Manly Talk at the Barber Shop

by J.D. Roth

I seem to have escaped my funk, at least temporarily. How can I tell? For one, I have the urge to write. I’ve begun to observe daily life again.

Take for example, my trip to the barbershop today. During the past few months, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a thing; I would have sat dutifully in the chair and let the barber cut my hair, in the world but not of it.

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Today, though, I watched everything going on around me.

For starters, there were the three teenage girls loitering in the middle of the street, smoking. One of them was Joel’s little smoking friend (that’s how I think of her!); she was seated on a banana-seat bicycle much too small for her, blocking traffic. The girls were sort of c-r-a-w-l-i-n-g their way down the street toward Safeway, where I’m sure they were going to ask somebody to buy them more cigarettes. They seemed unconcerned with the automobiles that had to veer to pass them.

The first thing one notices about the barber shop in Oak Grove is that the television dominates the room. It’s not that the television set is big or fancy, but that it’s loud. When I walked in today, it was loud with a commercial for the Christian Children’s Fund. There’s nothing like watching loud starving children while you’re getting your haircut.

Mostly the barbers watch what you’d expect: Perry Mason, baseball, cross-country bicycle races. Today they were watching an episode of Home Improvement. It was about as (un-)funny as you might expect. (Before today, I’d seen one-and-a-half episodes of Home Improvement. I watched the very first episode but was unimpressed, so I tried not to watch it again.)

In the episode we watched, one of the kids had some sort of medical testing done. His parents were afraid that he might have cancer. The plot revolved around the tense wait for the test results, and the kid’s reaction when he learned his parent’s hadn’t told him that he might have cancer. It was plain, simple manipulative pap, but it sure got to the guy cutting my hair. After some chit-chat about my work and my home, he clammed up and watched the show. He was so intent on the television, I was afraid he’d mess up my haircut.

“I guess we shouldn’t watch such emotional shows in a barber shop,” he said softly, after the dad and the kid had resolved their big fight.

“Yeah,” said the barber next to him. “Remember how we used to watch Little House on the Prairie?”

“Yeah,” said my barber. “That was a mess.”

“We used to watch Little House on the Prairie every day,” the other barber explained. “That was rough. That show was moving. Grown men got choked up while we cut their hair. They tried to play it off, but you could tell. ‘I’m getting over a cold,’ they’d say, or, ‘There must be something in the air.’ Even after we’d seen all the shows three or four times, sometimes we’d have to wipe our eyes.”

Who would have thought the Oak Grove barber shop would be such a bastion of sensitivity?

The neighborhood liquor store is (conveniently) located next to the neighborhood barbershop. Thus, when my hair has been cut, it’s a simple matter to stop next door and replenish my supply of single-malt Scotch. Dave introduced me to Dalwhinnie 15-year the other day, and I liked it (it’s peaty), so I picked up a bottle. I also grabbed a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin so that Kris can make herself a gin-and-tonic now-and-then (like every two months).

“You’re buying the good stuff, huh?” said the clerk, smiling.

“What?” I said.

“You got the good stuff. I love that Bombay Sapphire.” He did, indeed, look as if he loved the stuff. In fact, it was quite possible that he had loved the stuff quite recently. His smile seemed like it might stretch off his chubby red face. He leaned closer to me, confidential-like. “I’ll tell you something. The liquor guy was in here the other day, and he turned me onto something. There’s a gin that’s just as good but much cheaper. It’s bottom shelf stuff, but it’s made with juniper berries, just like the good stuff. It’s called Gordon’s. You should try it sometime.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said, and I ducked out the door. Mr. I-Love-Gin seemed ready to launch into an extended discoursed on the merits of cheap vodka or coffee-flavored rum.

My final stop was at Safeway to pick up groceries for dinner. As I turned into the parking lot, however, my path was blocked by the three hoodlum girls, who were just sitting there, in the center of the parking lot, blocking traffic in three directions. They were unconcerned. Each carried a fresh pack of cigarettes; their quest had met with success. They only moved when a middle-aged woman with a harried expression laid on her horn. They flipped her off and scooted to the sidewalk, where I’m sure they blocked pedestrian traffic until they became bored.

There you have it: an hour of observation. The sad thing is, I’m sure there’s been plenty of this stuff to see and write about during the past few months, but I’ve been numb to it. Maybe I’ll be numb to it again tomorrow, but I hope not.

I tend to write about the barber shop a lot; it’s like a different world. Here are some previous tales: Central Oregon Weekend 2002 (in which I hear news of my childhood barber), Bad Haircut (in which I do not have my eyebrows trimmed), and Brushless Shave Cream (in which the new barber has a keen memory).

Updated: 04 May 2005

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