By James Maher
Name: Melissa Elledge
Occupation: Musician, Subway Performer
Location: East 9th Street and 1st Avenue
Date: July 31, Second Avenue F stop
I just finished a solo CD a few months ago for a suggested donation. I’ve met so many people and I’ve gotten a lot of gigs from it too. You’re a walking business card. That’s the reason why I’m in probably half the bands I’ve been in.
I also decided to tryout to get a permit for Music Under New York (MUNY). They give you a permit to play. There are certain stations that you need a permit to play in, like Grand Central and Union Square. It’s kind of hard to get a permit. About 300 people apply every year. When you apply you send in a CD or DVD and they choose about 50 to audition and, of those, about 25 get permits.
So I got one in 2012, but I don’t really play in those spots a lot. I tend to stick to 2nd Avenue on the downtown F and at 14th Street and 6th Avenue. The MUNY spots are not actually lucrative. Times Square is just a million people walking by and they have all these different paths. On a platform they have to walk by you. It’s a captive audience. I feel closer to the public down there. People think that I get most of my tips from tourists, but it’s really not. It’s people who work and live in the neighborhood.
There are people who give me a dollar every single time they see me. And tourists appreciate it like it’s part of their tour package. You’re constantly looked at like you’re in a fishbowl and I’m like, ‘No, I’m doing this for a living.’ I’m not just a statue. People sometimes see me down there and they think, ‘Oh she’s so mysterious, where does she live?’ I want people to know that I’m not a mole person. I actually live somewhere. I live in the East Village. This is my job.
I did actually get robbed and assaulted when I was busking once. This was two years ago. It was bizarre because even that was under the guise of being loved. It was this crazy crackhead lady. I saw her the day before and even that was weird. She was like, ‘Oh, you are so great, you go girl’ and just chatting me up and everything. She was like, ‘Hey I just have a $5 bill, I’m just going to get change.’
I had this weird feeling that day that she took more than she put down and I kind of made a mental note that it was time to stop letting people do that. So the very next day I was in the same spot at the same time and I saw her again and once again she was like, ‘Oh man, you’re so great, I love it when you’re here’ and she was chatting up everybody on the platform. I was watching her and she started standing closer and closer to me and the train comes up and then all of a sudden her hand plunged into my case. I stopped playing and pushed her hand away and said, ‘What are you doing?’ She was like, ‘Oh, I just dropped a $20 in there and I’m just getting change.’ There wasn't a $20 in there.
The train was there but nobody was noticing. There were hundreds of people around and it was like 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’m trying to attract attention. She was huge, like twice my size, and she’s trying to push me back. I’m just grabbing at her and then she just turns around out of nowhere and just punches me in the mouth. I’ve never been hit in the face in my life. It was like a dream until I felt the taste of blood in my mouth. I didn’t know what to do and so I just kicked her as hard as I could and then she turned around and punched me in the nose as hard as she could. But the funny thing was that the whole time she was taking her time to get into the train. She was not running down the platform or into the train. She was still obeying the law of etiquette where you let people off the train. She was waiting in a line of people to get on ... You can rob people, but you’ve got to follow the rules of the train. It’s been enough years where I can forgive her and say at least she knew that part.
I spent the rest of the day with the cops and they asked me, 'So are you going to keep doing this? Are you going to be back tomorrow or next week?' I was sitting there covered in blood and tears and sweat in early July, and I said I didn’t know. I felt very differently about what I was doing but they all said independently of each other that 'this is just an isolated incident. You can’t let this keep you from doing this. This is what you love to do and the city likes subway musicians.' I took a week off and then went back to the same spot.
There are people who come to this city and they expect something from it. They expect the city to give them something. I’ve never taken that viewpoint. I always felt like if I wasn’t giving something, I felt bad.
There were a couple of dark years after I got my master's and before I started playing the accordion and I would look at people collecting the trash or doing construction and I would envy them because they were actually putting something back into the city. I wasn’t doing that. I was just checking coats at Don Hills. I never want to feel like that, to feel like I wasn’t contributing, and for me that is playing in the subway. It’s a small thing to do. It’s not like I’m building places for the homeless but it’s my contribution.
Read Part 1 here.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.