Monday, April 09, 2007

In a Station of the Metro

[posted by Callimachus]

Charles Babbage invented the computer while Queen Victoria was still a young woman. Lord Byron's daughter, by Byron's detested mathematical wife, helped him do it in one degree or another that can not now be determined, since the historians who study this question are glamored by the celebrity name, and the feminism, and hopelessly invested on one side or another of the question.

That is, Babbage would have invented the modern computer had the technology been available. He hit upon the exact idea that makes a modern computer work, but the technology available to him was brass and wood. He did the best he could, but his machine never came close to being finished. The discovering had to be done all over again in the 1930s.

Yet Babbage is father to our times, our age, our culture. And it is a little known but significant detail of his life that Babbage detested street musicians. He inveighed against it in print ("Observations of Street Nuisances," 1864). He calculated that 25% of his working life had been destroyed by street nuisances. In part that was because he made his contempt for them so public that the public couldn't resist the urge to torment him "with an unending parade of fiddlers, Punch-and-Judys, stilt-walkers, fanatic psalmists, and tub-thumpers. Some neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows. Others willfully annoyed him with worn-out or damaged wind instruments."

What called to mind that trivia today (I learned it by reading Hugh Kenner's obscure, perfect little book, "The Counterfeiters") was this.

Edna Souza is from Brazil. She's been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza [the Washington, D.C., Metro station] for six years, and she's had her fill of street musicians there; when they play, she can't hear her customers, and that's bad for business. So she fights.

Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side. Either way, she's got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last long.

On a certain afternoon in January, she had another one in her sights. But the modern-day Babbage let him go -- reluctantly.

He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag, sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned musicians, but: "He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn't call the police."

The "pretty good" guy, it turns out, was internationally acclaimed virtuoso Joshua Bell, who routinely sells out stately concert halls where the cheap seats cost a good deal more than the $32.17 in spare change he raked in in 43 minutes of playing in the subway for strangers (one person did recognize him).

Someone got the bright idea to stand him up in the subway like just another scrounger and see what would happen. What happened was pretty predictable, to most of us, I imagine. But what about the stunt? Just another "Borat"-type exercise in proving what a lot of ridiculous rubes we Americans are?

Have you ever stopped in your tracks to listen to a musician in the subway? I have, in New York City. We even have a couple of tapes and CDs from performers first encountered in that venue.

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