Turning off the light switch, Johnny shoulders his guitar, puts on his woolen hat, and leaves his home. He lives above a café in a small apartment he rented from the owner. It shouldn’t be called an apartment because it is so tiny a shoebox would be a better description of his all-in-one living space. But it has a bed, a bathroom, and heating. It is not much, but it is all Johnny can afford. When he is behind with his rent, the owner of the building makes him work at the café, but that is okay, it pays nicely, and he is allowed to keep the tips for himself. Johnny locks the door, turning the keys twice, and puts them in his bag. It’s one of those large bags that you can sling over your head and onto the shoulder. This particular model allows him to carry around all sorts of things and to wear the straps of his soft guitar case on his shoulders. He would love to be able to afford a hard case, they look cool, but they are too expensive, and the soft case is more comfortable to carry around anyway.
It’s cold outside, and Johnny’s breath freezes mid-air when he exhaled. A look up into the sky makes him realize that there will be rain sometime during the day. The crowd will be sparse. People hurry from one store to the next when it rains. They don’t stop to stare or listen to random buskers playing their songs in the street. Johnny puts his scarf around his neck and pulls the zipper of his jacket up to his chin. He blows hot air into the palms of his hands to heat them. Somewhere in his bag are fingerless gloves, but he doesn’t want to wear them yet. One of these days, when he put enough money aside, he will buy a new jacket. One that will keep the cold out of his bones. Not that long ago, Johnny saw one at a second-hand store, with a little luck, it will still be there when he has the money for it. But for now, it has to wait, and he is content with the clothes on his body. Johnny glances at his watch. It is time to hurry up and stop dreaming.
In quick steps, he jogs for about fifteen minutes before he reaches the stairs to the underground. He takes them two at a time, knowing exactly where to go. He knows which tube he needs to take and how to ride it without paying the fee. Of course, if he gets caught, he will have to deal with paying double or even triple. It happened once or twice before. For today, Johnny chooses not to think about it.
Johnny quickly finds a seat on the train and puts the guitar between his legs. Every day, he waits for the morning commuters to vacant the trains. As soon as they are at work, his customers emerge from everywhere, and it is them who help him pay his measly rent and keep food in his belly. Most people assume that he doesn’t have a schedule or plans when he wakes up in the morning. But he has. Johnny’s day is well organized. It is something he needs to feel safe and protected.
In his mind, Johnny repeats the songs he wants to sing today. He puts buds if his headphones in his ears and put play on his old and battered CD player. It has seen better days, that’s for sure, and the kids who see him with the old gadget never spare their pitying looks or condescending comments. He puts his favorite self-compiled CD in and hopes that his batteries aren’t too weak to play for the remainder of the train ride. Johnny composes a mental tracklist for his day. He will start with a couple of cover songs, those that make people stop and sway along and then, a couple of his own songs to sell maybe one or two copies of his home-recorded, unedited and raw album. That’s the plan. But things never go as planned. Johnny knows that all too well. The rain could ruin everything but, on the other hand, someone important might hear him and make him a star. He shakes his head at his own thoughts. Johnny is not a dreamer. In his life is no space for dreams anymore. And yet, he keeps fantasizing about a career in music. Rain or not, he will play.
Two more stations until his stop. Johnny watches a young mother making silly faces at her child. The child laughs out loud, and the mother kisses its head. Both seem happy, and their happiness fills the cart of the train. Observing the mother and daughter reminds him of his own child that he hasn’t seen in a while. He misses Penny, every day and he keeps a picture of her in his pocket. It is worn and faded, but it is his little princess. She should be five years old by now. He recalls the times when he took her with him to ‘work.’ She used to dance, and people stopped to watch the little, then three-year-old sing and dance along to her daddy’s tunes. Those were happy days. The carefree days are long gone now. Often times, Johnny feels as if he is existing, not living. His girlfriend – ex-girlfriend, has a new life, and she moved them to the suburbs. She has it all now. The car, the big house, the dog, she even has the fucking white picket fence and the model husband who works a regular desk job. Not to forget the conservative clothes and hairdo, too. She has everything they ever mocked when they were together, and the thirty-year-old musician has no justified reason to exist in her world anymore. She refuses to see him, and she refuses to let him see his child. She erased him from her past, and all that is left of them – his own family, are sad lyrics in songs no one has ever heard. He continues to watch the mother with her child, and for a tiny moment, he wishes that his life has turned out differently.
Where would he be now if he hadn’t dropped out of school at fifteen to pursue his dream of making it big as a musician? Where would he be now if he had looked for a ‘real’ job when his ex-girlfriend became pregnant? Where would he be now if they were still together?
The crackling voice coming from the speakers above his head announces the next stop, his stop. He gathers his bag and his guitar and gets up. As soon as the train stops, he leaves. He doesn’t look back at the woman and her child. It takes some effort, but he doesn’t turn his head. If he only had the chance, he could be an amazing dad for his little girl. He wonders if she even remembers him or if he turned into a faded memory mistaken for a dream once in a while.
Johnny takes the stairs two at a time again. At the top, he stops to take off his hat and rearrange his baggage. The streets are still empty, but it doesn’t bother him, not yet. He sees familiar faces and greets some of them, making small-talk. It’s good to have allies on the street. It’s not always as romantic as it may appear to be. He has his corner, and others have their corners too. As long as no one plays on the other’s territory, everything is easy, but overstep the invisible border, and you and (or) your instrument will suffer severe damage. Johnny prefers his world to be peaceful and stays out of as many brawls as possible. His corner is a good one, though. It’s close to a fountain, and in summer, when it is hot, people sit on the steps with an ice cream cone or cooling their feet in the water. In the colder months, it’s a bleak place, yet it is his, and it is across from a well-frequented coffee house. His back is turned toward an expensive boutique—the kind where one pair of jeans costs more than two months of his rent. The people going in and out are not the type of people to stop and listen to his strumming, but it’s okay. He is realistic enough to know that he can’t win them all. Unconsciously, it bugs him more than he will ever let on.
