It was during early 1974, and I was 17. I still wasn’t able to call myself grown up, but 17 was way better than telling people I was sixteen! There had been nothing sweet 16 about my previous year, nor had age 15 been any kinder. In the depths of my being, I had wanted to erase the memories of those two years.
I did a little stint in jail because, during the summer of 1972 on the eve of my 16th birthday, a cop had claimed I’d assaulted him. The truth is, I had told him to go fuck himself. He charged me with verbal assault.
The judge had said, “You instructed a Windsor Peace Officer to do something that is anatomically impossible.” Being the assinine teenager I was, I’d asked the judge, “How do you know, did you go home and try it?” Yep, just the thing you don’t query of a judge! That got me a $75 fine, a month’s rent in those days, and seven days in jail.
Upon my release, the Children’s Aid paid my half of one month’s rent for an apartment I was to share with an older sister.
After the hardships of the streets, claiming a sofa as my bedroom had felt heavenly, yet I was without a food budget allotment from the Children’s Aid.
If I wanted to eat, the choices were panhandling, stealing or prostitution. Selling one’s body leads to depleting portions of one’s soul, bit by bit. To fill these voids, many of those who are forced to survive by prostitution become alcoholics or drug addicts. Getting caught stealing food was a surefire path to another jail stint. Of the three choices, panhandling was the least horrific path to obtaining food.
Get a job, some might say, but that wasn’t so easy for a child without a high school diploma. Even the restaurants were a tough place to get a job. To get hired in those days meant having the means to purchase and keep clean the starched white uniforms! I’d applied for a job pumping gas, but the owner rejected me. Only boys or men were allowed to fill a gas tank!
Hungry, I strode downtown, northbound heading toward my regular panhandling gig on the southwest corner of Ouellette Avenue and Park Street. The spot I had implicit permission to claim, was in front of the Pond’s Big V pharmacy store. I’d felt almost invisible as the people who worked there seemed to look right through me. It wasn’t as painful as the horrible stares or angry looks I’d get from some passersby.
Nearing Biff’s coffee shop, I’d spotted a forlorn-looking young man, seemingly out of place. I’d met lots of homeless or wayward guys since I’d hit the streets at 15. Runaways or newly turfed, these new-to-the-streets guys felt the blows differently than us girls. Not that the street life and hardships were more natural for the girls, the difference was the depth of pride in these guys, and it was not unusual for them to become suicidal. It was like their legs and arms could be broken, and that was okay, as long as they could find some way in their misery to continue to feel like a man.
Concerned for his immediate safety and well-being, I’d felt the need to catch up quickly to the young man and called out to him, “Hey, is everything okay?” I was a bit unnerved when two burly looking guys lunged toward me. “What the hell?” I’d stammered.
“Back off!” The young man had commanded them. I was confused as I’d not thought the three were together, the young man had stayed a few steps ahead of the others. “It’s okay.” He said to me, and then he’d asked, “Why are you concerned about me?”
“You look sad.” I’d answered. He’d said, “Naw, I just have a cold that won’t seem to go away.” With my forever smile, I’d asked, “How about I buy you a cup of coffee? A little warm inside can help the cold go away.” His smiling response had made me think his eyes, set in a boyish face, looked kind.
Inside Biff’s, sitting across from each other in one of the booths, we’d sipped each on a cup of coffee. He asked my name, and I gave him my street name at the time, Christine Elliott.
The man kept himself as the subject of most of the conversation, but I hadn’t minded listening. He’d talked about how he was the leader of his band, even though there were only two of them. I’d asked who played all the instruments and he’d laughed and explained to me the roles of studio musicians and gig bandmates, and how these people were usually not seen by an audience.
Talking about breaking up with his partner, I’d listened, somewhat amused by his jealousy of the other man. In a sombre voice, he explained how his friend got all the girls and sang like an angel, but it was unfair, as he was the creator of all of their work.
Taking a long last slurping sip on his coffee, the young man asked, “I’m playing across the street tonight, so why don’t you come to watch the show?” He then said, “I’ll be the guy playing the bass guitar, I’m sure you’ll recognize me!” I’d laughed at his remark and told him sure, but I’d better find something more appropriate than the micro mini skirt I was wearing. He’d said it was a dinner club, so anything nice would do.
Wearing my floor-length, neck plunging, white and blue polka dot polyester dress and purple clover platform shoes, I left the apartment. A couple of violet-coloured flowers nipped from the “Housewarming” flowering plant the Children’s Aid worker had given me, tucked over my ear, and I’d felt as pretty as the girl in the free-flowing hippie dress pictured on the sanitary pads box.
I ended up spending that weekend with him, and the subsequent weekend. On the day of our parting, after he scribbled my real name, Zora Zebic, close to the bind of his workbook, he’d promised, “I’m going to record these songs, and you’ll get half the royalties. That’s why I need to have your real name. We are going to be rich!”
I’d not known what to believe, but it was a promised future of some comforts. After all, a little girl who’d been homeless for going on two years didn’t have much else in the way of hope.
One year later, I heard one of our jaunty tunes playing on the radio. I thought perhaps he’d laid claim to a one-hit wonder. I’d let it go, wishing him the best.
During the summer of 1986, I worked at a fast food restaurant in a downtown mall in Calgary, Alberta. After my shift ended, I walked past a record store and heard another of the songs I’d written with him playing over the loudspeakers. I eagerly walked in to see his face plastered all over the walls. At the display, I picked up a copy of the album and turned it over to read the words and music of the songs we’d co-written was credited solely by him.
© Zora Zebic 2018