What's That Noise?

Reading Incomprehension

   Fri, May 19, 2006 - 11:48 PM
I had another great day today. I practiced a bit of cumbus in the morning, then busked in the subway to a very appreciative audience, then took a break to do some Balkan singing with the multitalented Willa, then headed back to the subway and busked some more to another very appreciative audience. It took me a while to find a good spot for my second round of busking, though, and therein lies a tale.

The first few good spots I checked were taken, so I settled for a spot that didn't look very good, since there was hardly anyone there. But I figured more people might come later, so I set up anyway. I had only played a tune or two when two cops came up and told me that I needed permission to play music in the subway.

I explained that, in fact, I didn't need any special permission, and I backed this up by showing them the rules, in two formats. One is the new rule pamphlet they have all over the place, which says that I'm not allowed to use an amplifier on the platform, but makes no mention of an unamplified instrument. He pointed out that that was just a short pamphlet that didn't list all the rules, so I showed him the much longer rules that I printed out from the NYPD website, here:
Which states, "Artistic performances on transit facilities are permitted." (I'm doing copy-and-paste, not typing this, because I'm lazy.) It then has a bunch of rules, saying I'm not allowed to perform on a subway train, within 25 feet of a token booth, yadda yadda yadda. I was obeying all of those rules.

Then, rather predictably, without admitting that he was wrong about hurdy gurdies being illegal, he went on to say that the hurdy gurdy case was illegal, since someone might put money into it. This was deja vu, like that Parks & Recreation officer a little while ago. (I still haven't gotten the letter I requested from the parks department, by the way.) Now, I've pored over the subway rules, and not only do they not say that instrument cases are illegal, but they come right out and say that they are legal, right here in paragraph 12:

"12. You may accept donations for your performance, but you may not use your performance as an excuse for active, aggressive solicitation. For example, you may have an open instrument case into which listeners may place donations, but you may not walk through the audience with a container asking for payment."

I asked the cop to read paragraph 12. He got pretty testy at this, saying, "You're telling me what the law is?" Well, in fact I was showing him, and much more politely than he was telling me about the laws he was making up. But I finally got him to read paragraph 12, and this is how he read it out loud to me: "It says right here, 'You may not have an open instrument case into which listeners may place donations.' There, you see, it says right here in the rules that you can't have an open case."

I asked him to read it again, and he read it the same way again, inserting the word "not" between the words "may" and "have." I gently took the paper out of his hands and pointed out the relevant part of the sentence, and asked him to read it slowly. After working on him for a while, I did finally get him to read it correctly. My No Cop Left Behind program is going great.

Inexplicably, he did not seem to feel that joy of personal accomplishment that should come from learning to read. Instead, he got even grumpier. However, he clearly had developed a newfound interest in reading, since he carefully studied the rest of the page.

As this cop was reading, the other cop was looking for some way to get rid of me that did not involve having to learn to read. He asked me how I expected him to believe that those were the real rules from the real NYPD website. I could have just made them up. (And making up rules is the job of police officers, I know.) I asked him if he had internet access, and invited him to look them up himself. He didn't respond to that. I think there's a real need for an information literacy project here. Cops not only don't know what the law is, but they have no means to find out, unless some hard-working busker with a mission sets out to educate them. (Now that I think of it, it's particularly disturbing that these cops felt that they had no way to check what the law was. I mean, if I asked them to round up my escaped slaves for me, would they believe the law was on my side?)

A third cop had wandered over by this point, but chose not to get involved.

Eventually, the first cop found what he was looking for in the rules I'd handed to him. He hadn't had to go very far from paragraph 12. Paragraph 11 reads in part: "Some station platforms are so narrow that any performance will always interfere with passenger movement... Performers should use common sense before choosing a location in which to perform, and in all cases must comply with the lawful orders and directives of police and Transit employees."

The cop was overjoyed to discover this paragraph. "You're obstructing traffic!" he cried happily. "And you must comply with my directives!"

Now, considering that I'd almost rejected this very wide platform as too desolate to be worth busking on, it was a bit of a stretch, but hey, I wanted to validate his newfound interest in reading, so I thanked him for making an effort to enforce an actual rule. I asked him if he could suggest a spot where I wouldn't be blocking traffic, but he didn't have any suggestions. I told him I'd move to a different spot where I wasn't such a hindrance to pedestrians. He wasn't happy about that, since he would rather I just stop playing completely, but that was his problem. I took my rules back, packed up, and hopped the next train. It took me to a much more popular platform, where I entertained a delighted and appreciative audience.

Now I'm wondering if I was right to take my rules back. I really hope those cops, at least the one who had developed a new ability and interest in reading, can find another set of the rules somewhere. Oh well, I did what I could.


add a comment
Sat, May 20, 2006 - 5:12 AM
You need to write this story down and put it in a letter...

This is ridiculous that cops are MAKING up laws and not reading their own website of laws... their job is to ENFORE laws not make them up...

Their abusing power.. but not in some hippie way of complaining cops abuse power... they're actually really abusing it...
Sat, May 20, 2006 - 7:53 AM
Wow...what a mess. I applaud your tenacity and bravely confronting figures of authority. - as long as you remember that they are the ones with guns. ;-)

I know from personal experience that if someone wants to find a reason to take you down, they will. By hook or by crook...

