Trick

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch [Joshua] Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
–Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast”

look mama
a man with a stick making a song
on a funny-looking box
stuck to his chin

come along honey we’ll be late

look how he stands & rocks mama
like a tree in the wind
& the box as shiny as fresh-shined shoes
where his voice should be

hush it’s only a street musician
don’t let him catch you looking

but mama
look how the song goes all around
from the same back & forth
isn’t that the most magic trick
you ever heard

it’s only a violin honey
hurry up we’ll be late

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

20 Comments


  1. There you go Dave — The street fiddler has days of blog ennui. He feels just as empty when bright young women tosses him a single as he does when a fat cat businessman drops a bunch of quarters. He hates stares as much as deliberate snubs.
    But when the innocent see in him something original, he is revived.
    And he plays another day.

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  2. Who set this thing up? Hildy Johnson?

    He couldn’t just do it on his own, without the press, agents, movie camera? If he had gone alone, something legend might have been born. And that title! The working stiff is a swine? Sheesh! The tone of this piece really riled me up, which has been kind of fun, but needs must it be rubbed in he gets paid a thousand dollars a minute! And that HE’S NOT GAY!

    Ahem. Pardon me; sorry.

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  3. I agree with Bill; the general tone of the NY Times piece annoyed me. The digression on the wondrous qualities of a Stradivarius violin, an instrument only available to the rich and favored, was once-again-rehashed violin-world myth. Ho hum!

    I did enjoy the interviews with the harried “swine” on their way to work.

    Better than the article by far was Dave’s verse distillation, a child’s view while being hurried past.

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  4. Yikes! I somehow missed the snotty swiney ‘Pearls before’ inference in the article. In addition I’d have felt a lot better about the sampling if Bell had placed himself in the park or mall on a Sunday afternoon instead of a busy terminal where harried people are rushing to get to work. The Bach was obviously somewhat stacked. That being said, your poignant hymn to a child was still a jolt for adults to stop, smell the roses, and listen to the music. A ‘little child shall lead them’ if they don’t yank him away too soon. I love that sense of wonder in the young ones. Herein a plug for more art and music in the elementary schools augmented by parents and grandparents’ Sunday strolls with young children.

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  5. Phil – Though I certainly am not as good a writer as Bell is a musician, I thought the whole discussion of framing was very relevant to the dilemma one faces as a literary blogger. Real buskers are very inspirational to me. I have given poetry readings where I was roundly ignored by most of the people present, and let me tell you, it’s a bruising experience.

    Bill, Larry and Joan – Thanks much for the comments, but I’m sorry to disagree: I thought the piece (in the Wash Post, BTW, not the NY Times) was brilliant. Sure, the part about the Strad was so much fluff, but I found the article in general not at all snotty. The author freely admitted to not being a fan of classical music himself, spoke very highly of a song by the Cure, and admits in the accompanying discussion that he probably wouldn’t have stopped himslef if he’d been one of the commuters. Yes, the results would probably have been different if it had been done somewhere else, or at a different time of day, but so what? This was not a controlled experiment. The whole point, to me, was to show the extent to which busyness and schedule-worship have taken over our lives. The kids aren’t uniquely gifted in their ability to perceive great music; they just saw something unusual and attractive and wanted to stop.

    I strongly encourage you to read the author’s discussion and response to his email critics, many of them making the very points you made.

    As for the title implying swinishness, I agree that it’s a little unfair. The pig is a very intelligent animal, whereas these commuters were apparently all government functionaries.

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  6. Dave, great response!

    A pliable quality of attention is a lovely thing
    but I’ve no ability for it,
    which I would like to ignore.

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  7. In hell, or on earth
    what keeps everyone so busy?
    Forgetting paradise.

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  8. In our culture, a basic part of “socializing” our kiddies is teaching them to look at what they’re “supposed” to be seeing, rather than all the people and things that are Officially Invisible. To look past the doors marked Inappropriate and Unimportant is a radical act, and children who don’t learn their lessons are liable to Make Trouble. (good for them!)

