Cast In Concrete #7: Lenna Pierce Reminds Us Why the Worst Parts of the Subway System Should Still Be Saved

Cast In Concrete tracks Vijith Assar as he records New York City's street musicians. If you'll be busking nearby soon and would like to appear in a future installment, please let him know.

Who: Lenna Pierce, d.b.a. Meaner Pencil

When: November 1st, 11:30pm

Where: C line, Nostrand Avenue station, Manhattan-bound platform

Cast In Concrete #7: Lenna Pierce Reminds Us Why the Worst Parts of the Subway System Should Still Be Saved
It's just about midnight on the day the New York City subway system has finally started to reopen after its thrashing at the hands of Hurricane Sandy earlier this week, and I have no earthly business being on the C platform at the Nostrand Avenue station. Even compared to other subway platforms, this is an unpleasant place. The rats here seem bigger than usual, and they sure as hell run up closer to me; even setting my bag down on the ground makes me wish I had brought a half-gallon jug of Purell.

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In fact, the last time I was here, JFK-bound on a quiet Saturday morning a few months ago, I had the misfortune of stumbling across a wall dripping with human feces before the poor soul on the MTA roster who handles such things had been called in. There's always a lot of mysterious gunk floating around down here, but in this case the angle of attack and splatter pattern left no doubt as to the horrors that had transpired overnight. I'm certainly not above the humble poop joke, especially when writing for the Village Voice, but the thought of a human being reduced to such a degrading position because the city's delivery mechanism for poor people refused to take them home late one night is actually still incredibly depressing to me.

Mercifully, the remnants have long been washed away; by Sandy if nothing else, but deliberate cleanup also seems like a safe assumption even for the line that was recently named the city's worst. The best, as anyone from southern Brooklyn can tell you, is certainly the Q, after which the National Weather Service has named one of the as-yet-unborn storms from the upcoming season. With God and the Voice's readership as my witness, when they finally get her up and running again, I will be buying cupcakes for the station attendants.

Apologies to Lenna Pierce, since she is a terrific singer who could handily dispense with more formidable foils than the one I've just provided. You can hear her throughout the station; cops and MTA workers on the unused MTA platforms upstairs are doing their damnedest to look nonchalant about her performance, self-accompanied on cello, but I'm not buying it, because this is just too beautiful. "I used to be a choir girl," she tells me, as though that should somehow be considered an adequate explanation. She's tucked away in a remote corner of the station, surrounded by rats, late at night on a night when nobody is taking the trains because they aren't yet going anywhere useful, and she doesn't even have her hat out or her case open, and yet still the one other guy waiting on the platform comes over to offer her his change. She takes off her hat in order to oblige him.

Our meeting here tonight is prearranged -- uncharacteristic for this subway recording series thus far, but possible thanks to your much-appreciated tips, and understandable, I would hope, given the circumstances. Making this happen was a complete pain, but the moment she opened her mouth, I knew it was worth it. We're actually functioning a lot more like a proper recording session than usual, in that it is really starting to feel like she wouldn't be playing for anyone else if I weren't here. She's a little worried that the cops might come shut us down. I am not.

That voice, man. It's like something echoing out from history itself, like it should be trained on weighty Celtic spirituals instead of the inconsequential love songs that typically concern us mortals. The cello all but disappears here, buried unceremoniously by the futility of trying to keep up. Pierce is a thoroughbred chamber music expert who decided to take the singer-songwriter route because the classical world provides precious few opportunities to both sing and play at the same time, which is unfortunate since she loves the synchronous vibrations that come from resting the instrument against her sternum. "Hymn," our featured selection tonight, was actually a brand new untitled piece until thirty seconds ago, but I insisted that I'd need to give it a filename at some point. A fan at a show once suggested the title, and she can't think of anything else on the spot, so here we are. Pierce later explains, "it's the most intense" and "I wanted you to have the freshest produce." Her instincts here were correct.

For me this has all been a bizarre sensation, watching my neighbors get flattened by the storm. Pierce has done this before, though. "I grew up in Nebraska," she says later, "so we are used to severe weather, tornadoes mostly. A tornado comes down and it wrecks a few houses or a small town, then all the neighbors come and help rebuild. Hurricanes wreck whole regions so the devastation is more overwhelming and help feels further away." I suspect that's also your illuminating backstory for the curious anecdote she uses to introduce one of her other songs a bit later on: "A girl started crying really hard one day when I was playing in the subway," she says, "and I didn't know any songs to comfort her, so I had to write this one." Nobody bothered to build the ark, but the great flood doesn't care and shows up anyway, and then the only animals that show up expecting to be rescued are the goddamn rats.

When we were done, I took the subway home -- via a circuitous route that barely made more sense than walking, but I was thrilled to have the option again. I can only imagine how the full-time buskers who rely on subway rush hours for their livelihoods must feel right now. Pierce says this is going to be a rough month for her.

And the wait? Maybe there's hope, even for the C line -- entirely reasonable by any measure, better even than some I'd weathered back in the old days, when I wasn't living in a federal disaster area. That's only counterintuitive if you make the mistake of thinking you understand how these things work in the first place. Fact is, tragedies and trains both come and go as they please, ostensibly following timetables that utterly mystify the rest of us. New York has seen its share -- for someone, a small one on this very platform three months ago, now a natural disaster that has left us all stranded or destitute or worse, and some darker still such that even Sandy couldn't wash them away. An endless supply just over the horizon, but there's really nothing to be done about it, aside from trying to make the most of the time in between. Good luck, see you next time.

In the hat: I donated ten bucks to the Red Cross relief effort instead, and I hope you will do the same.


Hymn [FLAC, via MediaFire]
Hymn [mp3]

Meaner Pencil performs regularly at the Lorimer-Metropolitan station. Since that's still shut down, you should instead make plans to go see her at perform at Vaudeville Park on 11/17. If you are nice, maybe she will let you name one of her songs.


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