Be careful, keep playing, and keep sharing your stories!
Sat, May 20, 2006 - 8:44 AM
Great story! You could print up some copies to hand out for the police to keep the next time they hassle you.
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 9:49 AM
I respect your cojones in actually bothering to argue with the police. A lot of people wouldn't have bothered, even knowing that they were in the right. I mean, I've heard of bad things happening to people who argue with cops, unfortunately. Hopefully, these policemen have become better informed of the law and will stop harassing innocent citizens, and go back to catching real criminals.
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 10:07 AM
what platform at what subway?

looking forward to when you say "played to a very annoyed audience"
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 10:08 AM
I'm afraid you shouldn't let him get away with that.
I'm not normally a sue'em kinda guy, but policemen/transit officers/parking meter attendants must not act as blind, jack-booted agents of the government, but as men and women charged with the protection of us. His actions were quite clearly violated the First ammendment "..no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble..." Your musical expression was clearly protected speech.

First of all, I'd recommend you get a recording device, and keep it in a pocket or something so that if this type of thing happens again, you can discreetly start recording the conversation (but pay attention to state law, some prohibit the recording of a conversation, even when not over a phone (but some do!)). Do get his name, unit number and badge number.

Secondly, it would appear that you were quite clearly not impeding traffic, so his order to move along was completely bogus.

If that happens again, *seriously*, I'd file a lawsuit. (you could quite easily find a lawyer to take this one on.)... Your end goal should be to (a) have the police department admit their mistake, (b) properly train their officers and (c) to pay court costs and legal costs. Of course, you'd likely need to sue for a bajillion dollars, and negotiate down. There would be no need to treat it like a lottery tho'.

It is quite disturbing that some policeman had so little to do with his time that he needed to hassle you, and the fact that he couldn't read properly, or was even aware of the laws, was quite sad, and needs to be corrected.

2 cents, with interest.
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 10:50 AM
Hey, congrats.
Congratulations. You've been Farked. www.fark.com

Sit back, relax, and watch your click counter spike.
offline 0
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 11:00 AM
No subways in Oklahoma
So where are you performing?
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 11:14 AM
power to the buskers
Hey Mellisa, how are you doing? I'm sure you appreciate the views and suggestions of us the peanut gallery but I've seen you out there and I think you have things under control. First of all as a New Yorker myself I'd just like to say you're doing a fine job, you handle yourself well.

The few times I've seen you play you have never been in the way in fact it seems to me that you are quite curtious to others. Furthermore you are a real artist/entertainer.

Cops are peace officers and not law givers and sometimes they forget and before they catch themselves they feel they have their integrity to protect or maybe salvage. So like a lot of us thier pride gets the best of them and they make a real mess of things.

It seems sometimes in an effort to maintain thier authority status and respect that the fact that you havent broken the law and you never intended to eludes them. Then they resort to winning the conversation and lose the point alltogether.

Anyway with that
keep on rockin in the free world
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 11:32 AM
** Congratulations. You've been Farked.**

I think it's the first time that a Tribe blog has been linked off Fark, too. (at least for us liters)

--MDI_BugMan (on Fark)
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 1:04 PM
1. Her website/recordings are here:


2. Melissa is a girl :) (you can stop saying he).

3. She didn't make this stuff up... I actually printed out that sheet for her... I've had this same EXACT thing happen to me.
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 7:22 PM
Great Story
Thank you for this post.
Sun, May 21, 2006 - 8:47 PM
kudos and such
awesome story, keep on busking, just no "freebird" please.
Mon, May 22, 2006 - 5:46 AM
Hahah! You should have a warning on this one "May cause uncontrollable fits of laughter".. my workmates are staring at me now. Thanks :)
Mon, May 22, 2006 - 5:56 AM
try this
make a lrge copy of the rules and such and paste them to a sign you bring with you or onto the inside of your case...

Mon, May 22, 2006 - 5:30 PM
Free Talk Live
We talked about this on Free Talk Live tonight. Great story!
offline 0
Wed, May 24, 2006 - 5:08 AM
don't feel bad about not leaving the rules. You should make it a mission to now spread the rules to all cops. Or maybe to make POLICE DEPARTMENTS DO IT!
Fri, May 26, 2006 - 6:53 AM
FBI material?
Sounds like your boyz are likely candidates for membership in the FBI: foolish (or insert YOUR favorite f-ism here) bunch of idiots.
Thu, June 22, 2006 - 10:36 AM
Buskers unite
The only way to get the police to pay attention is to file a report with the precinct. Buskers have been doing it for years, and we even won the right to perform in public spaces thanks to that (it was illegal before!). But there is still a lot more to achieve, so everyone, please file a report in support of buskers - every official show of support helps. And if you see a busker being approached by the police - come stand next to the busker to show support :)
Melissa - you can take the badge number of the police officer and report him as one not knowing the rules. Just be warned - when you do that, that police officer will have a vendeta on you and will give you tickets whenever they run into you and even arrest you (as has been happening to a number of buskers in NYC this past year). You'll get the charges dropped, but only AFTER you spend a night in jail...
I have a feeling you have not been busking in NYC for very long... talk to anyone of the veteran buskers for more info (I've been busking in NYC for about 15 years). Thank you for your efforts to educate - much appreciated!