Fifty-ninth Street, 10:05 p.m.
Rochelle Thompson is standing in a glitter-flecked Santa hat and her stocking feet on the downtown platform at Columbus Circle. She was wearing galoshes earlier, but the red tartan rain boots now sit neatly beside her folding chair, her tapping toes protected from the grime of the tiles beneath by the sheer film of her nylons and a plastic grocery bag for good measure. Terri Davis, to her left, is wearing her shoes and a topper that matches Rochelle’s. The pair coordinated their looks today, as they do every day: Between the iridescent eyeliner, the fringe of false lashes, and the twin crimsons of Terri’s sweater set and the lipstick on Rochelle’s microphone, the two ladies — the Bebop Honeys, the Jazzy Platform, or the Underground Railroad Jazz Ministry, depending on which one of them you ask — banked on holiday flair when they dressed for working the subway this evening.
Or this afternoon, really. Rochelle and Terri, who have been singing together since meeting this past summer at an audition for a jazz gig — on “Satchmo’s birthday,” they’re quick to point out — perform for hours at a time in subway stations at least three days a week. Columbus Circle is their preferred venue.
“I learned when I came out here that there are certain good points where the cops won’t bother you,” says Terri. A guy with a ponytail and a soft guitar case slung over his shoulder sees the ladies, nods, and keeps walking down the platform. “Thirty-fourth Street on the D is good; we’ve heard the L is good, which we’ve never done, but we’ve heard that’s good at 14th Street — and West 4th, of course. The protocol is, we comb the platform: If there’s someone set up, we don’t set up near them so we don’t interfere with each other. One time we were out here, and this little boy, he couldn’t have been more than twelve, I just went up and asked him [to move] because he kept playing his buckets. There’s sort of an understanding: ‘How long are you going to be out here?’ It’s a respect the musicians have.”
They wish they could come out more, but their day jobs (Terri’s a Zumba instructor and piano teacher, Rochelle a housing advocate who works with children and seniors) keep them from the mic more often than not. Like plenty of subway musicians, Rochelle and Terri are unlicensed performers: They are not affiliated with MUSIC, or Musicians Under New York, the organization that holds annual auditions at Grand Central for street and subway performers. (Terri’s auditioned twice and been rejected both times.) By MTA directive, it’s cool to perform in the subways without a permit as long as your act goes unamplified, a rule that Rochelle and Terri routinely break. “The cops don’t bother us,” Terri says. “They’ve actually told us, ‘We don’t really want to shut you guys down,’ but if someone complains, they have to shut everyone down. But that’s only happened to us once.” (We’ve got Pope Francis’s visit and the attendant beefed-up subway security to thank for that.) They’re cool with going rogue — and prefer it, actually: MUSIC performers sign up for their slots in advance, whereas keeping the Underground Railroad Jazz Ministry on their own clock means that Terri and Rochelle can make their own schedule. On a good day, like today, they’ll head downtown from Harlem around 3 p.m. with their minimal setup: an amp; Terri’s iPhone; iReal, an app that supplies the backing tracks to their repertoire; and their microphones.
“I’ve always wanted to do the holiday season here,” says Terri. “I got my first little machine a couple of winters ago. The first time I did it, I was scared to death, but my daughter came out here with me, and I was like, ‘That’s not so bad!’ I’ve gotten gigs from it. Sometimes people put $20. I had a guy put $67 in one time; he put all the money in [from] his backpack.”
They’re suited for singing in December, and the seasonal standards weave seamlessly into well-worn arrangements for jazz classics. “I wish you would’ve been here earlier,” Rochelle says. “We did ‘Santa Baby’ with some new lyrics. She’s talking about paying her rent and the Con Ed bill. ‘Santa, baby/Come straight to the ghetto’ — people were like, ‘You’re keeping it real!’ It was just wonderful, feeding off of the people.”
When a passerby tips them $5, Rochelle blows a kiss without missing a beat. The doors close, the tipper is gone, and they segue between “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” They stay until they’re ready to pack up and leave. Tonight, they’re still on the platform around 10 p.m., just as the crowds from whatever’s letting out at the Metropolitan Opera House file out beneath the concert hall’s grand chandelier and make their way south seven blocks and ultimately home. When both the A and the D arrive at the same time, two couples part in a flurry of cheek-kisses and embraces made clumsy by stiff wool and urgency. Rochelle beams. “There goes a beautiful family!”
As Rochelle and Terri reach for their coats, on the cusp of calling it a night, an older gentleman — one of the Lincoln Center crowd, betrayed by his pocket square and drunk-on-finery demeanor — leaves the bespectacled fellow he descended the stairs with and saunters over to the ladies. His vowels, like his steps, are viscous and slow.
“Whaaaaat are yoooou gonna siiing?!”
The ladies are tickled, and the warmth of “The Christmas Song” — that old chestnut about, well, chestnuts, the kind that roast on an open fire — leaves those standing on the platform with their eyes all aglow. Pocket Square peels off a $20 and deposits it in the tip jar; he hands a $10 to his friend, who fingers it shyly before doing the same.
“This has been wonderful for me. It’s funny — people, they got their New York thing on,” Rochelle later shares. ” ‘I refuse to smile.’ I just make ’em do it. It’s wonderful how they transform.
“The people are absolutely beautiful,” she adds. “Music is a healing thing. I mean it. If you don’t have presents, do an act of kindness for someone, especially with what we just went through two weeks ago. The people really get it. When you see the children come and putting a dollar in, they’re just so proud — it’s just wonderful for the human spirit.”
If there’s any time of year to be reminded of this — the human spirit — it’s now. And if there’s any place to find it, it’s on a New York City subway platform just before the minute hand rolls over to the late shift, when the sound of a saxophone or two ladies harmonizing on “Jingle Bells” is enough to make you miss your train.