The underground life of Astoria’s Saw Lady
World-famous busker Natalia Paruz doesn’t have to play in the city’s subway system any longer. She just chooses to. It’s so much more interesting down there, and the acoustics are way better.
By NATHAN TEMPEY
In the subway, through the clatter of trains and the murmur of announcements, you hear it before you see it. Even a few feet from the performer, the source of the music is unclear. “She’s singing.” “No she’s not, she’s playing.” “Playing?” Natalia Paruz gets that a lot.
Thirty-five-year-old Paruz, also known as “The Saw Lady,” has been playing the musical saw in New York’s subway system for nearly two decades. She’s grown used to strange reactions. Some passersby reach to touch the blade mid-song; others sing to imitate its eerie pitch.
To be fair, it’s unexpected to see someone playing a saw with a bow. And more surprising still is Paruz’s proficiency at it. She works her saw seriously, making it tremble like a violin and wail like an opera star (she’s in the process of learning a few arias). Her skill has carried her from grimy underground hallways to the stage at Carnegie Hall. For someone with such an unusual talent, her calendar is impressively full.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, she sat in the Astoria living room of pianist Mary Bopp, practicing for an upcoming competition. Though sometimes paired with other unusual instrumentalists, Paruz mostly works with traditional ensembles and, occasionally, orchestras. She had just returned from a short tour in Israel, where she was born and spent her early childhood.
“It was enough for me,” she said. “I don’t like to be away too long.” She lives a short walk away on 27th Street in a house she owns with her husband. Paruz is something of a neighborhood fixture; cashiers at the grocery store refer to her as The Saw Lady, and school kids mime saw-playing when she passes. The post office clerk asks after her family.
“I like the fact that Astoria’s so close to Manhattan, but you can see the sky,” Paruz said. “The buildings are lower, you know, and further apart. And it has lots of small town feel, lots of old moms and pops.”
“You can’t eat a bad meal here,” Bopp interjected. “Or at least there’s no good excuse.” The two met on a street corner where Paruz was taping up a flyer for the saw festival she organizes, and quickly became friends and frequent collaborators. The festival that started with five sawists (as they’re known) in Paruz’s living room is now in its ninth year, and is expected to fill Astoria’s Hellenic Cultural Center this July.
These days Paruz is settled into her groove. Though better-paying opportunities beckon, she makes sure to carve time out for playing underground, where the audience talks back. Her determined grace amid the bustle of subway stations gives her a mystical aura, as if she was chosen for the profession. To hear her tell it, she was – New York City made a saw lady out of her. But her path was paved by hours of practice a day, and a solid street sense.
Raised outside Tel Aviv to a concert pianist mother and scientist father whose residencies and research fellowships carried the family across Europe. At the age of 15 her parents moved to New York, and she signed on as a Martha Graham Dance Company trainee. When her parents left she stayed, renting a room in a convent and began dancing full-time.
Two years into her busy new life she was struck by a cab speeding across Central Park South. “It was clear that my dance career was over,” said Paruz, who suffered a spine injury. “I felt empty.” After the accident, she audited computer programming classes at Hunter College, thinking she might turn the hobby into a job, but the emptiness remained.
Around this time Paruz traveled to Austria – on a trip arranged to lift her spirits – and it was there, at a variety show, that she first heard the sounds of a musical saw. She asked the saw player for instruction afterwards, but he insisted that the best way to learn was to try it out for herself. Back in New York, she borrowed her landlady’s rusty saw and went to it. On finding that the saw only bore six notes, she went to the hardware store and upgraded.
“I was totally hooked on the phenomenal acoustics in the subway. I never wanted to go back to playing above ground.”
One day she was playing on break in the parking lot of the Broadway theater where she sold souvenirs, when a man walking by stopped and gave her five dollars. At that moment she had her first inkling.
And when, at her coworkers’ insistence, she played out front during a play intermission some time later and made more than her shift pay, she knew: she was a busker.
Busking is the ancient act of performing in public for tips, and the city is ambivalent about it. While busking is generally tolerated, it is forbidden on trains, and police sometimes push back if they feel like it. (A $150 ticket for weapon carrying prompted Paruz to take the teeth off of her busking saws).
On the other hand, there’s the Music Under New York program, which is something of a holy grail for buskers. Paruz, a member since the mid-‘90s, is one of just over 100 musicians permitted to play three-hour sets a few times a week at designated performance spots throughout the subway system.
To earn that privilege she quit her job and struck out for the sidewalks of Times Square. Winter drove her into the subway. To her surprise, the subteranean open space was perfectly-suited for saw playing. “I was totally hooked on the phenomenal acoustics in the subway,” Paruz said. “I never wanted to go back to playing above ground.”
Another thing she realized after a few years in the subway: so much happens in a day of busking, you’re liable to forget most of it. So she started jotting notes between songs, using her saw blade for a desk, and in the late ‘90s she started the blog, “Subway Music.” Unable to find software for it, she wrote the HTML herself. It began as a personal journal.
“But then people started commenting and I realized that it’s another platform to bring people together,” she wrote in an email. Her blog posts read more like ledger entries than short stories now, in part because of the sheer quantity of people she sees in a day.
Over the course of a three-hour show, she might interact with drunks and businessmen, Japanese tourists and orchestra conductor friends. Below-ground, she writes, “the level of humanity among these people is beautifully high.”
Even the scariest and most frustrating people, she concludes again and again, harbor “hearts of gold.” Her experience seems to bear this out. There was the girl who stole from her bucket, and came back months later with a box of cookies as an offering. Then again there was also the scarier thief who never came back.
“But that’s New York,” Moses Josiah said, recalling his own tip-theft experience between songs at the Times Square shuttle station. Josiah, 82, is the city’s other saw-playing subway veteran. Like Paruz, the vertan busker has a rosy outlook. “The people of New York, most of them are givers,” he added. “They give so, so much.”
Paruz remembers the blind man years ago, swaying as he listened to her play. A stranger bought a cassette tape from her and stuck it his hands, then disappeared into the crowd. And the silent man, who was deaf but could hear the frequencies of her saw. There have been millions more.
“They say if you stand in one place in New York long enough, eventually you’ll see everyone who lives here,” Paruz said. And why not? Magical thinking has brought her this far.
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