There is an interesting backstory to this event, and it reveals something enlightening about the nature of government bureaucracy, versus private industry.
I first got the idea for this story about two years ago, when I emerged from the McPherson Square Metro station on the way to work and saw a ragged-looking man playing keyboard. He was quite remarkably good, and no one seemed to be noticing him. He had maybe a buck or two in change in his open case.
I walked away kind of angry. I thought, “I bet Yo Yo Ma himself, if he were in disguise, couldn’t get through to these deadheads.” When I got to the office, I actually tried to reach Mr. Ma’s agent.
Life intervened. Time went by, but this story idea always stayed with me. It was my friend Tim Page, The Post’s brilliant classical music critic, who eventually suggested Joshua Bell. (Later in the game, Tim would also tutor me in classical music; he was actually at L’Enfant that day, whispering in my ear, explaining what the heck was coming out of that fiddle. Josh had given me no playlist in advance.)
I had thought that the most difficult part of this story was going to be securing Bell’s cooperation, but that proved relatively easy, as explained in the story. The hard part was yet to come.
We had very little choice in when to do this stunt: Bell’s schedule was extremely tight. So we took what we could get, which was a Friday in January. Unfortunately, that created a problem; the cold eliminated any outdoor venue, Stradivariuses being what they are. We needed to find someplace indoors and heated and that would have steady commuter traffic. The only logical choice was inside a Metro station.
That would require a special, secret dispensation by directors of the transit system. Metro regulations ordinarily forbid busking within the stations.
So, with great confidence, I set up an interview with Jack Requa, who was at the time Metro’s acting director.
Requa listened to the proposal, agreed it was an appealing use of public space for a potentially revealing urban behavioral experiment, and that it would be a nice thing to do for the citizenry of Washington. Then he said:
“I don’t think we can do it, because it violates our rules.”
I said: “I know. That’s why we’re coming to you. We’d like you to loosen the rules, just this once, for 45 minutes, for a worthwhile reason.”
Requa said: “Well, also, it might look as though we are giving preference to one news organization over all others.”
I said: “Uh, well, The Washington Post would have no objection if you made the same concession to any other news organization that happens to be proposing placing a world-class violinist in one of your stations as a sociological experiment!”
Requa said he would investigate the possibilities. A day later he called to report it was looking problematic, and urged The Post to pursue other possibilities. But he said he wanted to discuss it with his security personnel. Days passed.
Finally, a verdict: No. The regulations were complicated, Requa said, but under one interpretation, busking in the Metro was not only against the rules but against the law, and he did not feel jurisdictionally empowered to authorize a breach of law. If Bell performed, Requa said, he would be arrested. Metro would do nothing to stop it.
Total time elapsed to get a “no” answer: Eight days, four hours.
Things were looking bad. Time was running out. I started traveling the Metro and getting off at every downtown stop, seeking adjoining indoor areas. Eventually, I hit L’Enfant Plaza, which was ideal. The indoor arcade was at the very top of the Metro escalator, and had three exit doors: Two to the outside, and one to a retail mall operated not by government, but by a private management firm called The JBG Companies. JBG managed the arcade area, too.
I laid out the proposal to Amanda B. Kearney, JBG’s senior property manager.
“Sure,” she said.
“No one can know anything about this in advance,” I cautioned. “No one other than you. A single breach in security and the whole experiment is compromised. ”
Amanda said: “I won’t even tell my husband.”
Total elapsed time to get a “yes” answer: Six seconds.