Mexican Immigrant Plays Music for Subway Riders

Mexican immigrant accordion player "norteño" music on the R line in Manhattan. 2016 Marco Garcia
Mexican immigrant accordion player “norteño” music on the R line in Manhattan. 2016 Marco Garcia

As I made my way down towards the R train at Union Square to catch the subway, I heard the sounds of an accordion playing norteño music, or Mexican polka music, coming from deep inside the station.  The melodies quickly transported me back to my hometown of San Antonio filling me with memories of long ago.  Over the years I lived in New York, I’ve never heard Mexican music played in a subway station before so I rushed down the platform to find the musician playing these familiar sounds.

People have always entertained the crowds in the NYC subway as it doesn’t take much to set up in an open nook and play for the thousands passing through any station daily.  From  opera singers to blues guitarists, to a homeless guy banging on discarded trash bins, people have entertained in hopes of being discovered, or just to make a few bucks in tips.  In the past, many ethnic groups have also played their music as well.  And as Mexican immigrants are the fastest growing Hispanic population in the area, it doesn’t surprise me to hear norteño music now played in the stations.

The musical notes led to me to a middle-aged Hispanic male wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans jacket.  He expertly played his Horner accordion and his melodies sang of a town far away, a family separated, a lover no longer waiting.  His fingers walked up and down the keyboard and his arms pulled and squeezed air through the bellows.  He played the song of immigrants…of people who left for something better and of sacrifice and sadness in the new land.  His tunes reminded me we are all immigrants as we have all left something behind in search of something else.  I left Texas for New York and then for Hawaii, leaving many people in the past and the memories from there.

I listened to him play for a few seconds but the train arrived suddenly.  So I quickly pulled out my camera and snapped off a few frames not realizing my outdoor setting on the camera couldn’t handle the darkness on the platform.  Just as the doors were closing, I dropped a few dollars into his tip jar and rode off towards Times Square.

The pictures ended up being “the last on the roll” as I was returning to Hawaii the next day.  As I sat on the train, I looked at the digital display on the back of my camera and lamented the wrong settings.  The image was blurry but it conveyed, like his music, the melody in the subway.  Underneath his hat, I saw a man, not unlike many of the people I grew up around in Texas.  He was a neighbor, a stranger I saw at the Lake, or the man playing in the mariachi band at Market Square.  He was familiar to me but could not find his face in Hawaii.  I can still hear his melody in my head and it tells me he was not playing his music just to make a few bucks, but to remind us of who we are.

Hawaiian Wedding Fantasies

Hawaiian Wedding Fantasies

Whenever I have the time or the will, I head down to Waikiki to capture the randomness of life on the beach.  I’ve always wanted to be a street photographer like Garry Winogrand, Bruce Gilden, or Martin Parr but instead of the cold streets of Manhattan, I’m stuck with bad Hawaiian shirts and endless sunsets.  There’s always something quirky on the beach whether its the sunburned Midwesterner in socks and sandals or a self absorbed Japanese girl with a selfie stick.

So the other day, we took a sunset stroll down Waikiki and encounter the usual oddities out and about on the beach.  A tout pushing exotic birds photos onto tourists for pictures, nouveau riche Chinese obnoxiously dressed in beachwear, and families scrambling to capture themselves with the fading Hawaiian sunset. We also spotted a Japanese bride and groom dressed up in full wedding garb with their photographer taking sunset pictures.

Many Japanese tourist purchase the Hawaiian wedding fantasy by renting wedding dresses and tuxedos to pose for pictures even though they might not be married or they’ve been married for years.  It is an odd sight to see but they are as common as the sunset in Hawaii.  So we watch the wedding couple with little interest until my wife notices a group of young Micronesian girls sitting in the surf watching in awe at the Disney fantasy happening right in front of them.  With mouths agape, the little sea urchins stare at the ivory skinned bride in her billowing white dress fawn as her tuxedo-wearing prince kneels in front of her for a picture perfect moment with the sun dripping behind the Waianae Mountains.

The photo wasn’t perfect as the kids were just a tad bit too far away and the sun was directly behind making them completely backlit.  I quickly maneuvered myself around the scene trying not to catch the attention of the bride or the kids to capture the moment but technically realized it was too hard to capture.  So I snapped off a few frames and moved on.  Things happen so fast I when you do this type of photography that you can’t dwell on a missed opportunity.

