Duck and cover now

then and now

Do you remember duck and cover drills? Always a pleasant break. I recall us all crouched down like little Muslims facing Mecca on the floor of the marble windowless hallway of our convent-housed grammar school, boys on one side, girls on the other. The Commies wanted to fry us, a concept as abstract as the church’s triple threat of limbo, purgatory, hell. I found the purported godlessness of the bad guys alluring.

From duck and cover to shelter in place, not a bomb but a microbe this time. That macro/micro-spectrum thing again. One difference this time around is that the biggest threat to yourself is yourself and your neighbors, not some foreign impersonal power. Do not touch your fucking face! Your hands can kill you. Death by your own (unscrubbed) hand. Don’t crouch down together, keep your distance, a marble hallway’s width apart at least. And not just until the nuns tell you that you can get up, but for this present’s equivalent of forever.

 

 

The Quarantined Self

birds nest

A certain sense of pride of place. I was here first, nine months ago, in isolation.  Alone with the minimalist worries of solitude. Enough cigarettes? How many days have I worn this shirt? One of those dilemmas today—the birds have returned, cardinals and robins, arrived as if booked on the equinox moon, welcomed, pairs chasing each other in foreplay flight around the yard. One robin—or is it two? each species has its own customs—decided to build its honeymoon nest on a blade of the overhead fan in the carport, right outside my study window. A bum idea. The fan is still today, but any fair breeze will revolve it, launching the nest. I am impressed by the bird’s relentless industry. I recently read an article about how architects have been mesmerized by the complex physics of nest construction. Blackboards filled with chalked formulas. A fair amount of construction material is discarded onto the hood of our silver Corolla below. The dilemma: do I switch on the fan and dislodge this labor-intensive piece of avian art, or do I allow its completion and await the inevitable tossing of the nest with its unhatched or tweeting inhabitants? How do you inform the innocent of their errors? Something ethical to ponder on an otherwise empty day. Connie doesn’t want robin shit on the car. I turn on the fan. The almost-finished empty nest survives its cement floor landing, a perfect round chalice composed of nature’s basest detritus. I want to apologize, but to what?

 

Untitled

broken glass

Photo: C. Payne

America has a lot to answer for.

Why is growth the only gospel?

Why is war our major business?

Why were all the rivers dammed and

the salmon moved to canning farms?

Why are celebrities our only saints?

Why did Marilyn have to be blonde,

bleaching her pubes for DiMaggio?

 

All the answers are illicit,

offered up like altar sacrifices

by high priests who walk away

as their minions slice up their

lies and serve them as communion

to the blind faithful. Body of death.

True Colors

winn-dixie 2

He wore only white because of the dandruff. On porn sites he lingered only on women of color. Greenbacks were tender based only on faith, and fortune came only out of the blue. All red-white-and-bluers were con men, and the sun ain’t yellow it’s chicken. The clues were all in the spectrum. Inside the white light of reality was a prism of partial truths with no outlines, and behind them the shades and shadows of doubt as deep as space. There was safety in all this uncertainty, a soft unknowable comfort zone simple answers could not supply.

Stick a fork in it. People were starving, and she was buying stew meat for her dog, a mut, a cur. He liked that word cur, a word with an onomatopoetic root—there were too few of those—Old Norse for growl. He knew that she herself was vegan, one of those in denial of their own incisors. Cloven-hoofed cud chewers, okay by Leviticus. She wouldn’t wear even faux fur. He followed her around the Winn-Dixie, pushing the basket in which children were not allowed. What if you were buying one? Or just frozen parts of one? On sale. Cheaper with your Winn-Dixie card. No telling country of origin. No USDA-approved stamp.

What to serve with them? Fijians had a specific leafy cannibal plant that they ate with human flesh, something like kale. Don’t waste your kill, eat your enemy. A turn down the feminine-products aisle, foreign, forbidden country. Why were the lightbulbs also in this aisle? No wonder he could never find them. Outside the store, people were dying. Not in the parking lot, but everywhere else, all over the globe. How often were you aware of living—and dying—on a globe? A fucking globe, the same shape as an 8 ball.

He counted the items in their basket in Roman numerals—XII. IV more and they would be banned from the Speed Checkout line. He knew better than to speak. Winn-Dixie was a deafmute sphere, the cone of silence. Private secrets, the kind that are not real or are in type so small on the backs of cans you know that they are lies. He wondered why she had worn red pants. Why had he not stayed in the car, safe and primed for escape?