    </sardonic>

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  9. A friend mentioned that story to me yesterday. I read it but couldn’t watch the video clip as my net connection was too slow. I didn’t feel it was judgmental of the commuters, but was more a comment on our times and the state of urban society — that we are so conditioned to rush around getting stuff done, and so desensitized to stimuli, that we don’t pay attention to the beauty that surrounds us, even when it comes up and bites us on the ass. As you might guess, I feel that way about people walking by, or accidentally trampling on, the natural world (if I had a dime for every Narceus millipede I’ve seen crushed flat on hiking trails, I’d be very wealthy indeed). I thought it interesting that it was the children who wanted to linger and watch Bell play. It’s also the children who want to stop and look at flowers or frogs, or pet a goat or cow in a field. Instead, we tug them along, training them to be just as mad and desensitized as us. I suspect it’s a survival strategy — one that is required in order to function in an urban environment.

    Being the hermit that I am, when I venture into cities these days, the single-minded rushing about makes me incredibly anxious… and yes, I find people barely seem to look at each other. I do look at people… studying them carefully, noticing the sadness on this person’s face, the painful limp of that person… the homeless person sitting wrapped in a blanket with his dog beside him. I seem to lack some immunity to these sights and they soon leave me feeling sad and overwhelmed. I know I would have stopped and watched and listened to Bell, as I have stopped and watched other street musicians in the past, but probably because I’ve been marching to the beat of a different drummer for most of my life.

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  10. 1
    I would have stopped and listened and given money. We city dwellers all have our habits, and that’s one of mine. Buskers are god. Unless they suck, then they’re not.

    2
    I would have recognized Joshua Bell anyway, in which case I would have stopped and listened and whispered conspiratorially to him about his Sibelius recording.

    3
    This gimmick has been done before, by Yo Yo Ma, who played the Bach Cello Suites on a traffic island on 42nd street a few years ago. It’s a good gimmick, but it’s tasteless to make so much noise about it as Bell has done.

    3
    I like your poem a lot Dave. I think it touches on something that hasn’t been really addressed by the other commenters: the child enjoys the virtuoso as a non-virtuoso. It’s a funny-shaped box that makes a curious sound. It’s about paying attention, not about what’s paid attention to.

    4
    Under the conventional story about people being in too much of a rush to recognize the sound of a virtuoso and a Stradivarius, there’s another, more telling tale. That’s a story about snobbishness, “classical music” and the American aspirational ideal. No one, not even Heifetz himself, would be able to identify a Strad in a noisy station. It’s like cooking with wine: as long as the wine is halfway decent, you’re fine. If you want to pour your 1968 Chateau Lafite into the beef bourguignon, be my guest, but you’re wasting good wine. It’s a story about branding. When people have lost the confidence or interest in deciding for themselves what is moving or noble, they rely on brand names to do it for them. So, Joshua Bell and the Strad becomes a shortened form for a kind of greatness, and everyone pretends to be shocked (shocked!) that the swine rush by him. In reality, he might not be appreciably different–at least in the context of L’Enfant Plaza–from an accomplished undergraduate student from the Peabody Conservatory, playing on an average 20th century violin.

    5
    Where attention and the skills of discrimination once were, brand names have been substituted. “It’s a Matisse,” they say, “it’s a Stradivarius. Those men are dressed like butlers so the music must be great. The conductor flails about a lot, so he must be insightful.” But it all means nothing unless the receiving intelligence is meeting the creating intelligence at least half-way.

    6
    No wonder people didn’t stop at L’Enfant. The man wasn’t dressed like a parking valet. It wasn’t in a concert hall. He didn’t stride on stage with a severe and self-important expression on his face. And you call that classical music?

    6
    I’m going to stand at Grand Central and intone Emily Dickinson’s BEST poems. And I’ll be shocked (shocked!) if a crowd doesn’t gather and slowly swoon.

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  11. Bill – Thanks for the poetic responses! I especially like your suggestion in the second that, to a certain extent, our distraction is part of a conscious effort to forget. But this seems to conflict with your first response. And I have to say, I’m always a little bothered by variations on “that’s just the way I am.” You have as much ability to pay attention as anyone else; you just haven’t made a priority of it. I’m not saying you should — that’s up to you. Just don’t claim ineptitude, because I don’t believe it — and your own second thought seems to admit as much.

