I was walking last evening through the bowels of Manhattan, the New York subway system beneath Times Square, with thousands of other people hurrying in all directions, absorbed in our own journeys, seeing each other as little more than moving obstacles to be avoided, when a powerful voice pulled me away from my intended path. In a place where musicians, singers and young Black acrobats perform daily for spare change, Alice Tan Ridley sang songs blending gospel and blues that caused weary, distrustful people to stop, to listen and to acknowledge one another. At one point she was joined by a girl of 10 or 11 with a powerful voice for one so young, who appeared and then disappeared back into the crowd. So magical was the moment that even I deposited some greenbacks in the rapidly filling basket. Alice Tan Ridley, it turns out, has been singing in the subway for 20 years, earning money to support her family, which includes her daughter, Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her role in Precious. The 63-year-old Alice appeared on “America’s Got Talent” in 2010 and now tours nationally. Yet here she was, underground, part of Music Under New York, which since 1985 has provided over 7,500 performances annually by more than 350 artists at 30 locations throughout the city’s subway system.
In an underground tunnel, a place known for shoving strangers and urban crime, a metaphor for the dark life of a big city, a moment of beauty appears – a gift of hope for the New Year.