But it wasn’t till we got home and I ran the images through Photoshop that I saw what caught my wife’s attention.  I had to pull lighting the shadows shrouding the girls’s expressions and crop tight to balance out the composition but the image captures the fantasy of the little girl’s wedding scene. It isn’t one of my better images but I think it is one of my nicer beach pictures.

In a way, I captured the inequality of life in Hawaii, the life of those who can afford to spend time on the beach and those who have few options otherwise. The young girls appeared to be homeless or at the least, their families were not economically stable.  They were playing in front of a larger group of Micronesian adults who were cooking and sleeping in the small pavilion facing the beach.  The family also seemed to be harvesting a meal from the sea by spearfishing.  Now this is not a bad thing as I would love to spearfish a meal or two every so often but it seemed that might have been the only way to make due for themselves.  Many Micronesians immigrants arrive in Hawaii with little and struggle to live in paradise.

My image shows the haves and the haves nots in Hawaii yet none of that really mattered to anyone in the picture.  Before they walked off the beach, the Japanese bride sweetly waved at the kids and they screamed and laugh in joy that she recognized them.  They yelled “Aloha! Aloha!” and jumped around the sand, thrilled the bride spoke to them.  But as quickly as the girls lined up to watch the Hawaiian wedding, the squealed away through the surf when a relative returned from the depths with what looked like an octopus on the end of his stick.

Surely both would enjoy a lovely meal that night, the Japanese eating slices of tako sushi at a fancy restaurant, and the young girls undoubtedly slurping on a similar dish of octopus…just with a better view of the ocean.

New York Review

After living in New York just under 8 years, I can kinda say I, we, became New Yorkers. The fuggitaboutits slid off the tongue easily and quickly, didn’t have to read a map to know which exit to take to get to 25th St and Ave of Americas off the N/R line, and acquired tastes for bagels with a schmear, good pizza, and Indian.

You can only imagine what a change it was to trade cement for sand, hot dowogs for ahi poke, and snow for constant sunshine. But we did and we made it.

NYC/NJ was an amazing place to call home. It took lots of patience and time to get used to Hawaii. You can’t anything you want in Honolulu but who needs it?!?! After living here, it was overwhelming to be around so many jackasses and knuckleheads. Everyone has somewhere to go and they gotta get there quicker than you. Funny enough, after living in New York so many years, I found the most obnoxious people were those that were not born in New York. They were transplants from Minnesota that decided the only way to fit in was to be an ass and do really rude things. So many times, I would encounter some dumb broad (sorry, its my New Yorker comming out!) cut me off on the sidewalk holding a latte while chatting with her friend back home in Nebraska on her cell. I mean just plain rude but an affected rudeness that even natives would laugh at. SoCal dudes who traded their board shorts for boardroom dress huffing past as if they mattered more in the world than you. I could go on.

I don’t think I every really took on a Jerky Boy attitude although some may say different, but after living there so long, just gets under your skin.

So much has changed in five years and its quite amazing to see how neighborhoods have transformed in what seems like overnight. Rich hipsters wearing designer Glass and steel towers sit between century old brick walkups. Where guys wearing Puerto Rican flags and do-rags in their hair now walk blonds with babies, Starbucks, and dogs.

New York has changed for the better to some as its become more homogeneous, if I can use that term. I don’t know if there is a term for homogeneous where race doesn’t matter but money does. Make sense? New York’s poor, or those who can’t afford high rents, fled making way for glass towers, hotels, and $5 expressos.

I’m making general statements but I did see with my own eyes, the color of New York is evaporating. I really didn’t see the waves of ethnicity that once overwhelmed me. I can’t believe how different New York has become. Its seems they, ethnicity fled being replaced by blonds walking their dogs, holding a baby, and drinking a Starbucks. I can only think the boom in real estate drove prices up which pushed taxes up forcing those on the edge to fall. It happened here…all you have to do is look at how many lower middle class and lower class citizens of Hawaii are living on the beaches. Those on the mainland at least can escape to the suburbs or other parts of the city for more affordable living. Hawaiians have no choice.

NYC proved a great trip. Had a really nice time seeing, eating, and being a New Yorker again. I’d entertain returning to the city that never sleeps but after living in Honolulu now for close to five years, its gonna be hard to escape this place.