    David – I couldn’t have said it better. Kids are instinctive anarchists. We are at our best whenever we manage to recapture the kind of seeing (and hearing) that once came naturally to us.

    bev – This is a very important corollary, and I thank you for bringing it up. I’ve watched a lot of little kids explore nature (without, of course, any notion that the world is divided up between two moieties called “nature” and “human”) — enough to agree with E.O. Wilson that biophila is an inborn inclination (and I don’t agree with E.O. Wilson on very much). But like creativity and spontaneous affection, it’s an inclination that’s all too easy to stifle and overwhelm. Urban environments seem designed to desensitize, perhaps because they are designed by captives who love their captivity. But I don’t think it has to be that way. Authentic neighborhoods are a joy to visit and inhabit; I agree with Aristotle that human beings are creatures made for the polis — even if that polis is a circle of temporary shelters around a fire, as it must have been for 95% of our history as a species. As conservationists, I think it’s imperative that we align ourselves with the New Urbanists in figuring out how to make towns and cities more livable and humane. Creating spaces for street musicians to perform is obviously one small piece of the puzzle — but it will have to be accompained by a slowing down of the pace of life sufficient to allow people to enjoy the music in the first place.

    Teju – Oh, lord, a numbered response! I figured you might have something to day about this, my friend, and you didn’t disappoint.

    1
    I believe you. But then, you’re a grad student working on a part-time schedule, are you not?

    2
    Not me. I barely heard of him. I focus on composers rather than performers, I’m afraid.

    3
    The Post seemed unaware of that. A couple other parallels are cited in the discussion, though, and someone linked to a video of Bruce Springsteen playing on the street in Europe and attracting relatively little notice. I’m not one to pass judgement on tastefulness or lack thereof, being in real life a bit lacking in taste myself. I don’t understand why pro wrestling is not accorded the same respect as any other form of improvisational theater, for example.

    3 #2
    Thanks.

    4
    Very good point. (And speaking of tastelessness, I’m quite happy cooking with cheap, store-brand cooking wine, thankyouverymuch.) I particularly appreciate this point coming from you, since you don’t seem as uncomfortable as I am with the concept of greatness per se — correct me if I’m wrong — and I think you’re probably a better listener than I am, too. So I appreciate the nuance here. Yeah, it’s about branding and snobbishness. NPR had a good series on the history of music on radio last month, and I was surprised to learn just how great a role broadcasts of classical music played in the homogenization of the airwaves after the initial flowering of diversity. People were quite explicit about this being the music of social uplift, as opposed to the primitive sounds from the immigrant ghettoes and the mountains and the lascivious jungle music of the Negro.

    5
    The dialogic nature of performance: yes.

    6
    I like “parking valet” better than “butler.” Because let’s face it, even classical music concert-goers in this country can’t afford butlers any more. Or so I’d like to think.

    You should come here for a performance of the Altoona Symphony sometime. This may be typical of community orchestras in general, I don’t know, but after the maestro strides onstage and mounts the platform, he always turns toward the audience, smiling, and gives a five-minute introduction to the music he’s about to play, in a very personable, down-home manner.

    6 #2
    Great! Do it! (And get a friend to videotape it, will you?)

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  12. Every day I am given the gift of attention and every day I spend it all.

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  13. Well, much has been said already, but I will give my nickel. I read your poem first and enjoyed it, but didn’t quite understand. I read the epigraph (is that what it’s called?) and immediately recognized the name. I had just seem Joshua Bell (on a free ticket, mind you) at Penn State a couple weeks ago.

    I enjoyed the WP article very much. I must admit, I was a bit judgmental of the hurried drones; I would have stopped. And I’m not saying that to be snobbish. I say that because 1) Stacy (my boyfriend) used to be one of those performers in subway stations, and 2) I make it a point to stop for beauty. It’s not an easy thing to do and I have to work very hard at it. But I decided some odd time ago that I wasn’t going to live my life as a hurried along drone. I need beauty to survive. And between nature and people – there is much to be experienced!

