[extropy-chat] i love this! Stfop and Smell the Roses

ilsa ilsa.bartlett at gmail.com
Tue Apr 10 04:15:21 UTC 2007

it is worth the long read! it made me think how much we miss of one nother
as we wisk our lives along.  love,  ilsa

Pearls Before Breakfast

Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a
D.C.rushhour? Let's find out.

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007; Page W10

nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and
a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a
violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few
dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face
pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush
hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical
pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to
work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant
Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly
mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles:
policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist,
facilitator, consultant.

Monday, April 9, 2007 1 p.m. ET
Post Magazine: Too Busy to Stop and Hear the Music
Can one of the nation's greatest musicians cut through the fog of a
D.C. rush hour? Gene Weingarten set out to discover if violinist Josh
Bell -- and his Stradivarius -- could stop busy commuters in their
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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?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered
in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing
against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top
of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the
world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of
the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by
The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and
priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In
a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might
have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces
that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring
music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of
utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the
outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and
resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the
human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and
laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring,
flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal,

So, what do you think happened?


Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra,
was asked the same question. What did he think would occur,
hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed
incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just
taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that
if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger
audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is
there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is.
Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

So, a crowd would gather?

"Oh, yes."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really

"How'd I do?"

We'll tell you in a minute.

"Well, who was the musician?"

Joshua Bell.


A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an
internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at
the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately
Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks
later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would
play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry
that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements.
But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant,
competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell was first pitched this idea shortly before Christmas, over coffee
at a sandwich shop on Capitol Hill. A New Yorker, he was in town to
perform at the Library of Congress and to visit the library's vaults
to examine an unusual treasure: an 18th-century violin that once
belonged to the great Austrian-born virtuoso and composer Fritz
Kreisler. The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.

"Here's what I'm thinking," Bell confided, as he sipped his coffee.
"I'm thinking that I could do a tour where I'd play Kreisler's music .
. ."

He smiled.

". . . on Kreisler's violin."

It was a snazzy, sequined idea -- part inspiration and part gimmick --
and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced
showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more
august. He's soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but
he's also appeared on "Sesame Street," done late-night talk TV and
performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on
the 1998 movie "The Red Violin." (He body-doubled, too, playing to a
naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar
for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said,
"plays like a god."

When Bell was asked if he'd be willing to don street clothes and
perform at rush hour, he said:

"Uh, a stunt?"

Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly?

Bell drained his cup.

"Sounds like fun," he said.

Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like
dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott. When he
performs, he is usually the only man under the lights who is not in
white tie and tails -- he walks out to a standing O, looking like
Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail
dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset:
Because his technique is full of body -- athletic and passionate --
he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.

He's single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. In
Boston, as he performed Max Bruch's dour Violin Concerto in G Minor,
the very few young women in the audience nearly disappeared in the
deep sea of silver heads. But seemingly every single one of them -- a
distillate of the young and pretty -- coalesced at the stage door
after the performance, seeking an autograph. It's like that always,
with Bell.

Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview
magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human
beings why they bother to live." He's learned to field these things
graciously, with a bashful duck of the head and a modified "pshaw."

For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for
participating. The event had been described to him as a test of
whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize
genius. His condition: "I'm not comfortable if you call this genius."
"Genius" is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of
the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are
largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be
unseemly and inaccurate.

It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that
will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.

It would be breaking no rules, however, to note that the term in
question, particularly as applied in the field of music, refers to a
congenital brilliance -- an elite, innate, preternatural ability that
manifests itself early, and often in dramatic fashion.

One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first
music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His
parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good
idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his
dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving
drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

TO GET TO THE METRO FROM HIS HOTEL, a distance of three blocks, Bell
took a taxi. He's neither lame nor lazy: He did it for his violin.

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using
another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was
handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's
"golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to
the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been
refined to perfection.

"Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he,
he just . . . knew."

Bell doesn't mention Stradivari by name. Just "he." When the violinist
shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its
neck, resting it on a knee. "He made this to perfect thickness at all
parts," Bell says, pivoting it. "If you shaved off a millimeter of
wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound." No violins
sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.

The front of Bell's violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a
deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish
finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one
section, to bare wood.

"This has never been refinished," Bell said. "That's his original
varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each
maker had his own secret formula." Stradivari is thought to have made
his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum
arabic from sub-Saharan trees.

Like the instrument in "The Red Violin," this one has a past filled
with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious
prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time,
in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman's hotel room in Vienna but was
quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was
pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back.
It was not until 1985 that the thief -- a minor New York violinist --
made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.

Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and
borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5

All of which is a long explanation for why, in the early morning chill
of a day in January, Josh Bell took a three-block cab ride to the
Orange Line, and rode one stop to L'Enfant.

before you arrive, it gets no respect. Metro conductors never seem to
get it right: "Leh-fahn." "Layfont." "El'phant."

At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk
that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines
with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags
move, but it's that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest,
with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the
ultimate suckers' bait, those pamphlets that sell random number
combinations purporting to be "hot." They sell briskly. There's also a
quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to
see if you've won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.

On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking
for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to
a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if
they were of a mind to take note.

