Who is Barry?

Barry was the most famous homeless man in the whole city. He even had his own Facebook page, though it would be some miracle if Barry even knew what the Internet was. The kids liked to follow him as he ambled around town carrying nothing but a plastic bag and the beaten-up ukulele that he’d grown famous for playing. Nobody ever found out what it was that was in that plastic bag. There were rumours, of course: the deeds to some long-lost property, a rotting pile of fruit, stolen designer jeans, a dead cat, high-grade crack, a divorce certificate. But anyone that asked poor old Barry what was in his bag got a tirade of jumbled words thrown back at him and sometimes a vigorous handshake, but never what you might call an explanation.

The best Barry-sighting hotspots were some corner on North Bridge, outside a Starbucks on Queen Street and a lonesome bench on the outskirts of the Meadows. You could hear his pensive strumming as you strolled nearby, and then as you approached there was Barry himself, wearing the green parka, ripped denim flares and the Nike trainers that, as some have observed, smelled curiously of pondweed. Humbly occupying such spots, Barry would entertain the locals and reap rich rewards from eager tourists who chucked whole banknotes in his Burger King cup. You could hear him crooning ‘Wonderwall’ and the Stereophonics’ ‘Have a Nice Day’ over his out-of-time ukulele accompaniment. He played the same songs and if somebody gave him a request, he tended to repeatedly growl the name of the tune over a repeated strum of minor chords rather than actually try to play it.

To many, Barry was an ‘Edinburgh Legend’.  Many university students volunteered for the local soup kitchen specifically in the hope of getting an opportunity to bestow upon Barry a handful of biscuits in person. They wanted him to learn their names so they could tell all their friends that Barry knew them. School children would post sightings of him up on his Facebook page, noting that he was spotted near the Stockbridge market, buying a can or two from an offie or even trailing into the Jobcentre. Very rarely would any of them work up the courage to actually talk to Barry. They preferred to indulge in in-depth online discussions about the state of Barry’s hair, what was in his bag this week, what tunes he had been playing.

The sad thing was that it took a while for people to notice that Barry had disappeared. He was not part of their lives, really; he was just an element of the city’s mise en scene – the atmosphere that they took for granted. There were plenty of other buskers, beggars and street performers to take his place. But eventually, the comments started flooding in on Barry’s Facebook walls, as people began speculating about where he was and what had happened. Was he in jail? Reunited with his long-lost son? Applying for X Factor? The questions multiplied and the answers blurred into lost causes and imagined chances.

He even made the local news. The paper ran a half-page article on ‘Kids Praise Unsung Homeless Hero’, whereby school children from an assortment of inner-city schools garbled on about how much they loved Barry, as if he were nothing but a cartoon character who had finally won the rights to a Hollywood movie. Nobody made any real effort to find out what had happened to old Barry. Eventually, he dwindled out of the conversation as people began to get excited about the Fringe, and then Halloween and Christmas. Nobody on the Facebook page paid a single thought to how Barry was managing, out there in the streets during one of the coldest winters of the last decade. Eventually, people stopped posting on his wall and the Facebook page was taken down; not out of respect, but because it wasn’t getting enough daily hits.

A few years passed and the city remained as sparkling and alive as it always had. The kids grew older and forgot about him.

It was only when I was returning there the other week, visiting my Gran who lives in Brunsfield, that I saw the message scrawled on the wall: ‘Who is Barry?’. Something about that message really got to me; because you know what, nobody knows Barry, nobody knows him at all.

(Prompts: ‘who is barry’ graffiti, denim)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

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