He sets up his little workspace and tunes his guitar. He opens his case for people to throw in some money and decorates it with his homemade CDs along with a sign that they are pay-what-you-want. Most people give a Euro or so, it’s nowhere near as much as they are worth, but it’s better than nothing, and Johnny is not the type of person to complain. He takes what he can get, but never demands more.
He clears his throat and starts to sing into the microphone. The first songs are always hard to sing. Every day he needs to find the courage and the voice to sing in the street for the passing people, and that from the top of his lungs. Three songs in and the first group of people stops. It looks like a class on a day trip. The young girls giggle. He knows it’s because he is handsome. And he has to admit that he likes to look good. Enough of his fellow buskers look like bums, and he sees how people look the other way when they see them; he wants to stand out with his good appearances. He takes care of his daily hygiene, and he doesn’t walk around in holey, grubby clothes. In his mind, success and looking good go hand in hand in the music industry, and he wants it more than anything else.
Johnny winks at one of the girls. That small acknowledging gesture always works, and she starts to rummage in her purse. Before he knows it, she put a 5 Euro bill in his case. He smiles. It’s a great start. The song stops, and he thanks the young girl. She blushes and asks for a particular cover. Johnny is happy to oblige. He isn’t able to take on every request because he doesn’t know every song, but he knows this one and starts singing about seeing fire inside of mountains. The girls clap, and because of them standing in a half-circle around him, more curious people stop to listen, and more money is thrown into his case. At one moment, he closes his eyes and almost forgets that he is only a street musician. Almost. He imagines standing on stance; professional equipment makes him sound better than ever. The spotlight heats his cold fingers. But as soon as the song is over, he is back in the cold reality too, watching as the crowd disperses. Another song finished, and this time, the girls buy one of his disks and ask him to sign it. Johnny has to laugh out loud, he has never signed a CD before, but the girls insist. He poses for pictures with them, and for the minutes they share with him, he feels like a rock star. One of the girls asks if she can share the video she took of him on her Facebook page or Instagram account. He agrees. Usually, those videos are shaky, and the sound quality is terrible anyway, but he is also aware that they put his name out there. They make a little small-talk about this and that, but the conversation dies down, and the situation becomes awkward. Johnny excuses himself to play some more songs, and the group of girls leaves. And while the city is fully awake now and the grey clouds moved on to reveal patches of blue sky, Johnny continues to play. The day announces itself to be a good one after all. He plays for money, yes, but he also plays for his tormented soul. To ease the pain, that threatens to drown him some days. He plays to fill the hearts of every listener with love and gratitude, and he plays because he is grateful too. Maybe one day, his heart will be filled with love again too, but Johnny is a cynic, and he doesn’t count on it.
After three hours of singing and playing, the tips of his fingers hurt, and his throat is as dry as the desert. It’s time to take a break. He sits on the steps of the fountain and looks at the busy crowd. He rummages in his bag to find something to eat, and when he looks up, he sees her face, and it feels as if time slows down. She vanishes into the forest of legs and bags. He jumps up to search for her in the crowd. Was it real? Is his mind playing tricks on him because of the mom and girl he saw on the train? People move in slow motion, but then her face appears again. Her hand is embedded in a larger one. Johnny’s gaze travels up the arm, and that face is familiar too. They come closer, and he straightens his clothes, runs his fingers through his hair to smooth it down, and, with a racing heart, he waits for their reaction.
To his surprise, she stops in front of him.
“Hi,” she says, looking down at the little girl he would recognize everywhere in the world.
“Hi,” he answers, rocking on his heels and burying his hands in his pockets, not to reach out and touch the child’s blonde locks.
“Remember Penny?” She asks. Of course, he does. How could he forget his child? He nods, and then he has an idea. He takes one of his CDs and scribbles something on the case. ‘For my dearest Penelope. You will always hold the biggest place in my heart.’ He hands it to the girl with a smile, and she looks up at her mother as if to ask permission to take the gift. He hasn’t much to offer and doesn’t have the money to buy her toys or anything. Instead, he gives her something that comes straight from his heart. The moments between Penny asking permission and her taking the gift stretches, and Johnny releases a shaky breath.
“So. You’re still playing then?” His ex nods at his worn guitar, and it makes him feel small, like a failure. She wears an expensive coat, and even her perfume smells expensive.
“Yes. Every day. Always here.” She looks at him with a longing expression on her face. Is that remembrance? Is she thinking of all the times she sat here with him? She looks down at his worn boots and up again. Her face has changed.
“Take care, Johnny.” She pulls at the girl’s hand, and they move on.
“Who was that man?” Penny asks, looking over her shoulder at him. He wants to yell, “I’m your dad,” but the girl’s mother is quicker with her answer.
“Nobody, honey. Just a busker.” Johnny turns away and grabs his guitar. His heart is heavy, and his voice hoarse. His eyes are moist, and his pride a little bruised, and he clings to the only thing that ever offers a hint of security to him. A hint of normalcy. His break wasn’t long enough, his fingers still hurt, but he starts to sing again. The physical hurt is not as bad as the hurt he feels inside. Until then, he only assumed that Penelope wouldn’t know him. The assumption became true. And the truth hurts. For the remainder of the day, he sings songs of lonely hearts and broken dreams. Passers throw some money in his case, and he wonders what they see when they look at him. His ex’s voice reverberates in his mind. “Nobody. Just a busker.”