HomeBad Ass AsiansSubway Performer Battles Noise & Distracted Commuters

Subway Performer Battles Noise & Distracted Commuters

Sanju Rushkan

By Brandon Loo

Subway musicians: they’re everywhere in the subway system. There are mariachi singers on the 7 train, a Romanian accordion player on the 6 train, guitar duos at Grand Central, and a Peruvian flutist at Times Square. They represent the diversity of New York that is unmatched in any other city transit system in the world. They have extraordinary talent and don’t just perform for the money, but for entertainment.

Unfortunately, many New Yorkers, listening to their own music on their headphones, simply walk by them, paying little or no attention. New Yorkers simply have to get to places. Some may stop by and drop a few coins or dollars, but the amount of money one makes depends on location. There are some classic tales of famous performers such as violinist Joshua Bell, Grammy winner Michael Buble’, and this summer singer Brandy. They all performed in a subway or station just to see what would happen – and most of the time no one recognized them.

Sadly, I was one of those New Yorkers, listening for a few seconds, and then continuing along to my destination, until I began following my friend, a fellow Stony Brook student, Sanju Rukshan, who decided to use his talents to perform in the subway. By accompanying him through the city, I not only bonded with him, I’ve gained a new perspective on the difficult life of a subway musician.

Sanju is currently a junior at Stony Brook University’s South Korean Campus, SUNY Korea. A double international student, he hails from Sri Lanka while going to school in Korea and the US.

He told me that he started to play the guitar when he was 14, and has been playing ever since. He is also a songwriter, with his skills being utilized in a music video.

When school ended in May, many of his fellow classmates returned to Korea, but for Sanju, he thought this might be his last chance in the city. So he rented a place in the South Bronx with a few of the remaining students and continued to stay there until mid-July. Armed with his guitar, having a place to sleep, a makeshift cardboard tip collection box, and his determination, he began performing in the subway.

Searching for a location is tough, especially if you’re not officially part of the MTA’s Underground Musician’s Program. Some stations are simply not suited for performing because they may either be too loud due to oncoming trains, too little or too much foot traffic, or because of the way they are designed. Throughout various days, to find the perfect place, we experimented with different stations and eventually narrowed down our selections.

Sanju RushkinOur journey began on Friday, June 5th, when I met Sanju at the Times Square-42nd Street subway station. He originally told me to meet him at Bryant Park. Unfortunately, according to him, that place was taken. Earlier in the day, I was exploring the city with my fellow photographer/editor, Demi Guo. While walking near the NY Public Library on 5th Avenue, I received a text from Sanju stating that he was at Times Square performing and that we should meet there. Since it was only two blocks away, Demi and I walked along 42nd Street until we reached Times Square.

We entered the station and spent about 10 minutes trying to find Sanju. We were about to give up until Demi heard the music of Ed Sheeran.

We followed the sound and and it turned out to be Sanju performing Thinking Out Loud with a female commuter watching. Before she left, she gave him a card and her number, telling him to perform at a local cafe in the Village, but unfortunately there was no address so we couldn’t make a visit.


While the Times Square-42nd Station complex is one of the most crowded complexes in NYC, many people do not pay too close attention to the musicians, instead opting to walk to their next destination as fast as they can.

On another day, we tried Bryant Park again, and this time it was available, and he started off by performing Say Something. It was quite noisy to perform and there was someone else talking near us.

Annoyed with the noise, Sanju decided to perform somewhere else, and we took the train back to Times Square, but this time we performed at a different section, in a connecting tunnel.Sanju Rushkin

In his performances, Sanju often starts off with the songs of Ed Sheeran or Vance Joy because of their mainstream popularity. He then goes through a cycle if six or seven songs before taking a short break.

In this location, after about an hour of playing, we only made about $5, which was better than nothing, but still not worth it. While the tunnel had good acoustics, people were too busy walking to stop and listen. Thus this location didn’t last too long for us. We needed somewhere more profitable and to be able to entertain more people who were willing to listen. Sanju asked me for other locations and I mentioned Herald Square and Union Square.


The 34th Street-Herald Square and 14th Street-Union Square station complexes, two other busy subway complexes, were not suited for a guitar player. Union Square was a tight tunnel with poor acoustics and was already occupied by a guitar duo singing Beatles covers. Herald Square, on the other hand, while crowded, didn’t have the same feeling as Times Square; it was full of tourists coming back from shopping at Macy’s. All the tourists talking to each other and over-stuffed suitcases rolling around drowned out the guitar and Sanju’s voice.

We found that these stations were not good places to perform despite their busyness. Feeling disappointed, Sanju was about to call it quits since just a few dollars were made. However, I told him that there was one other station that we still hadn’t checked out yet – The Fulton Center.

Fulton Street Subway StationLocated in the heart of the Lower Manhattan, a gleaming glass building among the stone skyscrapers, the Fulton Center is a new station hub that connects numerous lines through a series of rehabilitated tunnels and street entrances.

It’s a fitting building for Lower Manhattan and features a prominent “Occulus”, or a ceiling window to provide the place with natural light.

It was very impressive as it let in an immense amount of light under a crystal clear blue sky.

