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.

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Museo Nacional de Antropología

A man stood next to me in a Korean owned deli in Palisades Park, NJ.  His boots were fake, not real lizard but still in the style of  botas de vaquero none the less.  The boots you can buy in any norteno town where the men have paid thousands to sneak across the border to work as low paid laborers in the US.  His trim mustache and dark skin, tucked-in shirt and ironed blue jeans might have made him a short Lotharo back in Piedras Negras but here, he was just a a guy who worked as a baker in a Korean pastry shop.  Maybe he cut grass, painted, lifted, delivered, hauled, got spit on, harassed, not paid, paid lowly, hid, ducked, drank, shivered, and maybe he did none of the above.  But he was here, not in his country, and trying to work.

The Spanish I heard in Times Square coming from Minny Mouse wasn’t the native tongue of the native Puerto Ricans or Dominicanos.  It was la lengua of the Mexican.  Maybe the Chapinas or the Peruvian.  But it was the accent of the new comers.  They  dressed as Elmo, Spiderman, and Minnie to pose for a dollar or two with the kids of those who stayed in $300 a night hotels in the City.  They crossed borders to stand next to white kids so that their parents could snap pictures of them in the blinking lights.

One guy gets hot and lets slip his facade.  The mask slips revealing a face more fitting inside the Museo Nacional de Antropología than on the streets of Times Square.  Cada de indio as my mother would say of the neighbors.  The face of an indigenista, a face from Southern Mexcio, of Guatemala, of the south.

So Spiderman crossed 9th ave near Port Authority.  Wherever he went, he seemed tired.  Worn from dancing for the Spanish and Italian tourists.  Of hearing the accents of his conquerors and taking the money of his master.  He probably walked to his next job.  His delivery job where he would make a dollar or two running msg-filled Chinese food up six floors up to an uppity Iowan who now calls Manhattan home.  The Iowan feels its his new right to belittle the delivery guy who was five minutes late because he couldn’t walk fast enough.  The rain was too hard, the snow was too cold.

Santiago once pointed out the only people out on the streets during a blizzard were the mojados who were delivering food.

I learned on this trip New York works because of it’s illegal infestation.  An infestation that makes the City move.



Jason was Ducky; Larry was possibly the not-so-smart jock; Brenda was the alternative rebel chick; Chris was totally Bender, spray paint and all. Hong was the token Asian; Paul was the nerd turn cool with age white guy, Diane was the sweetheart, Katie was the one who wore too much makeup, Amy was the teacher’s daughter…and me…well, let someone else describe in a Hughesian definition.

Was I Bender, nah…not even close. Ducky? Well…I wasn’t that nerdy? Jake Ryan? No that was more Diego but he didn’t go to school with us. Keith Nelson? Maybe a combo of Keith, Ducky, some of Ferris humor, and a little bit of Bender mixed in (well…thats a leap!) Who knows…maybe the guys above should describe me in not so nice terms. There was the girl I couldn’t have, the musical soundtracks to those sweaty spring nights at NIOSA, the great parties where I tried to climb a flag pole with the then Mayor’s daughter, the girls at Driver’s Ed, gosh…so much. Our lives were Hughesian.

Oh, there was also Sant was the crazy Asian exchange student. Oscar was the heartthrob, Diana was the heartbreaker, who else? We could go on forever.

I guess we kids of the 80s all had our Breakfast Club/Sixteen Candles/Ferris Bueller moments. I had just broken into my self awareness period when Hughes was hip and Ringwall was hipper. I still remember Molly dancing on the staircase during detention. I mean she said it all…well at least all I wanted to be and wanted when right before the start of Thomas Jefferson High School.

I do remember seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at Santiko’s Northwest 14 (or was it 12) Theater with Steven Mayer. I don’t think he fit into our Hughes definition as he was a Jehova’s Witness. Never bore witness to me. Cool guy, I guess.

I remember watching the Breakfast Club at Jess’s house. It was recorded from HBO onto a video tape. I think Lisa someone or another gave it to me. And God knows how many times I’ve seen Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink in recent times. Its like on TV constantly. I actually saw an episode of Whatever Martha and Molly was a guest. Her and Martha were making something…again, God only knows what.

So on to the picture…

We walking east in midtown when my jaw dropped open. My heart rate spiked. My god…its Ferris Bueller. Well I knew not to call him Ferris as he was in the middle of great success with the Producers musical. But still…this was Ferris Bueller to me. He wasn’t anything else.

I fumbled for my then Yashica T4 point and shoot and gave it to Yukako to snap a photo. I was so damn happy. I still am. Diane loves this picture. It took me a while to find the neg as it was buried under a ton of other negs. I knew I had to find it and scan it as my small memorial to John Hughes. Hughes make Broderick into a superstar.

He knew the drill He put his arm on my back. I think he was filled with a mild annoyance or maybe depression as he knew from my age that I only knew him as Ferris, nothing more. Well what the hell did he expect? So I joked with him, took the photo, and sent him off. Typical New Yorker. We just kept walking away but chatting. I told him he should have named their kid Ferris. HA. I got the last laugh.