    So, to try and not be long winded — I felt sorry for those some odd thousands of souls that did not experience beauty that day — even if only for a moment. I used to speed to work, and then realized that it wouldn’t much matter in the long run if I made it there at 7:45 or 7:47. Two minutes less time to stare at a blank computer screen or two minutes of (in this case) musical bliss.

    I hope that doesn’t come off as snobby — it’s just how I feel about…. life. (That being said: in order to ensure I can experience beauty I have made a conscious decision to not enter into fast-paced, high-powered jobs. That’s why I live in rural PA and not Washington D.C.)

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  14. oh — and after I read the article, I re-read your poem. And enjoyed it even more. Suggestion of titles:

    — Magic Trick
    — Look Mama
    — Don’t Let Him Catch You Looking (I really like this as a title of a poem, but maybe not for this particular one.)

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  15. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, you’re right, “Trick” by itself may not be the best title. I could probably live with “The Most Magic,” or something similar.

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  16. Any poet could’ve told Joshua Bell what the result would be…

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  17. Shhhhhhhhhhh! Teju might be listening. I don’t want to crush his high hopes.

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  18. Some second-round comments:

    This gimmick has been done before, by Yo Yo Ma, who played the Bach Cello Suites on a traffic island on 42nd street a few years ago. It’s a good gimmick, but it’s tasteless to make so much noise about it as Bell has done.

    Well, there’s also a bunch of now-famous types who started out performing on the street. Whoopi Goldberg comes to mind offhand, as she was a bragging point around Cambridge MA. And it’s not Bell that’s making the noise here, it’s the clapper (that is, the paper).. ;-) Yeah, this stunt is kind of a standard demonstration, but still worth repeating once in a while.

    biophila is an inborn inclination …. But like creativity and spontaneous affection, it’s an inclination that’s all too easy to stifle and overwhelm.

    An excellent point!

    Urban environments seem designed to desensitize, perhaps because they are designed by captives who love their captivity. But I don’t think it has to be that way.

    Rather than invoking the induced masochism of slavery, consider these ideas:

    First, desensitization can be a rational response to overcrowding. If you’re surrounded with a horde of humans who aren’t socially connected to you, that’s in and of itself a stressful situation, and withdrawal is a classic response. There have been studies made about to how, for example, the wide vs. narrow sidewalks of various neighborhoods in NYC affect people’s interactions, and yeah, more room means more social interaction and friendlier attitudes.

    Second, a lot of our modern urban environment has built “on the cheap”, and it’s ugly! In this respect I agree with you, it doesn’t have to be this way. But even with more attention to aesthetics, I doubt that we can make urban environments as rich as a forest or suchlike…

    And I have to say, I’m always a little bothered by variations on “that’s just the way I am.â€? You have as much ability to pay attention as anyone else; you just haven’t made a priority of it.

    Well, actually… people do differ in their attentional abilities, just like in any other cognitive (or physical) ability. My own autistic disorder gives me a broader range of attentional states, but switching among them takes more effort, and i’m easily stunned by sensory overload. The upshot is that I really do need to “budget” my attention over the long term.

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  19. I don’t know if I’m more “attentional abilities” than others or not, but I do know that the world is so interesting–at least here, in this city–that sometimes sheer awe and stopping to gawk at things doubles the length of time it takes me to get anywhere.

    Dave, you suggested, above that I’m less uncomfortable than you are with the idea of greatness. That might be true. On the one hand, greatness is there–of the work, at least, if not of the artist (few people are consistently great). It’s there at least as experienced by someone who knows what’s going on. The way one person can tell a healthy moose just by looking at it, the same way another can tell if a sonata has been ingeniously put together.

    On the other hand, you’ve had much more experience developing counter-cultural and idiosyncratic tastes than I have. I’ve only been doing it seriously for fifteen years, while you basically took it in with your mother’s milk. So, it’s no surprise if I’m still a little stuck on conventional categories like “great.”

    For now, I’m willing to assert that high culture (of any origin) and low culture (ditto) are worth attending to, the latter because great things come out of suffering, the former because great things come out of technique and wealth. Be it Heian poetry or Appalachian fiddling, it can be great. What’s less interesting to me is the middle-brow stuff, the “Mozart is good for you” crowd, the stuff that’s calculated to appeal to mass taste.

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