It’s 11:43 on a recent Friday morning, and the 4 train —free from rush hour congestion —is flying downtown to 86th Street from 125th Street.
Ab’shalom ben’ Yisrael, 40, and Zu Naftali, 36, bow their heads and say a prayer to the powers that be to keep them safe as they start a day of drumming on the trains.
By the time their fingers hit the drums—Yisrael’s on the conga and Naftali’s on the bongos—a woman has plugged her ears. Others have pulled out their earbuds and started recording the act on their phones. Some straphangers carry on conversations, a baby in a stroller still sleeps as the tones bounce off the Bombardier's train's walls. Pulling into the station, more riders clap than abstain, and few reach for their wallets.
If you’ve taken a ride on the 4 or 5 trains in the last sixyears, chances are you’ve seen Yisrael and Naftai, who perform as “Fresh 2 Life.” They drum, rhyme and riff in an effort to inspire New Yorkers to be a little more kind to each other.
“Can I get a good afternoon?” Yisrael asks the train, in between automated announcements (Union Square is the next stop). “Instead of an ‘excuse me,’ how about a ‘hey, how you doing, can I sit down?’ We make things so hard for each other, and for one another, and then we wonder why we go through the things we go through. I don’t have a lot of problems—I have 99 blessings, a problem ain’t one … 40 years old and I’m still doing backflips. I’m loving life. Can you say the same for yourselves? Why you ain’t smiling then?”
By the time they take a break at Fulton Center to entertain a reporter’s questions, energy is high — they’re just getting started, and their buckets rattle with change and bills.
“We have a higher vibe than I want to take your money, I want to see you smile,” Yisrael said. The pair play on the trains five or six times a week in between their jobs—Yisrael works a 9-5 counting merchandise, and Naftali works overnight as a rigger. "We’re not here to hustle anybody, people hustle everyday and they get nowhere, because people hustle them right back.”
Yisrael and Naftali, who are both native New Yorkers, met and started making music together about six years years ago, when Yisrae said Naftali was making a sound on the drums he had been trying to perfect himself for a year. They both were looking for a partner to play with, and about six months later, “Fresh 2 Life was born.”
They play on the trains, up to six days a week, anywhere from four to eight hours depending on their energy.
“We try to incorporate civilization back into this civilization,” Naftali said.
It doesn’t always work—Naftali has had his glasses snatched off his face in an attempt to stop him from drumming. But more often and not they are the underground voices of reason, breaking up fights and arguments before they escalate.
They have gotten tickets for playing on the trains. But Fresh 2 Life said they’ve had some helpful advice from officers to avoid tickets, know the conductors on the line, and even have a photo of them posing with NYPD Transit Chief Joseph Fox.
The MTA said in a statement they ask subway riders adhere to the MTA's rules of conduct.
Fresh 2 Life does taken some above-ground gigs, but prefer a captive subterranean audience.
In May, the de Blasio adminstration started a pilot program, called “It’s Showtime,” that gives subway dancers an above-ground space to perform for crowds, in hopes of avoiding their arrest of ticket for a summons.
“It’s Showtime NYC aims to steer New Yorkers into opportunity instead of arrest while protecting public safety — and we’re always looking for new ways to do so. As we evaluate its success, we will also explore ways to replicate that model,” City Hall spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said in an email when asked if the program might expand to include musicians.
Train dancers often face steeper punishments, such as reckless endangerment, as opposed to buskers who might be ticketed for blocking traffic or using amplified sound without a permit.
“New York used to be the greatest city in the world,” Yisrael said. Now people come through and say ‘why does everyone look so mad?’ It’s serious, and we’re trying to change it ... I remember when people said 'hello' to each other all the time, and when someone sneezed, everyone said 'bless you.'"