There is a public piano at Port Authority, set up there by Sing for Hope, available to one and all to play. Every day that I pass by it on my way to the subway, someone sits there and plays. Sometimes the person knows how to play; some even bring sheet music; and several times sing-alongs have formed around the player, gathered voices turning the cavernous Authority into something almost cathedralesque.
The piano itself is clearly donated, the dings, scratches, gouges, furrows, stains, and warps a record of its movements. But an artist has also decorated it, masking the blemishes with whimsy and color. Most of its keys are mostly in tune, like many of the people who come to play it, and its mostly ramshackle, sometimes beautiful, soundings soothe me against the grind of the Authority.
In tune, mostly, and mostly people of color. One black man sits hunched over the bass end of the keyboard pumping three, maybe four notes tops, in some pattern meaningful to him but which no one would consider musical. This he needs to do regardless if anyone else needs him doing it. A black woman playing stride, a young man doing a slow-motion Chopin he somewhat knows, the aforementioned sheet-music-bringer whose pages may show Beethoven, may show Joplin, an Asian women playing from a songbook with sign propped next to her warning that anyone taking a picture of her owes her money.
New York City is filled with these pop-up oases, infills of space and time in the city’s battlescape not allied with profit or hustle or scam or necessity that shock people into being people for a moment—not mask, not persona, not role or title but participant and actor and creator.
Sometimes, as with the cages holding mannequins of children wrapped in mylar blankets that recently appeared on the sidewalks, the shock is meant as an actual shock about our southern border filled with vulnerables.
Sometimes, as with a video that recently made the city’s rounds, it’s the shock of the memory of being younger brought on by an impromptu sing-along of strangers belting out the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” as they ride the subway. Suddenly young again, even if you were born after the song was made, suddenly unafraid and unshy.
At other times, as with the pianos, the shock is the shock of delight and amusement along with the added gift of the small lift the music gives to bodies constantly pressed-down by New York’s dense sensory fusion that doubles the air pressure at street level.
The fact that people so often come out of themselves to be themselves in a city all about speed and buffers shows just how hungry they are for things that pause the pace and enliven that pause, that call upon them to invent and broadcast and be more than just capitalist fodder.
In the politics of this run-up to 2020, the word “socialism” has suddenly appeared, but it’s not referring to a sudden real understanding of socialist politics and the adoption of an emancipatory program to move history forward.
Instead, I see the word as a proxy for talking about an antidote to the stunted sense of self allowed by a capitalist society. To a young cohort of American society, the liberal democracy respected by their elders has not delivered the goods to them, but there’s no good way of talking about solutions within the limits set by liberal democratic discourse.
“Socialism,” on the other hand, allows them to speak about their discontents and hopes in a vocabulary that owes nothing to their elders and which may give them insights and directions liberal democracy does not permit.
Does this make them socialists? Not yet, at least. But the word “socialism” is like having the piano around. You can sit down and bang out a tune, bang out even more tunes, talk to others about the tunes you’ve just banged out, and before you know it, choruses of voices begin to gather, new songs are made and sung, people begin to see one another as people, and who knows what such immodesties and majesties that may lead to? The elders don’t like it, and they may do vicious things to cut it off, but the urges and impulses can’t be denied.
The trick is to find a way to turn the piano playing into political power. Not easy, perhaps not even possible, but what else is there to do in the dissolute age in which we live?