We arrived there via the 4 train on the IRT Lexington Ave Line, and started to perform on the platform. At first it was a really good place, it was rush hour, and Sanju Rukshanthere were a lot of people waiting for the train.

The drawback was that this line is one of the busiest in the city. Every 2 to 3 minutes a train would come in either direction as this was a two-sided platform. Each one produced a loud screeching noise as the engineer pressed on the brakes to come to a stop. During the few pauses available, Sanju could at most perform only half a song before another train came in. We stayed in this station for about 20 minutes but it was just too loud to continue. He made about $10.

Afterwards we walked through a tunnel to the A, C, and E lines and arrived at the Williams Street Entrance of the Fulton Center for the 1, 2, and 3 Lines. Sanju set down his stuff and performed “Hallelujah”.

In another performance he played “Something I Need” by OneRepublic, and a little girl danced along, further increasing Sanju’s confidence in performing.

He continued to perform a few other songs and we called it a day by 7:30. It was too hot and humid to continue performing so we headed upstairs for ice cream. This time we made about $20 for two hours of performing; it wasn’t too bad.

A thing to note, air conditioning in the subway is nonexistent, and during the hot summers of New York, it can get disgusting down there. While temperatures could be in the 90s, the real feel can be up to 110+ underground. Given the fact that the system is over 110 years old, air conditioning was not available at the time. Try to imagine your clothes, soaking wet from sweat, sticking to your skin, and there is hardly any breeze in the station to cool you off. I try not to think of all the air particles that stick to you when you feel the air from a train pulling in to the station.

It’s worse when you have an entire platform of commuters, while good for business, all sweating because of the heat. The only savior of this heat is the opening of the train doors which let out a burst of air conditioning. It’s a brief encounter, but afterwards the platform gets hotter because when the train comes into the station, it has to push out the hot air from the train in order to keep the interior cool.

On different days in the latter half of June we continued to return to the Fulton Center and perform at a station that we have found to be the best: Fulton Street (J/Z). The unique thing about this station is that due to the narrowness of Nassau Street, it is built on two levels, with the upper levels used for Downtown trains and the lower level used for Uptown trains. Thus one train comes through at a time and with less frequency when compared to the IRT Lexington Avenue Line (4, 5 and 6). Because of the reduced frequency, commuters are waiting for the next train to arrive, giving them a reason to listen to Sanju performances. It was the perfect place to play.

Sanju placed his cardboard tip box against the wall, took out his guitar from its black soft-case, and tuned it. Once everything was ready, he started off with something popular, Ed Sheeran’ “Thinking out Loud”.

The next song, “Make You Feel My Love,” was by Bob Dylan.

Following that came “Stand by Me,” by Ben E. King.

He also performed one of my favorites, a classic rock song by the Cranberries, “Zombie.”Sanju Rushkan

It was in this station that I encountered all sorts of people, tourists and commuters alike. Some tourists were lost and I provided them with the correct directions, some commuters struck up a conversation with Sanju, praising his musical talent and giving him their business cards, while some, like in the photo below, took Sanju Rukshanvideos of Sanju performing.

Just note that Sanju performed these songs in a loop, in a different order everywhere we go, and after listening to them about 10 times, they got really annoying. But these songs were showcasing his talent and were popular songs that everybody knew.

We spent a lot of time at this station, Fulton Street, and I have amassed a large amount of videos, and some pictures can be found in the sbuaaezine.org/gallery here.Sanju Rukshan

The greatest reward for this experience was that on his last day of performing, his tip box was full of money, containing about $86, and included some business cards from recording studios and for a radio interview, a $20 bill, and an $18 Metrocard.

Following Sanju throughout the NYC Subway system has been a dramatic and life changing experience. I have met and helped some commuters and tourists while Sanju was performing on the platform. We’ve learned that performing in the subway is no easy task. Finding the perfect place is difficult and spending hours underground during a hot New York summer further compounds it. The thought that not everybody contributes money is a depressing one, as one can spend hours and only make a few dollars.

This experience was new to me. I’ve learned to appreciate street music and the musicians, and to take a second look, rather than ignoring them. It represented the idea that anybody can do anything with determination and courage. In about 4 hours, on one day, he made about $86 and received a few business offers. I bonded with this guy; he became a close friend because of the time we spent together. I helped promote him on Facebook and provided memories of his experiences in New York. We ate together, explored the city, and did numerous photo shoots because of his willingness to check out the city.

I hope that I have shown you the hidden talent that New York offers to those looking for it. I asked Sanju why he doesn’t perform in the South Korean Subway, and his response was that, “You don’t get the diversity of ethnicities in Korea, it’s a homogenous society there. But here, in New York, I can sing in English and people will understand me and recognize the songs I sing. I thoroughly enjoy the city and it has a thing to it that draws me back. Even though I’m leaving for Korea in a few weeks, I hope to return to this fabulous city because of all the opportunities it offered me.”

(This article originally appeared in Asian American E-Zine)


  1. RE: Subway performer battles noise & distracted commuters: I love that he does Ed Sheeran songs, they work so well for busking!


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