Bell decided to begin with "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's
Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest
pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of
any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally
powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo
violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."

Bell didn't say it, but Bach's "Chaconne" is also considered one of
the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed.
It's exhaustingly long -- 14 minutes -- and consists entirely of a
single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations
to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around
1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a
celebration of the breadth of human possibility.

If Bell's encomium to "Chaconne" seems overly effusive, consider this
from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara
Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a
whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I
imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am
quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering
experience would have driven me out of my mind."

So, that's the piece Bell started with.

He'd clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this
performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning
into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was
nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the
pedestrian traffic filed past.

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people
had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A
middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head
to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man
kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a
buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the
performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that
Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang
around and take in the performance, at least for a minute.
Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32
and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious,
many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording
once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding
it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent
newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts,
cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags
slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference,
inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain
fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen,
unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not
really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.


It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan
about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers
for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact
(Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a
little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer
(Immanuel Kant)?

We'll go with Kant, because he's obviously right, and because he
brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel
restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what
the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.

"At the beginning," Bell says, "I was just concentrating on playing
the music. I wasn't really watching what was happening around me . .

Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but
Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature,
cemented by practice and muscle memory: It's like a juggler, he says,
who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What
he's mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing
emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a
storyteller, and you're telling a story."

With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe.
That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal
a sidelong glance.

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's
cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I
started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I
was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change."
This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know
is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says.
"I was stressing a little."

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the
anxiety at the Washington Metro?

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already
validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already
accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me?
What if they resent my presence . . ."

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a
lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen
-- on January 12.

KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National
Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks
he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an
Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52
steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the
giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million
painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of
original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran
School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No
one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey,
that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the
Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of
Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate
beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there
was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of
America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century
German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the
viewing conditions must be optimal.

"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your
report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."

So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a
thousand unimpressed passersby?

"He would have inferred about them," Guyer said, "absolutely nothing."

And that's that.

Except it isn't. To really understand what happened, you have to
rewind that video and play it back from the beginning, from the moment
Bell's bow first touched the strings.

White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David
Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from
Reston. He's heading up the escalator. It's a long ride -- 1 minute
and 15 seconds if you don't walk. So, like most everyone who passes
Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his
first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds
pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he
doesn't race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided.
Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute

It's not that he has nothing else to do. He's a project manager for an
international program at the Department of Energy; on this day,
Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the
most exciting part of his job: "You review the past month's
expenditures," he says, "forecast spending for the next month, if you
have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing."

On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look
around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn
back. He checks the time on his cellphone -- he's three minutes early
for work -- then settles against a wall to listen.

Mortensen doesn't know classical music at all; classic rock is as
close as he comes. But there's something about what he's hearing that
he really likes.

As it happens, he's arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the
second section of "Chaconne." ("It's the point," Bell says, "where it
moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There's a religious,
exalted feeling to it.") The violinist's bow begins to dance; the
music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.

Mortensen doesn't know about major or minor keys: "Whatever it was,"
he says, "it made me feel at peace."

So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a
street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people
pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for
the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in
his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was
special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.

PAINFUL TO RELIVE: "The awkward times," he calls them. It's what
happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The
same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has
finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a
small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er,
okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.

After "Chaconne," it is Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," which surprised
some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed
religious feeling in his compositions, yet "Ave Maria" is a
breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the
sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: "I think this is due to the
fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or
prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is
usually the right and true devotion." This musical prayer became among
the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and
her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking
briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a
federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush
Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training
facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the
parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being
propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He
wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between
Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit
the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is
told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are
born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's
heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to
choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people
who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast
majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians,
young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups.
But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent.
Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and
watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

TO THE VIOLINIST, it was George Tindley. Tindley wasn't hurrying to
get to work. He was at work.

The glass doors through which most people exit the L'Enfant station
lead into an indoor shopping mall, from which there are exits to the
street and elevators to office buildings. The first store in the mall
is an Au Bon Pain, the croissant and coffee shop where Tindley, in his
40s, works in a white uniform busing the tables, restocking the salt
and pepper packets, taking out the garbage. Tindley labors under the
watchful eye of his bosses, and he's supposed to be hopping, and he

But every minute or so, as though drawn by something not entirely
within his control, Tindley would walk to the very edge of the Au Bon
Pain property, keeping his toes inside the line, still on the job.
Then he'd lean forward, as far out into the hallway as he could,
watching the fiddler on the other side of the glass doors. The foot
traffic was steady, so the doors were usually open. The sound came
through pretty well.

"You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was
clearly a professional," Tindley says. He plays the guitar, loves the
sound of strings, and has no respect for a certain kind of musician.

"Most people, they play music; they don't feel it," Tindley says.
"Well, that man was feeling it. That man was moving. Moving into the

A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line,
sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell
than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not
in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that
machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.

J.T. Tillman was in that line. A computer specialist for the
Department of Housing and Urban Development, he remembers every single
number he played that day -- 10 of them, $2 apiece, for a total of
$20. He doesn't recall what the violinist was playing, though. He says
it sounded like generic classical music, the kind the ship's band was
playing in "Titanic," before the iceberg.

