On January 12, 2007, over a thousand commuters passed through the L’Enfant Plaza station of the Washington, D.C. subway line. A rush of people, reading their morning papers, talking on their phones. Hurrying out for another day of the grind. The vast majority of these Everymen and Everywomen never noticed the violinist playing near the doors. Panhandlers are common enough in the subways, playing their instruments for dimes and quarters that will feed them for another day.
This particular panhandler remained at his spot for forty-five minutes and collected a grand total of $32.17. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only twenty-seven paused long enough to listen. And only one recognized the man for who he was—Joshua Bell, one of the most talented violinists in the world.
I wonder about all those people who passed through the subway station that day. I wonder if they ever saw the newspaper articles and television reports and figured out they had been there, had walked right passed him, without even knowing who he was.
I wonder of Joshua Bell, too, and what he was thinking. All of those people so near on that gray January morning, too hurried to hear the music he played. It was Bach, mostly. And the sound—the most beautiful sound a violin ever made. A sound like angels. That day, Bell used the 1713 Stradivarius he’d purchased for nearly four million dollars.
You might say you’re not surprised by any of this. You’ll say it’s the modern world we live in. People are always in a rush to get from point A to point B. There’s so much we have to keep track of, so many things to do. So much vying for our attention. It’s a generational thing. Our parents and grandparents were the ones who enjoyed a slower life. We don’t have that luxury.
And yet the very same thing happened in May of 1930. Seventy-seven years before Joshua Bell played inside the D.C. subway, Jacques Gordon, himself a master, played in front of the Chicago subway. The Evening Post covered the story this way:
“A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbside concert yesterday noon on an windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears…”
Jacques Gordon collected a grand total of $5.61 that day. Strangely enough, the violin he used on Michigan Avenue was the very Stradivarius that Joshua Bell would use in L’Enfant Plaza station all those years later.
I ask myself what I would have done had I been present there in Chicago or Washington. I wonder if those golden notes would have reached my ears and if I would have paused to listen.
I want so badly to answer yes.
I want to believe that I’m never so busy that I have no time for beauty.
I want to know that in such a dark and shadowy world, I will still make room for music and light.