That’s right, the lights. The bright colored lights in the store windows versus the darkness that swallowed him when she shut the car door.

 

The Minor Leagues

 

Dayton

Safe at the plate, safe at second. You can drill cut-off plays endlessly, but in the end it all comes down to judgement. Is judgement teachable? Bryant didn’t react. He didn’t say anything. Sometimes remonstrance is pointless. When the shortstop came off the field, Bryant just ignored him. As the years burned themselves out, Bryant found peace in ignoring—or pretending to ignore—things and people. Back in the day, as they say, he would have humiliated the jerk in front of everyone in the dugout. Now, just his normal distracted scowl was all he could muster. Down four runs, two innings left—it was as good as over. Dinner wouldn’t be too late tonight. They were on the road in Bowling Green. There was that mediocre steak house near the hotel.

The steak house was closed; it looked like for good. Bryant ended up at a little Japanese place. He had spent his final two years as a player with the Hanshin Tigers. He had learned to appreciate Japanese food. And Japanese femininity. His waitress’s hands were like a musician’s—delicate elegant strength, sinews and veins. She never looked up at him. He appreciated that respect. He was past the age when he wished to be looked at. It went along with disappearing. Just a four-hour drive up to Dayton for tomorrow’s game.

—*—

 Cherokee. At least that’s what grandma said her grandmother had been. She hadn’t known what brand of Cherokee. That would make her—what?—one-sixteenth Indian? Was that enough? She would have to come out as an Indian if she wanted to include this new material in her act. These days you could only make fun of ethnics if they were of your ethnicity. Even then it was tricky; it had to come across as making fun of yourself. One public PC protest could crash a comic’s club career. She would again be just another Uber driver.

It was typical that Sylvie had no one to consult about this, to weigh the pros and cons of it. Bobby was useless. Yes, he was funny, but clueless. His humor was based on his lack of connection to reality. She knew what Nadia would say. Nadia no longer thought anything was funny. It was like laughter had become her existential enemy. She had that weekend gig coming up in Dayton. She could try it out there, and if it bombed drop it. Did it even have to be about Indians? Yeah, it did.

Sylvie knew the legends about the classic New York Jewish comics sitting late over coffees in a Midtown coffee shop, trying out new material on their peers, whose only response would be a clinical “That’s funny” or “That’s not funny.” Had they worried about what group they might offend? She was a woman. She could make jokes about tampons and husbands and boob jobs, playing with her stereotype. What other stereotypes were untouchable? Was that coffee shop still there?

—*—

Bryant drove. He wouldn’t take the team bus, couldn’t stand being trapped with all those kids. He appointed one of the coaches as nanny. He also always tried to stay at a different hotel on the road. They weren’t a team that way—the always changing roster, kids coming and going, either moving up or crapping out. That shortstop. Doesn’t have it. It rained off and on all the way north. He stopped in Louisville for lunch. It was raining in Dayton. The game was rained out.

Sometimes it seemed like he had spent his whole life on the road. It was sort of home, if home is what feels most familiar. He had spent thirty years being traded, hired, and fired, changing cities. Hotel rooms, motel rooms, rented rooms—they were all the same. He never had to change a sheet, buy toilet paper, fix a meal. It was a sort of Zen existence—everything he owned he carried with him. Driving, he would pass vast rental storage places and wonder what-all people kept in them that they couldn’t fit in their already over-stuffed big houses.

The older he got, the more comfort he found in his routines. It was like the pleasure he still found in running practice drills, the repetitions like a timeless meditation. Whatever room he checked into, he followed the same routine, claiming it with his little rituals of unpacking, ending with a trip to the ice machine and his first bourbon on the rocks.

—*—

The Jolly Rodger Club, Dayton. “Is there anyone here tonight who identifies as Native American? If so, would you please join me up here on the stage? I need your help and protection.” No one came up. So, Sylvie went ahead and used the new material. No one protested, but there weren’t many laughs either. Tough crowd, but then she wasn’t at her sharpest. She felt more in-sync, more at home, with big city audiences, where she didn’t feel the need to excise the occasional prick or motherfucker or pussy like she did here in the boonies. What was humor without some off-color spice? A judgement call. Nadia thought vulgar language was cheap, demeaning, especially for a woman.

