New York, New York

New York Stub Scene

If you happen to leave early from a show at the Philharmonic, be prepared to be asked for your ticket. No, not by an usher, but by a young would-be concert goer who’ll either take your seat or talk trash behind your back.

If you happen to sneak out early from a Saturday-night performance at the New York Philharmonic, you’re likely to be asked for your ticket as you get off the escalator. Not, as you might assume, by the attendant, but rather by one of a small gaggle of youngish, would-be concert-goers. Give them your ticket and they’ll smile, then run off to get in line for the second half; refuse and you’ll get bad-mouthed, and not always out of earshot. Welcome to the New York stub scene.

Stubbing is an almost exclusively Upper West Side activity, as it’s home both to Lincoln Center and three of the city’s main music schools—Julliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes College of Music. Most stubbers are classical music students, whose desire to hear Mahler outweighs the embarrassment that might dissuade the less driven from asking strangers for their symphony tickets.

Leah Goldman, 22, has been stubbing at the Philharmonic since she started her master’s degree at Mannes last fall. ‘Most orchestras have student rush tickets for around $10, but they’re unsold seats, so on sold-out nights, you can’t get them,’ she explains. ‘$10 a week adds up on a student budget, and you don’t get to see many of the best performances.’

The Philharmonic has no official policy on stubbing; the PR office had never even heard of it. The same goes for Carnegie Hall, though the Metropolitan Opera tries to keep a lid on it by requiring patrons who step out during intermissions to carry a special pass with them. The halls’ ignorance of the stubbers may be credited, though, to the scene’s thin ranks: Usually, there are no more than six stubbers at the Philharmonic on a Friday or Saturday night. Goldman, a short, lightly freckled trumpet player and an active stubber, estimates that there are ‘probably thirty or forty people who stub at the Phil at least a few times a season.’

Goldman earned a degree in performance at U.C.L.A., but says she never stubbed until she came to New York, when one night she met up with a friend and fellow trumpeter, Eileen Bedlington, 22, a first-year grad student at Manhattan. ‘Eileen used to do it at the Seattle Symphony, but the first time I was a bit nervous,’ Goldman says. ‘It went off all right, and when we got them we were so excited we started to go up the down escalator. The usher, who had been watching us from a few feet away, advised us with a conspiratorial smile to walk around to the main entrance to get upstairs. Evidently she’d seen a lot of this.’

If the Philharmonic is unaware of the stubbers’ plight, at least a few of its patrons understand what’s going on. Goldman explains that ‘there are a good number of stubbing regulars, who know what we want and hand us their tickets before we ask, saying ‘enjoy the show.’’ At the same time, she adds, ‘there are the inexperienced, who think we work for the hall and say, ‘no, no, we’re just going to the bathroom. We’re coming right back!’’

The hardest part about stubbing, both Goldman and Bedlington say, isn’t the patrons, but a group of eccentric old men who occasionally show up and crowd out the students. ‘They’re really aggressive,’ Bedlington says. ‘They bar the bottom of the escalator and pester every other person, even after they’ve gotten a few tickets, because they want the best ones.’

Most of the concert-leavers are anonymous upper-middle class types, though Goldman says every once in a while she spots someone famous; last October the two stubbed off John Lithgow. ‘We decided that he was just like anyone else, and it couldn’t hurt. If he blew us off, hey, people do that all the time anyway when you’re stubbing,’ Goldman says. ‘But he just handed over the tickets without saying anything or really looking at us. Then he left. He was with a young woman, and we couldn’t decide if she was the daughter or the wife.’

‘They were great seats,’ Bedlington adds.

‘The reality of New York Philharmonic concerts is that many people are there to be seen,’ Goldman says. ‘Or maybe they’re on a date, or they just want to see the soloist, or they want people to see them appreciating high art. Sometimes they go simply because they can.’

For most stubbers, begging for tickets is just another part of being young, poor, and obsessed with classical music, in a city where patrons often value orchestras more as tax shelters than as great artists. ‘We’re pretty much agreed this isn’t something we should do after we graduate,’ says Bedlington. ‘But while we’re still starving music students, and no one seems to mind, why not?’

Some people, of course, do mind, and both Goldman and Bedlington say they’ve faced their share of scowls from paying patrons. ‘Sure, we get dirty looks and spiteful stage whispers from the resentful old society ladies we end up next to,’ Goldman says. ‘But there’s nothing they can do; we have tickets.’

And ultimately, the duo figures, if stubbing is the worst thing a pair of 20-something Manhattanites do on a weekend, where’s the harm? ‘Frankly,’ Goldman says, ‘if people our age want to see the Phil perform Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra that badly, then the old matrons should get off their high horses, stop complaining about young people’s lack of taste, and let us enjoy what we came for.’


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen