Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sounds of the Underground

Along with suited men and women, Stephen Daly stepped on the tube like he does every day for the morning commute, but Stephen was not wearing a suit and he was not planning on getting off the tube for quite a few hours. Dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans, he was ready for the day. He, along with his friend Ben stood center on the underground car with a mandolin and a violin.

This is their office and work was about to begin. Legs spread and balanced, Daly clocked in and took hold of his instrument.

“Hello ladies and gentlemen, I’m Steve and this is Ben,” Daly said. “We are going to play you a song. So, grab your partner and dance in a clockwise direction to avoid congestion.”

Daly’s glasses sat on the bridge of his nose as his baldhead bobbed up and down with the strum of his mandolin. Ben accompanied with a quick fiddle.

 Some people stare and smile, others pretend he is not there. No one dances. However, that does not stop the music. Daly, with an Irish charm, plays an upbeat tune with a lively attitude. Ben accompanies on violin with a wink and a smile.

            They finish the song in a few minutes.


            “Thank you,” Daly said. “You guys were better than the last car.”

            The next song is a waltz.

The cars doors open and announce South Kensington station. The tube operators voice interrupts for only a second. They finish their song right on time. Daly knows this tube and the stations. He has been doing this for quite awhile, 25 years to be exact.

Daly introduces his last song, always a fast one. He points to a little bag hanging off of his mandolin.

            “See this pouch here, I’m going to go around for this last song,” he said. “If you don’t want to give or if you feel uncomfortable with social situations, just pretend we aren’t here.”

            He dances around the car playing a merry tune while sweat drips off of his brow. Ben is a little younger than Daly and shows off a youthful performance, whipping his wrist back and forth with the slide of his bow. His sunglasses hang off of his striped polo shirt as he follows Daly around the car.

Several people toss change into the bag. One man dressed in a blue button-down shirt even throws in £5.                       

Three songs and three tube stops is all visitors may see of Daly but this is his full-time job. He and Ben work from morning until night playing tunes, hoping from car to car with a cheerful routine.

Daly grew up in Dublin, Ireland but fell in love with London years ago. He came after planning a visit with friends and never left.

He tells passengers that he “came to London for a romantic weekend, a weekend that lasted 25 years.”

A rough face shows a little of his story while his personality and occupation reveals his spontaneous side.

Living in London, Daly needed a way to make money. He used a little Irish creativity and looked underground instead of above for a decent salary.

He found that while many people make money targeting similar consumers, he could reach all types of people playing on the London Underground.

The tube provides transportation for millions of Londoners. According to the Transport for London, 2007 marked the first year the tube carried one billion passengers. Since then, the tube has been the object of much conversation and improvement. People of all levels realize that the transportation system is a heavily used and significant resource.

While the sun peaks through the clouds on another overcast day, it would be foolish to think that simply walking London streets will radiate the essence of the area. Below is where the heart of London rushes, swipes, minds the gap, sits, smiles, sleeps, talks or is silent, breathes and even performs a daily routine.

The doors open and reveal an individual group of Londoners. Each stop brings a new flavor and smell. People coming on the tube in Camden looked a little edgier than those at South Kensington. They talk a little more and a little louder and dress a little flashier.

Diversity stands together, mashed into a speeding cylinder. Hot, humid, and uncomfortable, the tube is the literal container for all sorts of London personalities.

Daly balances well among the crowd.

For him, the tube is not just a means of travel from one place to another, it is a place all on its own. It is a way to reach people of all ages and occupations, of all financial statuses and backgrounds.

As he and Ben step off the last car, his music silences for the day.

“Thank you,” he said.

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