She was always too nervous to eat before a show, so afterwards she was starving. It was late. She had seen an Arby’s on her walk from the hotel to the club. It was still open.  A drive-thru place, the only other walk-in patrons were a drunk couple arguing as they ate. She took her French dip and Swiss, fries, and large Mountain Dew back to her room. The downtown streets were deserted. She had an old routine about trash and the age of over-packaging she could revise and substitute for the Indian bit, make it local by listing how many wrappers and packets were inside her Arby’s bag. Hotel rooms made her paranoid. She double-locked the door.

—*—

It was a god-awful sound, a high-pitched, undulating electronic scream, like a female robot being tortured. Bryant jumped from deep dreamless sleep to an adrenaline rush of bright flashing white and red lights and abject panic. For seconds he didn’t know where he was, what was happening. Then he spotted the source of the sound and the flashing lights on the ceiling of the hotel room. Its message was flee.

As he fumbled to pull on his trousers and shirt, the attack on his senses continued, and panic transformed into anger. Shut the fuck up. I hear you. I’m out of here. With his palm he felt the door before opening it. In the corridor all was amplified. Other doors opened. Other guests in degrees of undress wandered out, a few just wrapped in blankets. No smoke, no heat, just the chaos of the alarms. Speech was pointless. Bryant headed for the Exit sign to the stairwell at the far end of the corridor. Others followed. He checked his pockets—room keycard, cash, cigarettes and lighter. The bedside clock had said 3:45.

—*—

Sylvie was awake in bed watching Raymond Burr crack another case when the alarms went off. Her nervous tummy hadn’t taken to the French dip and Swiss, and now she was waiting for Xanax to come to her rescue. She liked to think of her body as a keystone cops flic. She hit all the switches in the room, but nothing would turn the sucker off. Usually she slept naked. Or was it nude? Naked alone, nude with others? But hotel rooms made her self-conscious, and she was in shorts and a tank-top. If that sound and the strobe lights didn’t stop, she would have to leave the room. She went to the bathroom and brushed her hair. She wondered if Raymond Burr was descended from that other Burr, Aaron? Ray was Canadian and hadn’t Aaron escaped there after becoming famous?

Ray had hid being gay so well. There were other people in the corridor, all looking like zombie movie extras. Big women shouldn’t wear sheets. There’s a trick to tying a toga. The sound was even louder in the hallway, coming from all sides. People were headed for the Exit sign. What did they know that she didn’t? She was floating a bit. The Xanax had arrived right on time. Everyone was barefoot.

—*—

Three flights of stairs to the street door, six if you counted the landing turns. Still no smoke. Bryant was impressed by how quiet and orderly everyone was, as if they’d been drilled as evacuees. More people joined the flow at each floor. A woman carrying a sleeping toddler, a man on his cell phone. The stairwell was only minimally lit, but the noise was now muffled. At the street door the column halted. Outside, the rain had returned, heavy and slightly sideways in the street lights. Behind him people sat down on the stairs. They waited in silence. Outside now there were sirens, and the rain was lit by flashing red lights from vehicles they couldn’t see. A child started crying.

They waited, and Bryant got bored. He moved to the propped-open door and lit a cigarette. Almost immediately, calls of complaint came from the stairwell. A draft was pulling his smoke inside. It was as if, suddenly, the smell of smoke had unlocked all the fear and frustration and offered an acceptable target of outrage. Some man called out, “You fucking asshole.” Bryant took one last puff and flicked his Pall Mall into the rain.

—*—

Sylvie spent most of the wait playing games with Anthony, the eight-year old who had ended up on the step beside her. Eventually, a fireman came to a door above them and said all was clear for them to return to their rooms. No explanation. There was a lot of grumbling, but no one was going to confront a fireman. When she got back to her room door, she realized she was locked out. She hadn’t thought to bring her keycard. There were no pockets in her gym shorts. She just stood there, stupidly, staring at her door. A man walking past her asked, “Locked out?” It was that husky gentleman people had yelled at for smoking a cigarette. “Yep,” she said, “keyless and clueless.”

“I’ll call the front desk and let them know. 322? There are probably a bunch of folks in the same boat. Could be a while.”

“The shit’s creek without a key canoe.”

He laughed.

“Say, could I bum one of your cigs? So that I can at least break a law while I’m standing here?”

She ended up waiting in his room with an illegal Pall Mall and a Jim Beam on the rocks in a plastic glass. His name was Brian. He was cordial in a formal way, almost as if he was afraid of her or something. He reminded her of her dad that way.

