The chipper face that each of the aspiring MUNY members encountered first at this year’s audition belonged to Natalia Paruz, an eight-year subway veteran. Paruz plays the saw. And despite her threatening nickname, the Saw Lady, it wasn’t hard to see why MUNY put her up front. Sitting at the sign-in desk on the east side of Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal, Paruz never lost her cool no matter how many dumb questions she had to answer. In fact, she never lost her smile.
One week later on a very warm Wednesday in early July, Paruz was playing her saw on the upper mezzanine level of the Times Square subway station, and again, for another three hours, she never lost her smile. Paruz’s playing style may be described as pleasant and engaging, even as her choice of instrument may be called bizarre. Paruz plays the saw with a delicateness that most people reserve for their newborn babies. As she bent the 32-inch-long saw back and forth with her left hand and gently caressed it with a bow in her right hand, a sweet wail came from her saw—one that could easily be mistaken for the booming voice of an opera soprano.
Passersby who watched Paruz often kept their mouths opened. One man in a T-shirt and khakis, opened his mouth for a few seconds and then exclaimed, “Is that a saw? That’s got to be worth a dollar, man, c’mon.” He reached into his wallet and dropped a single into her bucket.
Wearing a yellow T-shirt advertising her CD and a custom-made cap with a picture of a saw and three musical notes, Paruz told me between songs, “Sometimes people just can’t believe it. They’ll put their ears to the saw and ask me to play without background music. Or I’ll hear two people talking—‘she’s not really playing; she’s singing.’” She paused, “I wish I could sing like that.”
Another man in a business suit, carrying a garment bag and briefcase, stopped in his tracks when he saw her. He stared at her with his mouth wide open. He slowly closed his mouth, and finally, as if he had it all figured out, nodded and said, “Tarnation, that’s incredible, a f-ing saw. That’s incredible.” He walked on without leaving a penny.
Paruz, 30, is atypical for a subway musician not just because she plays the saw, but because she is a woman.
Male subway performers far outnumber females. Danger seems to be the number one obstacle for most female musicians.
Subway performer Cathy Grier, an electrical guitarist, noted that women are subject to harassment by male riders.
“Being alone as a female can be a daunting thing,” she said. Another impediment is the heavy equipment. In addition
to their instruments—which for some non-singers can be as heavy as a steel drum—quite a few musicians also lug
around amplifiers, stereos for backup music, their own CDs to sell and a bucket for donations.
None of that stops Paruz, who has been playing in the subways since 1996. Although she would not specify, Paruz makes very little from playing in the subways. “It’s like nothing,” she said of her subway earnings. “It’s just change.” Paruz, who immigrated from Israel with her parents when she was 14, relies on other gigs for a great majority of her income. She’s played in galleries, in several orchestras and at one-time events, such as the ceremony for the Liberty Bell last fall. She has also played music for commercials, and has appeared in the movie 'Dummy'. “They needed a musical saw player so they asked me,” she said. “The good thing about what I do is that there is not a lot of competition.”
Partly, that’s because the saw is very difficult to play. Musical saws have quarter notes—seldom employed in Western music—which Paruz must avoid; while her soft melodies range from Bach to Broadway musicals, she never strays from Western music. Also, “there are no frets or keys or valves to guide me—that’s the challenge.” Paruz—who keeps her saw in a sports gun case (“It’s the only thing that would fit the saw.”)—fell in love with it when she went to Austria with her parents 11 years ago. They attended a tourist-oriented folklore show featuring a saw player. She went backstage and asked the player if he’d show her how to play, but he declined, informing her that most people learn the saw by imitating others. Because Paruz had lessons in piano when she was younger and good ear training, she learned the saw easily.
“The beauty of this work: don’t have to commit,” she said. “I commit three times a week, then if I want
more, I’ll just freelance.” How long does she plan to play in the subways? “Forever,” she answered. Then, as if
reality has set in, added, “as long as I can.” “Why should I stop?” she asked a moment later. “It’s so much fun.”
The fun and joy in performing seems to compel Paruz to play, and it rubs off on the riders watching her. Because Paruz engages the audience by rarely looking down and consistently keeping eye contact, and a smile, with whomever is walking by, audience members will strike up conversations with her. Even as she is playing, Paruz is eminently approachable. On the Wednesday morning I watched, one man came up to ask her if she knew the saw player Moses and how come she uses a saw with a handle. (She does know Moses Josiah pretty well, and she needs a handle because unlike Moses she will often play for four or five hours without a break.) Another man, after throwing in a coin or two, took out his camera to take a picture. She stopped mid-song to pose.
Once while she was playing at the Union Square station, a woman revealed, in full detail, how she was raped. “Sometimes I’m amazed at the things they’ll say,” Paruz told me. “They stay and tell me stuff about themselves. They open up.” Others have related to her that they lost their jobs or other woes, as if she were a sympathetic bartender. “They open up to a subway musician,” she said. “It always amazes me.” Paruz, who has played the streets in France, Italy and the Czech Republic, added, “Playing in subways has taught me that the people of New York are friendly.”
Not every New Yorker appreciates subway musicians. Some consider them “sophisticated panhandlers,” as one subway rider put it. “It comes from ignorance,” Paruz said sympathetically, “They think we’re homeless and can’t get gigs anywhere. But the majority of us live in fine houses and get lots of gigs elsewhere.”