"I didn't think nothing of it," Tillman says, "just a guy trying to
make a couple of bucks." Tillman would have given him one or two, he
said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.

When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the
world, he laughs.

"Is he ever going to play around here again?"

"Yeah, but you're going to have to pay a lot to hear him."


Tillman didn't win the lottery, either.

Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and
then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's
got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining
bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and
fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one
thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush
of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who
don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know
what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple
fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a
whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that
you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those
head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't
take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about
not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said
they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on
cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that
infernal racket.

And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services
Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and
headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory
that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.

"Where was he, in relation to me?"

"About four feet away."


There's nothing wrong with Myint's hearing. He had buds in his ear. He
was listening to his iPod.

For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited,
not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get
our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we
hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.

The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by
the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The
meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts
to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point:
It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of
his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until
she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in
front of your eyes.

"YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST," Jackie Hessian says, "but nothing about
him struck me as much of anything."

You couldn't tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those
people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out
that she wasn't noticing the music at all.

"I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to
figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he
make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the
case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was
analyzing it financially."

What do you do, Jackie?

"I'm a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal
Service. I just negotiated a national contract."

less. On that day, for $5, you'd get a lot more than just a nice shine
on your shoes.

Only one person occupied one of those seats when Bell played. Terence
Holmes is a consultant for the Department of Transportation, and he
liked the music just fine, but it was really about a shoeshine: "My
father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and

Holmes wears suits often, so he is up in that perch a lot, and he's
got a good relationship with the shoeshine lady. Holmes is a good
tipper and a good talker, which is a skill that came in handy that
day. The shoeshine lady was upset about something, and the music got
her more upset. She complained, Holmes said, that the music was too
loud, and he tried to calm her down.

Edna Souza is from Brazil. She's been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza
for six years, and she's had her fill of street musicians there; when
they play, she can't hear her customers, and that's bad for business.
So she fights.

Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the
top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the
management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a
musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side.
Either way, she's got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers
for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last

What about Joshua Bell?

He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag,
sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned
musicians, but: "He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I
didn't call the police."

Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that
people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If
something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to
see. Not here."

Souza nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: "Couple
of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there
and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped
to see or slowed down to look.

"People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own
business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what
happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's
sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about
their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least
1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville
visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly
dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion
of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless,
darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of
modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director
Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily
business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line
machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video
from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits
it perfectly.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life,
British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for
beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be
symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the
capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.

If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen
to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever
written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf
and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?

That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published
those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The
thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it
quite that way before.

Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He
wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a
policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.

the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with
a baldish head.

Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final
piece, a reprise of "Chaconne." In the video, you see Picarello stop
dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat
to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the
shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge
for the next nine minutes.

Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was
stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for
his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be
an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like
everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to
him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted,
Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

"There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L'Enfant

Haven't you seen musicians there before?

"Not like this one."

What do you mean?

"This was a superb violinist. I've never heard anyone of that caliber.
He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good
fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear
him. I didn't want to be intrusive on his space."


"Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a
brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't
recognize him; he hadn't seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of
the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a
run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see
Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.

"Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn't
registering. That was baffling to me."

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin
seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at
18, when he decided he'd never be good enough to make it pay. Life
does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent
thing. So he went into another line of work. He's a supervisor at the
U.S. Postal Service. Doesn't play the violin much, anymore.

When he left, Picarello says, "I humbly threw in $5." It was humble:
You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely
looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he
quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.

Does he have regrets about how things worked out?

The postal supervisor considers this.

"No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally,
it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it

MINUTES, in the second "Chaconne." And that also was the first time
more than one person at a time was listening. As Picarello stood in
the back, Janice Olu arrived and took up a position a few feet away
from Bell. Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the
violin as a kid. She didn't know the name of the piece she was
hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.

Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she
turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, "I really
don't want to leave." The stranger standing next to her happened to be
working for The Washington Post.

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed
how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was
that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a
demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several
people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous "what-if" scenarios
abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what
the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would
flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic
backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas,
rubber bullets, etc.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't
arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at
the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much
about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks
earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here
he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money.
She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she
wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center.
She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained
planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington,"
Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour,
and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were
flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I
was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this
could happen?"

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a
twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the
final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people
gave pennies.

"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering.
That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I
wouldn't have to pay an agent."

These days, at L'Enfant Plaza, lotto ticket sales remain brisk.
Musicians still show up from time to time, and they still tick off
Edna Souza. Joshua Bell's latest album, "The Voice of the Violin," has
received the usual critical acclaim. ("Delicate urgency." "Masterful
intimacy." "Unfailingly exquisite." "A musical summit." ". . . will
make your heart thump and weep at the same time.")

Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back
in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be
accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L'Enfant
Plaza as the best classical musician in America.

Emily Shroder, Rachel Manteuffel, John W. Poole and Magazine Editor
Tom Shroder contributed to this report. Gene Weingarten, a Magazine
staff writer, can be reached at weingarten at washpost.com. He will be
fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m.

don't ever get so big or important that you can not hear and listen to every
other person.   john coletrane
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