[Stop. Go get coffee, then come back and settle in. This post is colossal.]
Many many years ago, back in the Dreamtime near the end of my college days, I used to get my hair cut at a little barber shop on the Ave, on the west side of the street between 41st and 43rd. This was maybe the late ’80s, and it was called University Ave. Barber Shop. It was always a little scary going in there, because the barbers all seemed to be ex-convicts and motorcycle gang members. The owner, Kieth I think his name was, was a big round guy with frizzy red hair who wore, at different times, a handlebar moustache or a goatee. His was the chair closest to the door and he always greeted you when you walked in.
The other barbers all seemed to be Kieth’s personal friends. Over the years they included Doug, who seemed a little non-linear in his loud contributions to the topics du jours and who apparently once went after a customer with a straight razor; and young Dino, a humorless person with one eye who gave a good haircut but who had resentments that he could not keep up with in the telling. “If someone isn’t happy with it, they should tell me. I mean, I’m happy to fix it. That’s my job right? If they don’t tell me how they like it then how do I know, do you know what I mean? I don’t want them to go away feeling like it wasn’t cut the right way, you know? But how do I know if they don’t tell me?” He said this the first time he cut my hair, just after telling me that if I needed him to fix something or if I was dissatisfied with my cut, I should let him know. I inwardly swore that I would NEVER tell Dino if it wasn’t a perfect haircut.
There was a very matter-of-fact woman named Carla there for a while who had a smoker’s voice and a look of absolute disinterest in whatever your problem might be, or those of her shopmates. She cut my hair once and did a great job. I was very relieved, but I never saw her again. When I asked they said “she went up North”, whatever that meant.
So it was like Abraham coming into the fertile vales of Palestine when I finally met Pat G–. Pat was quiet. He was stocky, had trim wire-frame spectacles, a moustache, and a kind of big head of sandy-brown hair, kinda ’70s style. He seemed in his thirties, talked about motorcycling and getting to see his kids from an early failed marriage. If I remember correctly, he lived in a trailer somewhere. I like him right away. I looked up on the big mirror that ran the length of the wall behind the chairs and noted his name on the little sign. PAT. He seemed safe, a regular joe just trying to get by, concentrating on the head of hair in front of him and doing a good job. He used scissors, too, didn’t just shear and get it over with. He seemed like a tradesman. Sometimes I’d see him standing outside on the sidewalk smoking, and he would recognize me with a wave or a nod, even if I was just passing by.
This shop had a system to ensure that customers who didn’t have a preference were equitably distributed among the barbers. There was a plaque-sized board up above the opposite wall-length mirror (above a waiting bench littered with magazines and hastily abandoned sections of newspaper), and on this board were hooks. A deck of cards had been drilled with a hole so that it hung on one hook, and after each barber finished a customer, he’d take a card from the main deck and move it to his hook. I think the cards had big numbers written in felt pen on the red side. I’m not sure quite how the system worked, except that they would pay attention to who had the smallest number on his showing card. That guy would get the next customer, unless the customer had a preference. I had a preference. I preferred Pat.
Pat disappeared after a year or two, and so I wandered off, unwilling to deal with the stress of entrusting my scalp to any of the other fellows in there. For a while I paid salon prices and got the shampoo etc. treatment at Gene Juarez, because I just wanted it cut right. I have a cowlick in the back and an annoying wave toward the front. For a couple years I just let my hair grow long, down past my shoulders. For a blessed season, I lived on a ranch in Ohio (much more on that someday) and one of the women there would sit me down on an old wooden chair in her front yard — a safe distance from the laundry hanging on the clotheslines — and cut my hair for free. Did an okay job, too. But through the ’90s I bounced from one shop or salon to another, never satisfied, a drifter without a barber.
I thought Angela would want to cut my hair when we married in 1999, but she has always refused. An earlier experience ruining a boyfriend’s coif had left her permanently shear-shy. So when we moved into our first house a year later, I started going to Tom Neva’s four-chair place over on 15th Avenue NE, just north of 65th Street between the Ravenna and Roosevelt neighborhoods. Neva’s was in a little old two-story wooden building in the block south of Roosevelt High School, with goofy doors that opened into each other. A radio in one of the windows aired baseball games and talk shows. There was an old guy named Ted who operated one of the back chairs, and once in a while Tom himself came in for a while and cut hair in the chair by the front window. Tom was trim and handsome, had big, prematurely silver-white hair that made him look like he should be yachting. He dressed in bright blue polo shirts and always seemed like he needed to be elsewhere. Ted was fastidious and a little passive aggressive, moved at the unhurried pace of a man who was no longer trying to prove anything to anybody. He would pause to sharpen his straight-razor on the leather belt, and he would take his time doing this, not just make a few quick whips as I’ve seen others do. Occasionally I would become aware that for several minutes he had been rooting around behind me on the counter for a comb or an attachment.
