Alice Munro, Joshua Bell & By The Metro Station I Would Have Sat Down & WeptSunday, January 11, 2009
In the late 50s I became a science fiction fan and by the beginning of the 60s I was reading anything I could find. And this included a barrage of science fiction paperbacks featuring short story collections by individual authors or anthologies by Judith Merrill. The two science fiction short story collections that I remember best were Arthur C. Clarke's Tales From the White Heart and Ray Bradbury's Golden Apples of the Sun. Vivid in my memory from the latter is the story The Pedestrian, where a lone night walker observes the flickering shadows behind the windows of homes where people were watching their TV's in his journey through the neibourhood. A police car stops the suspicious man (by then nobody walked anywhere) and takes him away to jail. While in the police van our pedestrian is able to ascertain that there is no policeman on board (they are at the station watching TV) and that the voice of the arresting officer (and driver) is a robot.
By the end of the 60s I lost my taste for science fiction and subsequently my desire to read short stories. For me short stories did not have enough plot twists or character development. But since I was an Argentine I read everything Borges ever wrote (short stories) and most of the short story collections by Argentine Julio Cortázar. I made some other exceptions like Los Cachorros by Mario Vargas Llosa or the excellent short stories by Alejo Carpentier including his backwards Viaje a la Semilla ( Journey Back to the Source) which preceded (1958) the plot to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In English I made an exception to The Stories of John Cheever.
I had read so many reviews in the NY Times about Alice Munro's shorts stories that in 1990 I bought and read Friend of My Youth. Around 1980 or 1981 I had photographed her outside her old house in North Vancouver. I felt I had to give her a try. While I will read non fiction essays I still eschew shorts stories and opt for novels.
The theme of short stories became entrenched in my mind today via an email from my unlikely named first cousin Willoughby Blew who lives in Florida. He sent me this:
Subject: FW: Violinist in the Metro--- Washington DC.
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
Willoughby Blew's email messaged intrigued me and delighted me. I had not heard of this incident. I immediately put the title Violinist in the Metro--- Washington DC. followed by a comma and The Washington Post. What I found was the original article. The story even includes a short video excerpt of Bell playing one of Bach's partitas for unaccompanied violin at the location in the Washington Metro.
I leave any reader here to decide which is the better story.
The short story idea came to mind because had I not been curious enough to locate the original, Willoughby Blew's email would have sufficed. We simply do not miss what we do not know exists. As we say in Spanish "Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente."(You cannot feel in your heart what you cannot see.)
With our scatterbrained approach to music via the randomness of an iPod and multitasking, who has the time to read a novel? Would writing and publishing short story collections be a wave of our future?
Not for me.