It was the winter of 1983 in New York City when I began my second year playing the violin on the street. I was 9 years old, embarrassed to use food stamps at our local store, and wanted money like everyone else in Sutton Place.
“You’re the best. Better than everyone,” I whispered to myself, reaching for my violin underneath the silky scarf in my case. People stared, shame spread and I serenaded the passing limousines. I learned quickly that ladies with poodles tossed more money in the case if I pretended to be happy. My buckteeth slid over my bottom smiling lip and the money trickled in. But we felt strange busking in our neighborhood, so we traveled to Fifth Avenue.
My favorite new spot was down the block from Trump Tower, away from the loud break-dancers. A designer clientele, businessmen and foreign tourists formed a crowd around my twin sister Heidi and me. She was too shy to perform, so she sat behind me, reading a history book from the library. After a few hours of performing, my twin sister and I would go to Roy Rogers on Broadway and gorge on roast beef sandwiches and strawberry shortcake.
When we turned 10 years old, I convinced Heidi to play duets on her flute. As we began to develop physically, it became more difficult to earn a buck. “How much for a song and dance, sweetie?” old men taunted, leering at us. Heidi’s eyes filled with tears. I tried to give mean looks, and I feared if I said anything we would provoke them—and get more attention.
“That’s what happens when you become young ladies: Men take advantage of you,” our single mother said later in our railroad flat. Our father disappeared before we were born, and she felt trapped on welfare and bitter about her prospects. She pulled us out of school and told us they were filled with guns, drugs and pedophiles parading as teachers. The life lessons she shared with us peeled away our childhood. We just wanted a normal life again.
At age 17, Heidi and I received our GED and worked at an amusement park near our grandparents’ home in Ohio. A year later, at Miami University, classes felt exclusive, kids our age seemed spoiled and professors spoke in circles. I felt out of place as my twin bonded with other Christians from Campus Crusade. Eventually, I dropped out and moved back to New York.
For about 10 years I bounced from one job to another. I flipped hamburger meat, baked cookies at a café, prepared salmon rolls for catering gigs, coat checked till 5 a.m. and picked up Park Avenue children at school recitals when I was a nanny. No one expected much from me: I was in the service industry; I was supposed to show up and do my job. But I expected more from myself. Randomly, I applied to a writer’s workshop in Russia and gained admittance.
A few weeks later, I walked out of the metro station at Nevsky Prospekt carrying my backpack, laptop and my violin.
The afternoon rain hit the sidewalk, causing steam and my heart to quicken. Soon I would be surrounded by prize writers, world-renowned professors and Ivy League graduate students. Drawing closer to the grand building, checking the photograph from the computer printout every three seconds, I noticed the onion-like domes peering down at me. I felt like a tiny speck.
On the corner, I noticed a boy playing the violin. He looked about 17, with clear blue eyes and wavy blond hair. I heard the faint slide of his pinky finger reaching for the high note. No one seemed to notice him on the street. People marched, traffic beeped and the perfume of the city in rush hour made me dizzy. The Russian violinist lowered his eyes. I was staring at him. The last thing I wanted to do was to make him feel uncomfortable.
“Hey, you’re the best. I’m like you,” I said, wanting to give him hope. Instead his cheeks turned pink, and he looked angry. I realized he had no idea what I was saying. Now I was the dark shadow walking away in the rain.
The next night, I went to a club with a writer from the program. We drank shots, gyrated and mixed with sweaty ex-pats. The hours passed, the writer left and I flung my arms around a boy. As the strobe light flickered again, I felt a hit on the back of my head. A large drunk Russian man had hit me, and I was lying on the vodka-soaked floor. The boy raised his hands to the man as the other people held him back. Then he picked me up. It was the young Russian violinist. He had saved me. And his violin mark on the left side of his jaw matched mine. Swollen and scarred, we were united.
I felt freed from the struggle that had plagued my life. Finally, I was connected to someone that could understand my burden, my need to survive. Moments later, I gave him my phone number and email and he did the same. We smiled, giggling at our lack of language skills and hugged again.
When I returned to New York, I received an email from him: “You are free. Lucky. Be happy.”
I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was.
I wrote back to him immediately and then a few more times. But no response. It was like he had disappeared. I imagined hearing the sweet sounds of his violin, dusted my case off, opened the lock and held mine. I wanted our melodies and memories to connect across the ocean. Instead, I heard from my window people talking on the street and dogs barking. The world was alive with sounds and I was at the center of it all. It was nice to finally be an audience member.
Heather Kristin is a New York native and first performed at the age of 8 at Studio 54. She is currently working on her memoir.