One day there was a new barber there. He was short and had a belly. He had thick coke-bottle glasses that made his eyes seem huge, a stubbly beard, and a long pony-tail. His teeth seemed bad. I was next so I climbed into the chair and started making small talk. He responded minimally, gruffly, with a voice that I instantly liked. In fact it was a voice I remembered.
“Are you Pat?” I asked, suddenly focusing on the mirror opposite me and seeing my old barber in this man. I couldn’t believe it. He seemed to have aged thirty years in twelve. Life had treated him harshly, but he was still Pat. “I thought I recognized your hair once I got into it,” he said without irony or jest.
And that was a happy day. Pat recognized my hair. My barber recognized my hair, after all the years of separation. My barber.
So for awhile all was well. Pat cut my hair for several years at the Ravenna shop. But things continued to be tough for Pat. He was plagued by health issues, something wrong with his stomach and bowels, and he told me he was an alcoholic. Between the two, his once stout frame had been beaten down. He was living in a room above Tom’s shop, but between snips of the scissors he would confide that that arrangement wasn’t working out very well. I gathered his finances were not in great shape either.
I came in one day and Pat wasn’t there and his name was gone. The new guy, an Iraqi named Amar who had come in one day while I was in Pat’s chair and asked if he could apply to cut hair there, told me that Pat wasn’t cutting hair there anymore. Ted said nothing. The dismayed look on Amar’s face suggested that he had little patience with people who couldn’t rise to meet life’s responsibilities. Amar had fought in the resistance against Saddam Hussein, fled his homeland to take refuge in America, then spent 10 years trying to get his wife and child out of Iraq, cutting hair and sending whatever money he could save to grease the palms of Iraqi officials. To Amar, Pat must have seemed like a lazy drunk who had every opportunity to get it together but just wouldn’t bootstrap it.
I asked where Pat might have gone. Amar pointed across the street to the R&R Hardware, a neighborhood institution of old-fashioned chaos that deserves a treatment I can’t spare at the moment. Like many of the houses and buildings in the neighborhood, R&R was owned by an older man named Drake. ”You maybe could ask over there,” said Amar.
The hardware store was like my dad’s nut can only expanded to fill a cavernous building, and with more than nuts and bolts. I asked the young woman behind the counter if she knew how to get ahold of Pat. She said he was in there every so often helping Drake with odd jobs, Drake would know. I left my phone number and asked them to have Pat call me. When he did a few days later, I asked if he was cutting hair at all, and where. He said that Tom had thrown him out — something about the rent money — but he still had some of his tools and the hardware had a shears set he could use. He said to come by tomorrow and we’d figure it out. He didn’t think Drake would mind if we just did it right there in the hardware store.
The next day I went in and introduced myself to Drake, said I was hoping Pat could cut my hair today. He nodded and without much conversation he led me outside. Not once in this tale had anyone expressed any curiosity about why I would be chasing down an alcoholic whose life was falling apart to get a haircut. I followed him around the side of the building to a lean-to carport in the shade of a large walnut tree, which Drake took pains to point out. In this carport, behind a lot of mowers and dressers and other large items, Pat was apparently sleeping or resting on a cot. He was living in there. Drake called to him, and Pat’s rough voice answered that he’d be just a minute. After a while he emerged fumbling with a plastic sack that held his combs and scissors.
That’s how I ended up sitting in a plastic-seated chair on the sidewalk on 15th Avenue NE, the mighty Nile of North Seattle, with a red and white checkered barber’s bib strapped around my neck and flapping in the wind. With an extension cord borrowed from inside the store, Pat sheared one side of my head and then decided to look for a better attachment or some blades or something. There is a bus stop right there, and while Pat was inside, buses would pull up and disgorge a fare or two, or take one on. The passengers on the buses looked at me with that blankness that settles on faces that are observing strange sights through the safety of glass or plexiglass. After one bus roared off spewing exhaust in my face and sending clumps of my hair swirling around in little tornadoes of wind, I saw Ted and Amar standing in the door of Neva’s across the street, smiling. I waved from under the checkered cloth.
