hours below ground. On a good night -- when the crowds are in a giving mood -- they'll take in $50 or $60. They're not getting rich, but there are upsides.
"You get to improve and get more comfortable," Glick said. "The thing that is hard to get used to is playing when the trains go by." Just then, the uptown No. 1 roared by, drowning his words in a metallic roar. "Keeping time with another musician when that happens," Glick said when the sound had subsided, "that isn't easy."
Staff writer David Segal contributed to this report from New York.