Saturday, January 28, 2012

Accordion Crimes

"A" is for Accordion Crimes
          K and I were living in France in those exciting days when Europe switched over to the Euro and everyone, including me, was entranced with the pretty new coinage. The rule was that all bills looked the same, no matter which country issued them, as well as the obverse of all coins, but countries could personalized the reverse of coins, and they all did. When I traveled to Ireland that year, I noticed that Irish euro coins have a celtic harp on them, which I thought was kind of cool.  

          If France had to choose a national instrument to put on its coins, it would without a doubt be the accordion.  
          Perhaps you didn't know this, but one of the major stresses that Paris subway riders are subjected to is itinerant accordionists, who board the trains, do some jammin' on the old accordion, and then walk up and down the car with a little cup held out so that you can show your appreciation for the music in a crass, monetary kind of way. I don't think they're allowed to do this, but I rarely saw the prohibition enforced. I've also listened to gypsy violin music and singing, but the accordion is by far the preferred instrument for small crowded spaces like subway cars.  
          Sometimes, the subway musicians are innocuous, or even pretty good. Sometimes they are not. One day, I was subject to the misguided stylings of two gentlemen who didn’t let their inability to carry a tune or their lack of Spanish hinder them from mangling some normally very pretty Tex-Mex ballads. I was particularly wounded by their tone-deaf ravages on "Cielito Lindo," one of my faves. When they finished their selection, to the relief of all concerned (as I imagined), one of them went down the car with his cup. He got a few donations (often, subway musicians don't get anything, I assume because we riders prefer not to encourage this sort of behavior). In my end of the car, three women dug down in their handbags for this guy--a thing I had never witnessed before; it was the subway equivalent of a standing ovation--and I distinctly saw 2-euro pieces (donations are usually 25 or 50 cents).
          Astonished by this unaccountable behavior from hard-bitten Parisiennes, and searching for an explanation, I speculated that there’s a pity donation that goes into action when the musicians are really, truly terrible. Folks figure that if these guys are trying to make a living on THAT music, they'll starve, so they contribute out of Christian charity.  
          A few days after that, I was riding the subway again, and after awhile realized that someone was practicing the accordion. He was squeezing scales to the point of fracture and wheezing out bent and mangled chords. I assumed he was on the way to his accordion lesson, and was getting in some much-needed last-minute practice. I'm sure I was not the only person in the car who was shocked—shocked!—when he produced his coin cup and made the rounds. Apparently he'd been playing SONGS! And apparently he expected us to compensate his efforts.  
          To a man, we were unmoved. Either we were a particularly hard-bitten crew, or my theory about the pity donation was all wrong.  
          At the next stop, we parted ways. We, on to our several destinations. And he, I most fervently hope, to an accordion lesson.

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