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Gary Younge
Riding the subway with the King of Soul in search of applause and a slow buck

"Mostly I'm a DJ," says Simms. "But when I'm riding the subway I do James Brown because every body likes James Brown and there ain't a song I don't know." Then, after a few more moves, he heads off to pick up the photocopied sheets of A4 he has distributed through the carriage with the handwritten story of his life.

"I had an accident when I was young," it says. "I was shoved by mistake while playing with another kid. I grew up through life having epilepsy and black outs from 1952 to 1962. I'm very energetic and talented. I consider myself a good showman. If you can, please contribute whatever you can."

Simms, 54, works hard at his craft. Follow him around for half an hour and you will have to weave in and out of carriages at every stop and walk the length of each carriage twice (once to put down the sheets and once to pick them up) in between stops. Each carriage nets him as little as nothing and as much as five dollars.

"This ain't all I can do," says Simms. "I drive a truck, I do some building when the work is there. When it ain't I do the subway. It's warmer in the winter."

Simms is one of many of those on New York's subway who have turned their hustle, borne from an act of desperation, into an art form. As in London there are regular beggars and addicts happy for whatever they can get from a captive audience. But for the most part, there is an unwritten contract that the supplicant will have to give something before money changes hands. Teenage boys try it on, claiming they are selling M&M's to raise money for basketball shirts - no matter how short, overweight or otherwise unlikely they look for the basketball court.

There is a singing family - father and three children - which sings in perfect harmony during the early evening, while the youngest hits the tambourine and then collects the money. The circus-trained group of three, one of whom did a series of backflips through the carriage while the woman was thrown so sharply in the air that her feet slammed against the roof and she walked away with a huge amount of money just so she would stop.

Sometimes you don't even know it's happening. A black man in rush hour holding his head in his hands starts murmuring something and you think he must be disturbed. Then gradually it becomes clear he's singing "I was born by the river," first softly and then so loud and tuneful over three short stops, that the carriage applauds and you can't get it out of your head for days.

When the art is gone you are just left with desperation and commerce. Chinese men and women selling batteries on the cheap. And the man with the burned-out face who trawls the C-line all the way out to the suburbs carrying the newspaper clippings showing when and how it happened. And then there are the religious who preach the word for free, saving souls and warning of damnation on the 6-line between Bronx and Brooklyn - a good a place as any to raise the prospect of armageddon.

When we reach De Kalb station Simms gets out for a coffee at Juniors - Brooklyn's cheesecake emporium. "I need a little break to get myself together before the children get out of school and the rush hour begins," he says. "This might not look like much, but it's work."

Overheard in a cab from Broadway to Bowery Street: "They're wasting their time. We have no idea what's coming next. Just like we couldn't imagine September 11 on September 10. No way. So we can't imagine what the hell they're going to do tomorrow. We'll wake up one morning and it'll be Times Square. Just gone. Boom. No colour-coding's gonna stop that."

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