I asked Pat where he got his equipment and whether he had everything he needed, but his answer was long and fuzzy, a kind of complaint. Pat was disappearing, and it made me sad. Maybe I just had never noticed it before. People don’t undergo this change overnight. He gave me a good haircut that day, despite the displacement and his failing health. I went back a day or two later and gave Pat my leather side-bag, a wonderful hand-made bag made in Peru by the Gallardo family that I’d had for years, to put his tools in. He accepted it as a matter of course.
The next time I went in, Drake said he hadn’t seen him in a while, that Pat had been in the hospital and that he thought he might be staying with his sister. I don’t remember if I talked with Pat on the phone or if I saw him once more, but I remember him telling me that while he was in the hospital someone got into the shed and stole the bag I’d given him along with his tools. After that, I didn’t go looking for him anymore. There was something of the feeling of standing on the edge of a black hole in my recent years with Pat, and I had gone as far as I could go. I don’t even know why I held on so long. Every life needs to be valued, to be seen. Even as some lives explode and fall apart, someone should stand close and witness it. And it wasn’t charity. Pat was my barber. He gave me the best haircut I could get. He recognized the arcane and invisible intentions of my hair.
Except for the time he called me back on the phone, Pat never once, that I can recall, used my name.
I started going back to Neva’s and having Amar cut my hair. He was quick and did a good job. But Tom sold the place to whomever was buying up the block to redevelop it, and Ted and Tom and Amar moved operations to Lake City. I was out on the drifts again, for awhile going to Dao, a young Asian woman who had bought a little place further east on 65th from an old guy named Greg (or something similar) and left his name on it. She did an okay job but it wasn’t the same. There was another old guy on 65th, right down the alley from us, who cut hair in his apartment, or rather he slept and cooked and watched TV in his shop. His blinds were always dark and he cut only by rare appointment. He too had health issues, and imposed upon his customers and friends to go get his groceries for him. He had grown up across the freeway from where we lived near 58th, before the freeway was there, and he remembered when the streets went all the way through and which families lived where. There was something horribly depressing about getting my hair cut there, and I didn’t go back.
I went into a salon in the University Village a few years ago and was lucky to be served by Allison, a bright, pretty, professional and conversational woman who always seemed to ask questions that led to me talking a lot about myself. She had that gift. I would try to turn the tables on her, but she was better. I learned only that she was from Casper Wyoming (or was it Cheyenne?), and she was studying English Lit and French. She became Angela’s stylist, too, and she and her boyfriend ended up taking Angela’s dance class (Angela teaches partner dancing — waltz, foxtrot, swing, etc.). But she left the salon to travel in Europe. I tried several of her colleagues at the same salon, but getting haircuts in a salon is expensive when it’s not by someone your hair absolutely connects with.
We enter the present time. For years now, when I leave work downtown I catch the #316 or #76, both of which buses travel south on Third Avenue before turning and catching the freeway north. Where I catch the bus, up in what I suppose is called the financial district, people on the street are busy professionals rushing purposefully here and there. Further south, between Columbia and Yesler, Third Avenue’s citizenry consists increasingly of people standing in one place, either because they are shouting at nothing, or because they have forgotten where they were going, or have no place to go. Or they have met someone they know, which happens more down there than in the fincancial district. They huddle in pairs or groups, lending cigarettes, ears. The center of this neighborhood is a recovery house between James and Yesler. The place always has a firetruck out in front of it. I think there are a lot of overdoses in the doorways there. Right around the corner from this building there’s a little place I’ve seen often from the bus window, a hole in the wall, actually in the basement of the same building. Clean Cut Barber Shop. The doorway is off the slant of James Street, which swallows the place as it rises to Third. It has the red, white and blue barber colors painted around it. For a while now I’ve been thinking I’d go in there.
I’m always surprised at how my imagination of things does not match reality. I’ve always imagined that there would be a gruff old guy in this barber shop, an old pot-bellied white guy or an old thin black man, smoking a cigar and leaning on his chair while waiting for that rare occurance, a customer. The place is a little off the heavily trodden paths of the professional classes, and there isn’t a thriving residental neighborhood nearby. I imagined the place would be a throwback to the ’50s. He’d grouse about how the neighborhood had gone to the dogs. He wouldn’t rush, but he’d give a simple haircut quickly. He’d express strong opinions about whatever was on the radio.
