The system that never sleeps turns 100

By Gary Gately, Globe Correspondent | December 12, 2004

NEW YORK -- In the city beneath the city, a world that pulsates with a life all its own, Natalia Paruz coaxes the sweetest of melodies from a 32-inch wood saw.

She's sitting on a stool in the Union Square subway station, playing Bach, Mozart, and Schubert with a cello bow, and something extraordinary happens. As the ethereal sounds of "Ave Maria" reverberate in the cavernous station, hundreds of harried straphangers gather to watch and listen to this slight, red-haired woman making music with a saw.

Paruz, a.k.a. "SawLady," has played her saw at Lincoln Center, in Paris, with the Morocco Philharmonic, and with the Israel Philharmonic. But she says nothing compares with this subterranean stage that is the New York subway. "It's like you're playing in a cave; it creates the best acoustics," says Paruz, 29, who emigrated from Israel 14 years ago. More than that, she says, "I love the atmosphere. When you do a concert on stage, the audience is out there in the dark. Here you see the faces, and you communicate with them. People are so receptive. Everybody's s miling. They always have a million questions."

Not everyone has been so enamored of her music. In 2000, an undercover policewoman gave her a ticket with a $150 fine because the teeth of the saw represented a weapon. You never know when a crazy person might snatch the saw and start waving it around, the officer said. So Paruz went back to her Astoria, Queens, home and cut all the teeth off the saw. Fortunately, that didn't hurt the quality of the sound.

It echoes in my ears like an angel singing before it's overtaken by a train lumbering and screeching through the tunnel. It's still playing in my head as I step into the car full of silent stares, then: Bing-bong. "Stand clear of the closing doors. Please check for your personal belongings." Next stop . . .