—*—

Bryant was surprised she accepted, in this age of paranoia. Of course, she had no reason to fear him, but she didn’t know that. These days you were supposed to be wary of everyone you didn’t know, even though the vast majority of people who got hurt were hurt by those closest to them. He never got her name. When she asked and he told her what he did for a living, she said, “So, you’re an entertainer, too.” She said she was a comedienne. “Of course, your job is to make people cheer, not laugh.” He liked her unguardedness.  She seemed to say whatever came to mind.  She said her dad had taken her to Cubbies’ games when she was a kid. Bryant didn’t mention that he had played the bench for the Cubs for a season back then. He asked about her work. She just made jokes about it. There was a knock at the door. Her room was unlocked. She finished her drink before leaving.

—*—

He looked different in his uniform. It suited him, his Ruthian bulk. Not those pajama bottoms the players were wearing these days, but proper baseball knickers with high blue socks. The uniform was gray, of course, his team being on the road. He had that authoritative manager’s nonchalance as he strolled out of the dugout to meet the home-plate ump and the other manager and hand over his starting line-up, as if he had done it a thousand times before, part of the job.

The Dayton Dragons vs the Madison Muskies, a Saturday double-header to make up for the rain-out the day before. Sylvie had a good seat on the third-base line. The stands were half-empty. She was there because of her dad. She hadn’t been to a ball game in years, but she had nothing to do before getting ready for her act, and it was a perfect ballpark afternoon. The players all looked so young as they ran out to their positions. She had a bag of peanuts and a cup of beer.

When the Muskies came to bat, she was surprised to see Brian walk out to the third-base coach’s box. In the majors, managers didn’t do that. He did that job, too, giving the signs, clapping encouragement. In the sixth he was even jumping up and down as he waved a runner on to the plate. She cheered—to the displeasure of those around her—when the umpire gestured safe. The Muskies won. She had to leave before the second game, go back to the hotel to prep and get nervous.

—*—

Bryant got directions from the front-desk clerk. There was just the one comedy club in town. He’d had dinner and was feeling good after taking two today. The poster outside the club gave her name as Sylvie Silver. He’d wager a stein had been lopped off that last name. Time had been syncing in his favor all day, and she came on stage soon after he sat down with his drink. A youngish loud crowd. This was a college town.

She looked good on stage, as if she belonged there, in a long slinky dress with a slit up the side. She paced with the microphone as she worked. Her act wasn’t bad, but she was having trouble holding the crowd, mostly young guys getting drunk. She had hecklers to ignore. One especially obnoxious jock-type jerk at the bar was yelling sexist comments. Bryant got up and went over to tell him to stow it.

“What’s it to you, old man?”

“That’s my girl up there. She’s just starting out. Give the kid a break.”

“Or what?”

Bryant just smiled. Dealing with Neanderthals was part of what he did. The guy shut up.

Sylvie got Bryant laughing at a skit about Indians with a princess named Running with Scissors.

 

 

Virgin Frontiers

Three-Tahitians

fr. the journals of John Williams

the first white missionary to reach Samoa

describing the sa`e the concluding

section of the poula or night dance

that the new church would keep

banning for decades:

                           “This scene concludes

by the men approaching the young virgins

& with their tongues perform what

one beast does to another.”

The Pacific Ocean covers 70 million

square miles of the earth’s surface.

One song that was sung in the sa`e

directed:

                        Untie your `ie and throw

                            it into the house

                        Then dance the sa`e naked.

                        When one side of the papaya

                            is golden

                        the whole papaya tastes sweet.

Less than 2% of that area is land.

The virgins have taunted the men for hours.

Searchlight

high desert sunset 3

I had always felt sort of goofy around her, a mix of overjoyed and unworthy. I got word that she was missing in a text message from a mutual friend asking if I had heard from her. It had been months—that was not unusual—but no one else had heard from her either. She wasn’t answering phone calls or texts. I don’t think if I went missing, anyone would especially notice. When you retire you disappear. It’s a mid-state, a halfway house to death. At some stage of aging, death sheds its mystery and tragedy and becomes just another given. People fade and vanish. The old address book starts to fill up with eclipsed entries. But her absence was noted.

I was closest. Her place in Nevada was only a three-hour drive away, and, besides, I was retired—what else did I have to do? I texted back that I’d go check. I wouldn’t mind getting out of L.A. It took me more like four hours because I don’t drive as fast as I used to. She was living in a town called Searchlight on the edge of the Mojave. I’d been there before. It was hot.

