There are barometers and signposts. Things that tell you about a place. If you can find constants you are familiar with, they can tell you much. Like independent bookstores or natural food stores. I used to visit as many as I could when traveling - the differences would tell me a lot about the people and the community.
And then there are things which are uniquely about a place, like San Francisco's cable cars. The New York City subway system is one of those places that lets you know without question where you are. Something virtually unique in the USA, certainly so extensive and heavily used and depended on by millions daily. Here, everything that is good and bad about the city is concentrated - literally and metaphorically. More of everything, whether rats, garbage, graffiti, people, hustlers and opportunists.
Looking over that list and reflecting on it makes me want to amend my former statement. In fairness, it really isn't too accurate to say that all the good of New York is concentrated here. There are not an inordinate number of smiles or acts of kindness down below. This is really about the business of getting where you want to go and like visiting a dentist, most patients just want to expedite the process.
So when a good thing happens, it really warms my heart. Melts the ice that separates us and brings a moment of humanity to an underground world of steel, concrete and noise. What better thing than music to fit the occasion? Many see the wandering minstrels of the subway as an intrusion - a violation of space which is already a toxic overload of sensory stimuli. But for me, a little good music is a welcome break on a short ride. Perhaps if I was encamped (i.e. comfortably seated) with a good book on a long ride, as many commuters are, I would find the sudden appearance of musicians nearby to be an unwanted and unwarranted irritant, like second hand cigarette smoke. And of course if you are a musical snob, there is the issue of quality - you will not find concert level musicianship here, so your standards do have to be appropriately scaled.
On this ride, I found the two Latin guitarists with their singing to be just the antidote for the crowded conditions. And my $1 contribution to the arts was well received ...