But as much as I ragged on the changes of New York, I do have another NYC moment…

With my 35mm film camera dangling from my shoulder, I walked past a black guy selling his own self-made hip hop album at the N/R entrance at Union Square. He approached us with a swagger asking if we’d buy his album. I New Yorkerly said “no” in that firm don’t push it confidence. He then copped a look at my Leica asking…

“Is that 35mm film?”

“Yeah,” I snapped.

“Well…youse gots to step it up to digital, babe” flashing his Nikon Coolpix at me.

That was it…he was gone.

I only regret I didn’t get his cd.

A New York moment…

Just got back from a two week trip to New York. Saw several friends, ate great food, had loads of fun, saw lots of changes, and made lots of great memories. More on this later…

I just had to write about a New York moment.

We stopped in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park and walked around the uniquely Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. Most of the stores are Jewish owned for Jewish customers. We stood out like sore thumbs among the black coats, long beards, and peyos (the distinct curly sideburns). I am not sure if the really anyone took much attention to us but no one really talked to us or seem to welcome us wandering around the block. They all seemed somewhat standoffish and rude but this is New York and most everyone can be standoffish and rude.

We ate pretzels and meandered through the street and stores. Funny enough, I noticed most of the workers besides the Jewish shop keepers were Latinos. Mostly Mexican in my view but probably from all over. Immigrants from Mexico and beyond are found working everywhere. Its amazing. I wonder what would happen if the Mexicans stopped working for a day.

As we wandered, I didn’t take too many pictures as I didn’t want to draw much more attention to and kept a low profile but I kept my Leica around my shoulder. I mean we really stood out.

We walked past a street musician playing a violin while two men chatted. The violinist transported me back to an old time, Eastern Europe at the turn of the century…melancholy and comforting.

We walked down the street and stopped in this grocery store which was run by a rude Israeli who didn’t care for us. As we browsed the lox and schmaltz, these three young Hasidic kids, brothers, no doubt, took an interest in me and my camera. Their little curls bounced back and forth as they stared and slowly surrounded me. A fourth older kid wearing a dark overcoat and heavy brimmed hat hovered next to me but never said a word to me.

The kids didn’t say anything to me and they just kinda stared. Their father talked to them in what I think was Yiddish but the kids really didn’t pay much attention to him. I figured the kids wanted to stare at me as I just didn’t belong in the neighborhood and tourist generally don’t run down and hang out with the Hasidum.

Finally, the youngest asked me if what I had around my shoulder. His brother then answered that it was a camera and asked if it was from the 17th century. Then, the older unrelated kid all of a sudden quipped if that was the camera Einstein used. It was as if everyone was really staring but was afraid to talk to me. Then the younger kid just reached up and took the camera from me and started to fiddle with it. Pointed it at me and started snapping away. His older brother then wrestled the camera away from him and started to fiddle with it as well. Unrelated, as I will now call him, asked why I had such an old camera and pulled out a shiny Canon powershot from his coat pocket as if bragging he was was more up to date than me.

Funny–all these Hasdium with their turn of the century fashions and customs were bettering me with camera technology! Ironic, no?

As the wrestling kept going on over the camera between the two brothers, I feared the camera was going to crash to the ground so I took the strap and placed it around the youngest ones neck. Their father, who was dressed in dark knickers, coat, and black socks, snapped at the kids to leave me alone but they persisted despite his protests. I then was absorbed into a conversation by Unrelated who wanted to know where we were from. He was probably in his mid teens and had a voice which made him sound like Brando with Seinfeld’s NYC Jewish accent. I told him we were from Hawaii and he had a look of amazement on his face as he probably searched his mind’s map to find out where Hawaii is. He then said he’d just read Obama’s biography and asked if I liked him. We then talked quickly about politics as my attention was focused on my Leica and the fear it would come tumbling to the ground. The younger brother figured out focus and snapped a picture of me.

Unrelated continued the political talk on Obama and said remarked how the US military supported McCain and how it would be difficult for Obama to win. I asked him if the Jewish community supported Obama and he took a look concern stating he didn’t think many would support him. He was quite young to know so much about politics and I was impressed with his level of education.

Finally the father of the three won the battle and the kids gave me back my camera and ran off. But not before I was able to snap off a quick one of the three Leica tormentors. My camera survived the Jewish attack and I walked away with a great little picture of a funny New York moment.