Deck the Halls in N.Y. Subways

In holiday atmosphere, underground performers find spare-change boon

Summertime is prime time for the ambitious street musician, who can find crowds and appreciative out-of-towners (tippers) at such outdoor tourist spots as the South Street Seaport and Central Park.

But what's a hungry busker to do when winter chills the air?

Go underground.

"Everybody plays underground now," says a man who calls himself El Vate (Spanish for the poet or the bard), and calls his music Inka Jazz - a phone book-sized set of Peruvian wooden flutes played improvisationally over pre-recorded background music. "I've been underground for 11 years."

With more than 700 miles of tunnels, New York's subway system becomes a subterranean refuge this time of year for the bands of street performers who turn subway platforms and pedestrian tunnels into their stage.

"Christmas is a great time in New York City," says El Vate, as he prepares for a performance in the bowels of Penn Station, wedged in a corner between a McDonald's and a flower stand near a subway entrance. "Right now, like Christmas time, there's money everywhere on the street."

The trills and whistles of his pipes echo off the walls of the cavernous station. A small crowd soon gathers: a janitor taking a break from sweeping the floor; the guy at the flower stand; a barefoot man who appears to be homeless; a day visitor to the city from Long Island drops two quarters into El Vate's hat.

El Vate says most of his earnings are sent back to Peru, to support his wife and son. The month-long holiday season, roughly between Thanksgiving and New Year's, is a window of profitability in which musicians can make up to $100 a day.

It's grueling work. El Vate lugs an amplifier, compact disc player, speakers, and a car battery around town on an airplane baggage carrier, and works up to 10 hours a day. But at least he sets the terms.

"I'm happy doing this," he says. "I enjoy my freedom."

City officials say they have no idea how many musicians fill the subway tunnels this time of year because only a handful apply for the required solicitor's permit. But Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the city's Transit Authority, which runs New York's subways, says "mostly, the cops don't bother them."

In fact, the city actually encourages below-ground holiday music with a program called Music Under New York, which allows a few hand-picked performers to play - and put out their hats - at some choice commuter spots.

"We're trying to create a delightful diversion during Christmas time," says Sandra Bloodworth, head of the city's Arts in Transit program.

And once in a while, performing for the subway set can lead to stardom. Or, at least a record deal.

Patty Rothberg was "discovered" last year playing her acoustic guitar at a midtown subway stop and signed by EMI Records. Ms. Rothberg says her album, "Between the One and the Nine," is a testament to her humble beginning.

At the same subway stop beneath 42nd Street where Rothberg was discovered, a man who refers to himself as Cool G. - "You know, like Kenny G." - is playing Christmas songs on his saxophone to help pay his rent.

"This is the only gift God gave me. [It's] not what you'd call a high-paying job," he says. "But ... this is when I can make some real money, when people are in the spirit."

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