Another train roared past the crowd on the platform. Martin Flores took a breath, and picked up his electric bass again.
Low, metallic-sounding notes began to flow out of a mini amplifier at his feet, merging into a mellow, comforting melody.
His voice was soft and breathy, like those folk singers in the movies. Music filled the space. It soothed the noisy, humid subway platform, as a mother gently stroked her child’s hair. In front of himself, the 40-something, thin, bald musician put a small black bucket to collect tips from passengers. There were a few singles and some coins in the bucket.
Flores has been a subway busker in New York City for more than 15 years. Every day from around 4 p.m. to midnight, he sets up his gear at a midtown subway station, and tries to turn the platform into his stage. Subway platforms make up part of every New Yorkers’ life, and people like Flores make up part of the platforms.
Flores’s busking career started in Boston, as soon as he graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1996.
“There was a very active busking scene in Boston,” Flores said. “At the time there was a musician called Mary Lou Lord, who was doing really well for herself and signed a major record deal. So if she could do it, then of course I naively thought I could do it too… I thought if I started playing, people would notice.”
His performance in Boston’s subway and streets allowed him to further develop his skills, and did in fact help him get an artist residency at the Middle East, a club in Cambridge with multiple stages for local acts, and as the name suggests, Middle-Eastern dining. There, he played every Tuesday night for two years.
“I did well locally in Boston,” Flores recounted. “I played at a very popular club, and I had a following. But after a while, it wasn’t going anywhere further … So for the New Millennium…I literally moved here on Jan. 1, 2000, just to try something new. And I had to start all over.”
In the city, Flores attempted to find an opportunity to play at clubs, but realized quickly that he didn’t have the management and marketing skills necessary for making such arrangements.
He told me that sometimes one would just end up playing in an empty room, and that’s what forced some musicians to pick up day jobs eventually. So after coming to New York, he decided to go back to the streets, and play to the world.
Flores’s life has been very much about music for as long as he remembers. Born in Santiago, Chile, he moved with his family to the Boston area when he was seven.
“I fell in love with music before I understood English,” Flores said.
After coming to the U.S., MTV Bands like The Police began to make their mark on his young, impressionable mind. In middle school, he started playing the classical upright bass in the school’s orchestra. He also played the electric guitar on the side.
“Well, I was excelling at music in high school. It was my passion … By my junior and senior year, I was doing every ensemble with electric bass and acoustic bass. I didn’t want to study anything else but music. And I had enough of a pedigree of music in high school that I got admitted to Berklee, which was near where my family was.”
He told me about his dream of sweeping commercial success. “When I was in my ’20s, it was like chasing a carrot on the stick. I gotta be famous, I gotta be a rock star. I gotta be on the MTV. All that.”
Flores’s adolescent dream is yet to be achieved, now at the age of 43. Living in Brooklyn these days, he said he has to play seven days a week in order to make enough money. He tells me he can pay his rent. I don’t know how much is left after that.
But he keeps going, perhaps for the magical moments of the job.
“The best part is that knowing when I’m in the zone, and knowing I play the best I can play, and at that moment in time, I get multiple tips, that reflect that. It’s magic. It’s magic. Oh you tap into the thing, and you can feel it coming back at you. And that’s when you feel like a rock star.” His eyes brightened as he talked.
Ultimately, Flores said, it is a matter of intuition. “I, for better or for worse, am an artist, and I make money because people get it, and I don’t make money because people don’t get it and don’t appreciate it And enough people like me for me to keep doing it. … Some people say that it’s a fool’s errand; why are you doing that? Well, I ask myself that everyday. But as any artist, I do what compels me … I feel it, I just feel it, I just do.”
But what’s the most compelling isn’t always the easiest. “You have to have a very thick skin to do this. And for a long time I didn’t, and it would just drive me to drink, literally. I was just vibrating with insecurity.
“But I don’t do that anymore … It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s about anybody’s life. People are happy when they accept whatever that is they do. No matter you’re a janitor or a millionaire.” And it took Flores years to be able to accept whatever it is that he does.
“It’s hard to explain … I’ve always been spiritual. But I’ve always had one foot in, and one foot out. Because we are human; we have an ego; we fear. Yeah well, what if my life doesn’t work out, what if I’m gonna be doing this for the rest of my life, what if I need to get a job…” he said. “After years and years I got so exhausted with the what-ifs that I put both feet in and just say I believe I’m gonna be successful.”
Two days after our conversation, Flores texted me when he was playing, hoping to add some information to his account.
“One of the most gratifying things I’ve learned and earned after doing this for a living for so many years, is finally getting to that point where I genuinely don’t care what anybody thinks of me and my music. I touched upon it, but as I play right now, it’s so true.”
But at the same time, he told me that at the end of his life, he hopes to have created “a timeless work,” or more specifically as he envisions for himself, “a hit.”
“I want respect as an artist,” he admitted, “and I may never get that because I’m not in the public awareness.” I guess the taste of approval and admiration is too hard to resist, even for the most enlightened.
Flores’s progress in making peace with his struggles doesn’t mean others can appreciate it as well. “I used to get mad, like my parents would not understand why I’m subjecting myself to this…” He teared up, and tried to change his tone by making a cheerful remark.
“I mean it’s getting really psychoanalytical. Wow! My dad’s approval and all that. You know. He’s a doctor.”
None of these, however, stopped Flores from making and playing music. When I asked him if he’d ever had second thoughts about what he does, he said no immediately. Never. Straight face. He said it’s the only thing he knows how to do, and it’s something he knows he is good at.
“I know in my heart that I’m gonna find the right people when I’m in the right mind set… I’m not young, I’m not gonna be a pop star, but I have a lot of songs and experiences. Well…look all it takes is to sell license for a song and you could be set for life. What I do is very different; I play the bass, not the guitar. So until somebody else plays the bass solo better than me and gets the spotlight, there’s some fighting and hope for me.” He spoke quickly and with emotion, as if something was stirred up in him. There was a catch in his voice.
He then reminded me, or perhaps himself, of blues and jazz musicians, who don’t reach their commercial success until in their ’40s or ’50s.
We sat at the lower level of Grand Central. Flores wore a dark blue T-shirt and a pair of gray jeans. The story he told me probably seems a bit sad. He struggles to make a living. He has experienced many pains. But despite this, he derives a unique kind of happiness from his music, a pleasure beyond ordinary, everyday life. I began to realize my envy or admiration for him.