by Ana Maria Toro

Perhaps more than in any other city in the country, New York depends heavily on its trains: by connecting five spread-out boroughs, they are the veins that pump life into the city and give it its collective heartbeat. The long steel cars that announce their arrival like an angry beast hold inside a microcosm of life in the big city.

The subway might be the only place in this stratified metropolis where a stockbroker in his thousand-dollar suit sits right next to the immigrant heading to his second job; where French-manicured fingers and callused hands hold on to the same pole to keep from tumbling down.

However, what gives New York City trains its unique flavor is the myriad of performers who turn the subways into an underground carnival of singers, musicians, dancers, preachers, and freaks. Sure, taxicabs and tour busses can take you from Times Square to Battery Park, but nowhere else will you get the bizarre spectacle of a sermon of hellfire and damnation being interrupted by a quick and impromptu Peruvian music concert.

Those with a message to convey or a talent to display realize that they have a captive audience in subway riders. They board at busy stations and make the trains and platforms a stage for their performance. So it’s no surprise that while you may have front-row seats to sold-out Broadway shows, chances are that the performances that will truly move you won’t require advance tickets or a dress code. Instead, they will happen unexpectedly and enthrall you with their unencumbered magic: the elderly Chinese man who goes from station to station playing the erhu, or the gloomy teenager playing a punk-rock version of “Like a Virgin” on his guitar. A good tip is to bring along some extra dollars and loose change to give to these lively performers, many of whom make a living out of entertaining passers-by with a song or a dance move.

The entrepreneurial spirit of these performers is the reason why the best stations to catch a “show” are the ones close to big tourist and shopping areas, such as Times Square, 34th Street Station, and Union Square. These entertainers, hungry for the attention and generosity that they don’t usually get from jaded New Yorkers, know that awestruck tourists have time and money to spare.

At these busy stations you are likely to find sinewy teenagers blasting old-school Michael Jackson, getting everyone to clap along to “Billy Jean” and mesmerizing passersby with their boundless energy; or a woman in a wheelchair belting out Billie Holiday songs in a heartbreaking voice; or an ingenious salsa dancer with a life-size rag doll as his dance partner. The train stations themselves serve as worthy places for these artistic enterprises, as many are decorated with beautiful mosaics and sculptures.

People from all over the world come to New York City to live up to the maxim that has come to define living and struggling in the Big Apple: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Those with dreams of making it big as entertainers, or even those just eager to make some money off their talent, have made the gritty subways unlikely spaces for talent showcases: places to be seen, heard, and applauded. In the process, these citizens of the world have added a special spice to New York’s urban medley, making a train ride in the sweltering heat of summer or the bitter winter cold less routine and infinitely more entertaining.

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Ana Maria Toro was born and raised in Medellin, Colombia, and came to the United States when she was a teenager. Ever since she left her motherland, she has taken every chance she gets to travel, be it going to Canada with her family, visiting friends teaching English in China, or moving to London to study (an experience that included more country-hopping that book-hitting). After living in San Francisco for four years, Ana Maria now resides in New York City.

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