Edith Head, the costume designer, who won more Oscars than any other woman, was from Searchlight. Clara Bow had had a ranch there, where Hollywood celebs hung out, back in that day. If there were five hundred people in the town, most of them were hiding from the heat. Why she had ended up there I never did learn.

When you’re old and living alone you don’t shower that often. It’s one of those things that had once been so automatic as to be mindless, but now was a hassle easy to ignore. Who cared? There were a bunch of things like that. Like following the news or shopping. The calendar faded. My octogenarian Aunt Helen had once asked, “Is this the Saturday they call Wednesday?” It’s amazing what things no longer mattered. You learned them, dismissed them, sequentially. Each farewell another increment of freedom. There are enough confusions from the past to occupy your thoughts.

Once, right before I retired, in a fever that lasted for days—working on location in Costa Rica—I had made the effort to remember every woman I’d ever slept with. I wondered if they remembered sleeping with me. She was not one of them.

She wasn’t home, but nothing seemed amiss around the house. I’d always liked her wild yard. I sat there a while. It looked wild, but no place else around looked anything like it, so it couldn’t be just naturally wild. Selection and care had played some role. There were subtle tracks through it, surprises. There were patches of shade and bright sunlight. Things that shouldn’t be growing there in the high desert were. But there were no signs of the human touch—no chimes or borders or disturbed earth—just free plants living together. It was her unkempt garden. It was herself. I left a note for her stuck in the front screen door.

There was only one place to stay in Searchlight, the El Rey Motel—”Air-Conditioned Reasonable Rates.” I checked in there. There was also only one place to eat, a place appropriately called Terrible’s Roadhouse, a place with many more slot machines than customers. Another benefit of aging is becoming invisible. I think it may be chemical.  After a certain age your body ceases producing the hormone that says look at me, and people don’t see you. Some folks—mostly female—rebel against this and insist on trying anything to keep being seen. Nice for them to have a hobby.

I rather like being inconspicuous. I’m an observer. I live in a visual world. It’s easier if no one notices me watching them. My hearing has been fading for years now, and that’s another plus. There was always too much distracting noise before. The women playing the slot machines—and there were only women playing in Terrible’s—were not there to be seen. They were at work, in frumpy work clothes. They were old and unshowered. The only mates they were looking for were three mated symbols in a line. If they won, the machine made a louder noise; but they remained the same, seemingly unmoved.

Some people who didn’t know her well had suggested she moved to Nevada to gamble. More likely, she had moved to the desert to get away from them. I wasn’t looking for her in the casino. I knew she had no use for games of any kind. She would laugh at me when I went to the track. It did not seem to have occurred to anyone else that maybe she wanted to disappear—the next step after moving here. That gen-X-and-after addiction to being constantly in contact had infected even some of our pre-gen-X peers. Call and response were proof of existence. For whatever reason, she had opted out.

Once upon a time it had been easier to vanish, and it was no big deal. The simplest escape had been to Baja, some beach beyond phonebooths where nobody cared who you were. Back before tans were carcinogenic. Was tequila really better then?  You shed taste buds as you age, so that tastes become imbued with memory. You could hide out for weeks, and only your agent might wonder where you were, which beach town. Those shitty roads.

Breakfast was good. Most restaurant cooks get their start doing breakfasts, so it’s one thing they all should know how to do. Checked out, I went back to her place, not because I thought she might be back, but because I wanted to sit in her yard for a while before heading back to L.A. She could stay lost as long as she wanted to, as far as I was concerned. My note stuck in the screen door was gone. I didn’t think it could have blown away, but I looked.

I was in the back of her yard where it dwindled off into the desert when I heard a car pull up out front. An old car door creaked closed and a young woman’s voice called out hello. The car was a venerable, battered, sun-bleached Bronco. The young woman was wearing a cowboy hat.

“You the guy left the note? I went to the El Rey looking for you. Mom says come on out.”

I followed the Bronco into the desert, headed for the foothills beyond.

Nevada is known for its gemstones, its opals mainly. There’s an ex-wife somewhere with a Virgin Valley Nevada black opal necklace I gave her. Of course, she could have sold it. It was worth something. That wife always needed money. I’ve been blessed by ex-wives who never looked back. They were all prospectors moving on. The Bronco was more at home than my Lexus on the dead-straight dirt road we took out of town. It was almost midday, so I couldn’t tell from the sun what direction we were headed. Did it matter? The girl had been wearing a silver and turquoise bracelet that flashed in the sun when she gestured for me to follow.