I ducked my head to go in the door of this place last Friday on my lunch hour, and to my surprise there were three barbers and three chairs and three customers in those chairs, and on the little chairs against the wall there were three more customers waiting. I made to sit, but the barber nearest the door, a young guy with a long ponytail and a streak of pink in his hair, interrupted me mid-squat to ask if I’d called ahead. Surprised, I said no, that the sign had said “Walk-ins Welcome”. He laughed. “Well, you’re welcome to walk in, but I can’t take you today. I’m full up.” I must have looked dumbfounded as my mental picture was hastily being reconfigured to match this reality, like a stage set being struck to be replaced by another, because he said he might be able to squeeze me in at 5:45, last one of the day.
I said I’d try him again the next week. Monday I called and made an appointment with the same guy. Miguel. He’s the owner. When I walked in he was the only barber there, and he was just finishing up Mr. Bickerstaff, an elderly black man.
“Three o’clock?” he asked. I said yes.
He went back to telling Mr. Bickerstaff that he reaked of cigarettes. A mild note of surprise came from the old gent, but Miguel insisted. “Really, Mr. Bickerstaff, it’s pretty strong. You can’t smell it because you’ve been smoking, but it’s pretty strong. I wouldn’t have said anything but it’s something that I think you should be aware of.”
I was immediately charmed by this, a barber doing the hard task of being honest about people’s odors. Mr. Bickerstaff paid and shuffled out, and Miguel turned to me and patted the chair.
“Are you Christian?”
“No. I’m Matt.”
“No, I mean do you call yourself Christian? As in are you Muslim, Christian, Jewish?”
I hesitated at the chair. “I don’t like to call myself anything, but I’m Christian. Does that mean you won’t give me a haircut?”
He laughed. He said he had a question for me. I said I wasn’t qualified to speak for Christianity, but he waved me off. He said his father was a minister of one kind of church, maybe Baptist, and his mother was some official or other in the Assembly of God. “Which makes me an atheist,” he joked smartly, and hit me on the shoulder to absolve me of the duty of a response.
“No, but seriously, I was just reading a scripture last night, like Luke 17:2 or somewhere like that, where the people are asking Jesus about where the kingdom of God is, or what it is, or whatever, and he says, he says, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’. I mean, what?! I mean, what is that all about, man? Christians are always talking about heaven as a place OUT THERE where you go after you die.”
I hadn’t been ready for this at all. I looked around for evidence of mass caffeine consumption, and offered my opinion that it was certainly an interesting thing for Jesus to have said and that more Christians should probably reflect on that passage.
“That’s exactly what I’m sayin’, man! I mean, it’s like if heaven is eternity… well, eternity has no past and no future, right? There’s only this moment now, so heaven is right here, the kingdom of God is right now.”
I smiled as he kept talking, and he worked as fast as he talked. I’m a short taper cut and it’s been several months, so he started with the shears, but then switched to scissors and moved with a rhythm that matched the high and animated cadence of his voice. He went on to say that he’s been an atheist all his life and now this one little line has got him thinking it all through again.
“Wait,” I said. “You’re about to take a razor to my head while you’re having a life-altering epiphany?”
“Oh, this kinda stuff happens to me all the time,” he dodged. “Next week it’ll be something about physics.”
Some kids came in and he let them take out his trash. Maybe they needed some cash and he paid them to do odd jobs. Every once in a while someone would pass by on the street and holler a shout out and he would respond with a shout and a wave.
The long years of wandering may be over at last. I think I have found my barber. He’s young and apparently healthy, and he’s very present. It gave me a pang of sadness about losing Pat, and about how Pat seemed to turn to dust right in front of me. But you lose people and you meet people.
I think Miguel and I are going to be together for a long time. And now I’m one of those people who stops by to give him a shout out, because when I walked over there the next day on my lunch hour to take the picture of his shop, he was cutting hair. I ducked my head in the doorway and waved. “Miguel!”
His face lit up and he said “Hey man! What’s going on?”
“I’m just taking a walk.”
He paused with the scissors, seemed for a moment to put all of his focus and intention into a deep nod, and said, ”it’s a good day for a walk.”