Out of all the celebs I met, photographed, talked to or just ran into, this is the only guy that really had me star struck. Major. I saw and worked with all sorts of celebs in New York and Hawaii. I was once in a room with Bill Gates. Alone. I mean I could have been in the history books. I also remember standing on 43rd and 9th Ave next to Harrison Ford. He had a beard, wore a baseball hat, and glasses. Sorry Indiana, you were so recognizable. I was only a few days into New York on that cold winter morning. He looked a bit homeless. So did I. For the first few months in Manhattan, I wore two coats as I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it through the following winter. I wore a green wind breaker and some Goodwill Special tweed coat. I was a mess.

Sadly, Hughes, the guy who set the definition of high school and teen life for me and millions died a year short of my 20th high school reunion. Going? Hell no. Not even close. All the people I know and want to see are where they are. I don’t need to find them. And I surely don’t want anyone finding me.

Check out this great Hughes youtube vid.

Many years (and less lbs) ago!

Digging through old boxes finds all sorts of treasures from the past. I found an old polaroid taken by a photographer I worked with on occasion, Gilles Bensimon. We were photographing the model/actress Milla Jovovich (5th Element, fashion mags, etc…) for the cover of Elle Magazine. After a long day of setting up lights, pulling 8×10 polaroids, and roll after roll of 120mm film, we got to the end of the day where the photog photographed the crew.

I am standing next to Milla (holding a dog) and I was so much skinner and younger, and in many ways, naive. I don’t mean that in a good way or bad way but just attesting to a state. I was really to stay and live that life but life didn’t have it that way. We ended up in Honolulu. Is it better, well…no…if I had made that life in NYC work…but things are better in their own ways. A new condo and balcony make life so much easier.

Life in New York was a different place for me and a different time. But enough of that. I remember setting up six Profoto 2400ws packs just for the background. Sean was the other assistant and Jeff was the boss. I never fit in but I wasn’t sure if it was just me or the crew. Sean and I stayed friends for years on and we found each other on Facebook recently. Jeff, from what I figured out, is doing his fashion thing in New York. He had that life down. I just couldn’t, as much as I wanted, manage that…just couldn’t be fakey. Maybe they saw threw me. I wasn’t one of them.

I always attributed the high end photography life to being one of the cool kids in high school. No matter how hard you tried, you just didn’t have that je ne sais quoi that it takes. Don’t get me wrong, I was a pretty cool kid. Maybe not the coolest but cool enough. The parties revolved around Paul, Diane, and me…in one way or another…or maybe it was because we knew Diane’s sisters were gonna take care of us. Who knew…you might if you knew me back then.

Either way, I was priming myself for the life of studios, models, big lights, and a life of eternal black/dark clothing. It was hard to shake the black shirts for rubba slippas, but it happened.

Jeff is the guy holding his thumbs up. Life was up at the time. Not as much as I would have liked as I always felt I was just on the edge of making it in the assistant world. No long stints with Annie, Michael, Steven, or Gilies. Just day players with the biggies and dailies with Nathaniels and Stephanies. Life was good at the time but I always wanted more. But now looking back, it was enough. Nathaniel emailed me to congratulate me on the NYT story last week. He’s told me in the past I’m the only past assistant that made something of myself…and to think I made it in Hawaii.

I can’t complain too much but a man can dream…

And to think, I am wearing an old vintage Duran Duran tshirt…maybe thats why I wasn’t cool. Or maybe too cool for the fashion crowd.

Photog as a model? Can you spot me?

As I recall, about seven years ago, I assisted NYC photographer Michael Prince on an ad job for Toshiba. The job was to be a multi-ethnic cast of your white, black, brown, and yellow crowd. I was part of a three man crew which included Sean Murray and Alfred Yan and we set up cameras and light for the shot. It was very easy and didn’t really seem out of the ordinary for any of us. It was quick and painless from what I recall.

After hours of hair and make-up, light tests, and arrangement of the furniture, the models lined up and pictures were taken. However, the art directors were not pleased…something was missing…an element they couldn’t figure out.

Whispers and fingers were starting to point around the room and all of a sudden, fingers were pointed at me. I got asked to a model in the ad! I figured they needed the Hispanic/Jewish/Mediterranean brown guy in the shot. I was thinner, carried myself well, and people noticed. Sean, surprisingly wasn’t asked and he was an ex model for Bruce Webber! He was much better looking than me but I guess they had their white guy in the shot and the same for Alfred as he’s Chinese and the token hot Asian girl was already staged. Hence the camera turned on me.

I got a quick haircut from the stylist, a boring sweater type jersey, and off I was on the set, pretending to engage in conversation with the model looking guy across from me. I recall being nervous as hell even though I am quite the ham in front of any camera. But a few moments later, I emerged as the hero of the shot and was even told by the photographer “…you pretty much made that shot.”

I walked away from that job with an assistant rate plus a fat modeling check! I quickly figured out lifestyle modeling might be the new career, I can see myself now…exotic locations, model girlfriends, waiter jobs on the side, airports, botox, champagne, flashing lights…ah…the good life. Alas, the road to success remained on the other side of the camera where my face will never get the action it deserves.