The Same Old Song

A street musician played the soundtrack of our youth.

A street musician sits strumming a guitar.
Photo by Riccardo Vicidomini on Unsplash

He’d stand on the street corner, his guitar case open for tips, playing pop hits of the 1970s. He wasn’t terribly good, but he wasn’t bad either. We came to know him as the resident street musician. He came to know us as the group of giggling 17 and 18-year-old girls passing to and fro on the crowded streets of the West End.

Where we were going differed, but it was usually under the same guise, to find some sucker to buy us a beer in one of the pubs. We’d frequently stop after a few drinks and sing along after throwing a dollar in his case and making our requests.

That last summer of my youth, I got to know all the street vendors at the West End rather well — the flower vendors Cupid and Anthony; the carriage drivers John, Sam, Julie and her husband, whose name I can’t recall but for whom I knitted towel hangers when they bought their first house. It was sort of like a little family and I somehow had become an honorary member. But the music man, Boris, was always my favorite.

Boris became fond of us, too, I believe. He figured out quickly that he made better tips from the drunken businessmen when he had us there, dressed in our mini-skirts and high heels, singing backup for the little sidewalk performances. The more we drank, the better we got — or at least louder. The louder and bolder we got, the more money Boris made.

Boris had no last name, and in fact, I’m not even sure Boris was his real name. Once he gave me a hand-drawn business card that simply said “Boris” and listed a phone number with the message, “Ask for Joe.” I tried the number once and the phone rang twice before a gruff man answered. When I asked for Joe, the man laughed and told me, “Honey, this be a payphone and unless you offering me a job, I ain’t Joe.” I never called again.

By the end of the summer, it was only two of us who still ventured downtown on occasion for the free entertainment and the chance to score a drink from some unsuspecting joe. I suspect we both really went to see Boris, despite the excuses we told each other. It wasn’t a crush or physical attraction; even then Boris was at least ten or twenty years older than us. He was just so focused on his music and theories, so mysterious and free — a real rock star kind of guy like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix.

Looking back, I’m not sure exactly what the charm was of the simple visits except that maybe we got to be someone we weren’t during the week — reckless, free, artistic, bold. Boris made it seem okay to be young and aimless. I still can’t hear “Pinball Wizard” or “Strawberry Fields” without thinking of those summer nights on a street corner with my best friends, a stranger and his guitar.

Towards the end of that summer, we knew our visits with Boris were numbered. The streets were getting rougher, more dangerous for a couple of young girls. College, working, and motherhood had begun to take up all my free time. I had also begun to grasp the idea that any suitable man worth dating wouldn’t be downtown buying underage girls beer. Downtown in general, as well as the people who worked the streets, had lost their novelty.

That last July, my eyes had been opened a little wider. I was slightly more mature and had begun to outgrow Boris like so many others in my life before and after him. The message was clear; it was time to move on.

For a couple of years after that, I’d drive by that same street corner when I was downtown and watch for Boris, but I never saw him. That part of the city seemed to have died an unnatural death over the last decade considering what a hot spot it had once been. I’d long forgotten Boris and those summer nights over the years.

One night, maybe fifteen years later, my husband and I went downtown to meet some friends at a bar in what had once been the West End. As I rounded the corner, I saw a familiar face. It was Boris. He was much older than I remembered, even considering how many years had passed since I’d last seen him. He had a new guitar and case, and “had moved up in the world” he said. He now had an amp, he explained excitedly and sometimes played inside.

Boris still knew all the same old songs and started to play them. But this time, I didn’t sing along. I felt a little sad as we politely thanked him, dropped a couple of bucks in his guitar case, and turned to walk away. Poor Boris, I remember thinking, still reaching for the stars alone on his street corner while everyone else went on with their lives.

As we walked away, I heard him begin to sing, “You, my brown-eyed girl.” It had been my song all those years ago and he’d never failed to sing it for me when I came to see him. I looked back over my shoulder one more time as we turned the corner. For a brief second, I could see that fresh-faced 18-year-old girl again, starry-eyed and ready to conquer the great unknown. I smiled and waved. Boris smiled and winked back in return. Perhaps, that girl and those summers still haunt him sometimes, too.

Woman, mother, lover, writer. I was once a journalist, and freelance writer, but now I am retired early and writing for myself.