Clothes maketh the man … obscure.

A colleague of mine selected a rather intriguing paragraph for some technical experiments that the two of us have been doing this month. Upon my inquiring, he said that it came from an excellent article that appeared last year in the Washington Post. The article narrates a real life experiment that turns a crowded metro station in Washington D.C. into a theater of public morality. To me, it reads almost like a short story; I was reminded of Saki and Maugham. Read it!

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? – [Gene Weingarten, Pearls Before Breakfast, April 8, 2007]

Hint: The article relates (rather obliquely) to a previous post on Mirkwood called The Morning Dollar.

3 thoughts on “Clothes maketh the man … obscure.”

  1. One thing for certain: there is value in that moment, more for the commuter than for the performer, most for the commuter who doesn’t ordinarily engage in moral mathematics (or ethical arithmetic).

  2. The result of the experiment was suprising to me. I have seen crowds gathering in the Paris metro around much lesser performers. As soon as they do not look like hobos and play reasonably well, there will be two or three people who stop and listen. And when it seems clear that they are at least music students or semi-pros, the crowd grows until it’s too big for new passers-by to see anything or hear much. I would have thought the same would happen anywhere in the world. Too bad.

  3. David: I agree. For the performer, the art is its own reward, but for the commuter, it is an unexpected gift, if only his ears (and mind) is tuned in.

    Mandarine: Your observation correlates with Leonard Slatkin’s speculation that he would get a larger audience in Europe. This puts me in mind of one beautiful experience I had in the few days I’ve spent in Europe. A banjo player got on the bus in Geneva and played a tune from The Godfather. I hadn’t heard it for many years; the sudden recognition and quality of the music lifted my spirits instantly, and I stopped worrying about the meeting I was going to attend later on.

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