October 25, 2009

The Man in the Barber’s Chair


As long as I’ve been going there—almost two decades now—my neighborhood barbershop has always been good for a few stories. I know that sounds like a cliché, but to be honest my barbershop is kind of a cliché, having remained virtually unchanged since the forties. Same light fixtures, same chairs, same hair tonic. The customers may change, but the staff never will.

            There didn’t seem to be many stories waiting for me on my latest visit, but I did learn that I should never go to the barbershop at noon on a Monday. Only one barber was working, and there were five people in front of me. In spite of the people waiting, it was all very quiet. I hung my hat on a hook, took a seat next to a distinguished-looking fellow in his sixties, and waited.

            As I waited and thought about various things, the barber zipped and clipped his way through an older gentleman without much hair, two fussy, particular guys in their thirties, and a surly eleven year-old there with his overeager father to get a back-to-school haircut. Nobody else came in; I seem to have marked the end of the noon rush.

            Things were, for the most part, moving along surprisingly quickly. I’d only been waiting for half an hour when it was time for the distinguished guy next to me, who hadn’t made a sound up to this point. When the barber called him, he exhaled, folded his newspaper and brought it with him to the chair. This’ll be quick, I thought. But then something happened. The moment he sat down and the barber snapped the big hair bib around his neck, the guy started talking baseball.

            That in itself was no big deal—even part of the whole barbershop cliché. You go to the barbershop, you talk sports. No matter what time of year it is, ninety percent of the conversations I hear in there center around the Yankees and the Mets. This guy seemed pleasant enough I guess, but my god how he droned on. Players, stats, injuries, records, trades, coaches, salaries. Minutiae that’s always sounded like a foreign language to me. How do people keep all this crap in their heads? I have trouble remembering grocery lists.

            Normally I can and do tune out baseball conversations as easily as I could a conversation in Farsi or Chinese. In this case, however, I couldn’t do it. I tried thinking of other things. I tried focusing on the radio in the background. No good. There was something about the guy’s voice. I’d heard it somewhere before. It had a heavy NPR quality about it. A gentle, delicate undertone that seemed to say “I’m wealthy and sophisticated and educated, but I still understand you little people, brutish as you are. See? I’ve even gone to the trouble of learning your language.”

            It started to bug me. I knew I knew that voice. But from where? Becoming fixated on that meant that I couldn’t tune out the baseball jabber. Worse, a quick and easy haircut began to drag on as he kept tossing out the numbers and names. Fifteen minutes, then twenty, with no end in sight.

            Christ, why don’t you just SHUT UP already?

            Then there were the clues—little things he dropped into the conversation that started me guessing.

            He mentioned one of the local dailies. “The sports editor there is a friend of mine, and he asked me to be their guest sports writer once.” That was followed by a detailed description of how difficult it is to write a sports story while the game’s still underway.

            Oh great. He’s another self-important “writer.” That’s super. Fuckin’ neighborhood’s sick with ‘em.

            I found myself growing unusually agitated by the whole scene. It’s not like I was in a rush to get anywhere, but my haircut would only take about five minutes. I just wanted to get it over without listening to some smarty-pants NPR “Brooklyn writer” type pontificate about goddamn stolen bases and infield fly rules. Recognizing the voice but not knowing from where just made it all the worse. I probably knew him, or at least knew of him.

            If I give you something nice will you go away?

            A group of young kids screamed and laughed as they ran past the front window and on down the street. The barber paused and looked.

            ”Kids are gettin’ ready to go back to school I guess,” he said.

            “You know,” the pontificator said, “school playgrounds all sound the same. Wherever you go in the world—France, Russia, China, India, anywhere. All school playgrounds sound the same.”

            Oh, thanks a ton for that little gem there, Mother Theresa.

            I folded my arms and looked to the floor for patience as the two of them started talking about the neighborhood.

            Finally the barber snapped the hair bib off the man and shook it, then brushed off the man’s shirt. He turned to me and said, “You’re next.”

            After the man left and the barber was going after the back of my head with the electric clippers, I turned slightly. “I don’t mean to be out of line here, but who was that guy before me? I recognized his voice.”

            The barber lifted the clippers. “That guy?” he shrugged. “Some author. I think his name’s Paul.”

            “Paul Auster?”

            “Yeah, that’s it . . . Wait, what did you say?”


            “Yeah, that’s it. Auster.”

            “That would explain why I recognized the voice.”

            God I hate that Paul Auster.

            I actually had no strong opinion either good or bad about Paul Auster. To me he was just a symbol of staid, slightly stuffy, respectable Park Slope Establishment. And that was neither here nor there, I guess. He was what he was—and he’d also been living there a lot longer than I had. I just wanted to get my damn hair cut.

            I bet HE doesn’t get dirty looks when he goes in the Barnes and Noble.

            “He wrote about us in one of his books once,” the barber said. “We had people from France, Germany, Italy, everywhere—people from all over the world stopping by and asking if this was the place he was talking about.”

            Yeah? Well I’ve written about you guys dozens of times—you ever get drunks or lowlifes stopping by to ask if this was the place?

            “That’s great,” I told him.

            “I guess he’s a pretty big deal, but to me he’s always just been some guy who comes in here.”


I left the place ten minutes later looking like a speed-addled capuchin monkey. It was the first bad haircut I received there in twenty years—and I lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Auster, who knows how to talk to barbers about baseball.

            I didn’t like Smoke much, either.

            I got home and shot off a fuming email to a friend in the publishing business, knowing he would understand and sympathize with my abrupt and scalding animosity.

            Instead, he reminded me that he had worked with Mr. Auster on a number of occasions, and had nothing but the highest praise for him. He also reminded me that it was Auster who edited that remarkable three-volume collected works of Samuel Beckett from a couple of years back (the one that’s on my shelf not ten feet away).


            Okay, so maybe that changed things. Anyone who was involved in that Beckett project had to have had something going for him. But he still better stay the fuck out of my way at the barbershop.


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