Tonight at Six: Professor Alvarado

At work in the city's subway system: 76-year-old Eduardo Alvarado
photo: Tema Stauffer

The show is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. and the Professor is right on time. His two assistants—his wife and son—arrive a few minutes later, pulling a shopping cart with equipment and a suitcase full of dolls. The Professor, 76, takes off his coat and drapes it over the cart, while his 16-year-old son Joshua prepares the stage: setting up the Yamaha keyboard on a stand; hanging a banner with the Professor's name; laying down two hats; putting out the dolls.

At night when he's sleeping, the Professor dreams of playing at Carnegie Hall. During the daytime, he performs on a less prestigious stage: the mezzanine of the Union Square subway station. This evening, he is booked from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. near the Q, R, N, and W trains, between two billboard ads for Head & Shoulders shampoo. The temperature outside is 25 degrees; every few minutes a bitter wind tears through the station.

After four years of playing in subway stations, Professor Eduardo Alvarado is one of the city's most recognizable performers, with his stooped shoulders, his gleaming white hair, and most notably, his four battery-operated dolls. Two male dolls—a trumpeter and sax player—stand atop his key- board; a boy with a violin and a cowboy hat is on the concrete floor; a blonde girl in shiny purple pants is poised on a speaker.

As the dolls begin to gyrate, the Professor places his fingers on the keys and starts the show.

Soon a small crowd gathers. The doll that attracts the most attention is the blonde girl in the middle, wiggling back and forth in a shirt too short to cover her plastic tummy, red lights blinking on her wrists. The Professor keeps playing: tangos, rumbas, Russian music, Beethoven's "F Elise." Nothing seems to deter him—not the half-audible squawk of the intercom nor the rumble of trains below.

Every minute or two, some- one drops a dollar in the Professor's hat, prompting him to smile and wave. A small boy walks up to the Professor and stands next to him, mesmerized by his moving hands. "I always see this man here," says Florence Evans, the boy's mother. "I love him. This man is good. It's Russian music, but he's Spanish."

"He's an old man doing what he has to do to survive," says a guy who calls himself Kilo. He stands next to Florence, watching the steady stream of people making donations. "If he sits here long enough, he'll clock $100." Florence walks up and drops a dollar in the Professor's hat.

Two wooden benches flank this makeshift stage. Eti Pino, 58, sits on one of them, tapping her boot in time to the beat. She met Eduardo Alvarado in 1964, when she was a 16-year-old student and he was a 33-year-old professor at a music conservatory in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. Today the Professor and Eti live together on West 136th Street. They've been married for 37 years.

She moved to New York City in 1990, and he arrived soon after. Both of them work as music teachers, giving private piano lessons. He teaches several other instruments, too, including guitar and accordion. They have four children and five grandchildren. One son works as a lawyer in Ecuador. A daughter runs a music school in Queens. Their youngest child, Joshua, is a high school student.

Eti admits that at first she felt "a little strange" about her husband performing in subway stations, but now she's filled with pride. "His passion is music and expanding the culture of music to other people," she says. To her, the Professor's subway shows are an extension of the work he did in Ecuador, which included conducting a 60-piece orchestra in Guayaquil and bringing concerts to local parks and schools.

Their son Joshua is more in-terested in basketball than music. But when the hats on the floor fill with money, he empties them. At precisely 8 p.m., he motions to his father that it's break time. The

Professor wanders off to find a bathroom outside, maybe at McDonald's or Starbucks, while Joshua and Eti get to work. She flattens the bills and counts them. Joshua picks up the dancing girl, turns her upside down, pushes up one of her pant legs, and changes the battery.

Twenty minutes later, the Professor returns and sits back down at his keyboard.

In 2002, the Professor applied to join Music Under New York, the program at the MTA that sched- ules subway performances. Two hundred people also sent in appli-cations, including video or audio tapes. The Professor and 64 others were invited to audition at Grand Central Terminal. The Professor brought his keyboard and performed before a panel of judges, but they rejected him.

Two years later, he applied again. By then he had added another element to his act: the dancing dolls. This time he made the cut. Now he brings three or four dolls with him almost every time he performs. "I adore the dolls like my own children," he says. "The ballerina is my daughter. The sax player and the trumpet player—they are my sons."

As a sanctioned performer with Music Under New York, he is able to perform regularly at some of the city's best underground locations. Twice a month, he receives a schedule card in the mail. It usually assigns him to play three days a week, three hours at a time. His regular spots are Times Square, Union Square, and the 74th Street station in Jackson Heights.

The Professor won't talk about how much money he earns, but he appears to make more than most subway musicians. For him, the most lucrative spot is Times Square, on the mezzanine near the S train. Fortunately, tonight Union Square is busy, and there are no other performers undermining the Professor's cash flow. No breakdancers with huge speakers drown out his music; no mimes painted silver pose nearby.

As rush hour passes the foot traffic slows, and the temperature in the station drops even more. Eti pulls on a pair of gloves and zips her parka all the way up. The Professor plays until precisely 9 p.m., when he gets up from behind his keyboard.

While Joshua packs the equipment, the Professor relaxes on a bench. He slips on his coat, which is miss- ing a couple buttons, and pulls a snack from his pocket, a hunk of orange cheese in a plastic wrapper.

Despite playing in the cold for nearly three hours, he does not seem worn out. He grins to passersby and fields questions from a fan he has just met. If he were still living in Ecuador, he says he'd likely be miserable, just passing the days waiting to die. Now, with his job performing in New York City's subway system, he says, "I plan to retire when I'm 100."

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