I had bothered to shower when I got up. Something about being on the road and sleeping in a motel bed. Now it felt propitious. The road branched to the right, up a dry-creek arroyo. I was watching the ruts in the road, and then suddenly there she was, gray hair gathered up off her neck and brow, that familiar smile, hands on bib-overall hips, standing in front of an unpainted structure of classic shack architecture.

“End of the road,” she said.

Nothing had changed.

“Heard you coming. My favorite cameraman. Welcome to Nirvana Mine.”

Of course, it had occurred to me that one of the reasons my relationships with other women had never lasted was because they were not her. “Tis I, come with my hands a hanging, not even a bottle of your favorite mescal.”

She gave me a hug. “What’s the occasion?”

“I’m your Stanley, come to find your missing Dr. Livingston.”

“Good work. I didn’t know I was missing.”

“You’ve been a bad girl, ignoring your fans.”

“Been busy. They should be.”

There was no air-con in the shack, but there were cold beers. There was no tablecloth on the plank table, but there was a rough, fist-sized chunk of raw turquoise.

“So, I’ve disappeared, heh? Disappeared from what? That little piece of the world has just been added to the rest.”

“You’re looking fit.”

She laughed. “Even compliments age. Once you would have said you’re looking good, or fine, even beautiful.”

“All those, too.”

“Retrospectively.”

“We’ve achieved a retrospective age. Nirvana Mine?” I asked, picking up the hefty chunk of sky-blue gemstone.

“Come on, I’ll show you.” On the way up a side gulch behind the shack she laid down the law. “You can’t tell anyone about this. It’s a total secret, even—especially—from the locals. Our safety here depends upon it.” There were just the two of them, she and her daughter. “I found it by chance, wandering.”

The mine per se was just a ditch dug into the side of the gulch. “The surface vein was thin, but it thickens as we go lower.” It looked like hard labor. Just walking there, I dripped sweat.

“All I know about gems is what jewelers charge,” I said. “What’s all this worth?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. The gems are a gift from the earth, hidden in all this desolation. We’re just receiving them.”

Back at the shack, I helped her remove a few floor boards and haul out several heavy sacks of luminous stones, some of which she spread out on the table.

“What are you going to do with them?”

“Nothing. This, look at them. I only gather them to admire them, their timeless beauty. I certainly don’t need any more money. Isn’t this a winner?” She handed me a blade-shaped slab like a small modernistic sculpture alive with many colors. “Maybe when I tire of digging, I’ll select a few favorites as keepsakes and my daughter can take what she wants for her jewelry, and I’ll rebury the rest. They’re not really mine because I found them. The earth can have her secrets back.”

The afternoon was getting on, cliff shadow filling the arroyo. “You better be headed back,” she said. “You don’t want to try that road in the dark, and you can’t stay here in the girls’ dorm. But don’t go back to L.A. Stay at my place. The front door key is beneath the back step. Hang out for a while. I’ll be down in a day or two. I need a shower and some real food. We’ll get stoned and reminisce.” At the car she gave me a kiss and slipped a sea-green gemstone into my hand.

I am writing this at her kitchen table, with a view out the rear window into her wild yard. I think I’ll stay as long as she will have me. The quiet of the place sort of grows on you. I’ve turned off my iPhone. The last text message I sent was, “She’s not here.”

 

 

 

Shelving

empty-room-1

That was before I could afford to

hire carpenters, and all I could find

was green wood, stuff not yet lumber but

still the body of a slaughtered tree.

Hand saw, drill, plane and sandpaper,

building shelves for the books again.

Bookshelves always stay behind

with the women, move empty

sideways into new and better digs,

get filled with one wonders what.

I give good shelf.

Barbershops

barbersop sign

Anthropologists like funerals and weddings as windows into folk culture. They ought to add barbershops. I had my hair cut at the local East End Barber Shop the other afternoon. When I got out of the chair, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and just sit and watch and listen. Life, a community—workingmen, mothers with their boys in tow to get clipped, black people, white people, banter, stories, laughter, different accents, unsweptup hair like sheep shorn in dunes around the barbers’ chairs. The young lovely in tight jeans and tattoos and the long Kentucky vowels who cut mine had a scripted ink message on the inside of her perfect bicep that I could almost read without my glasses. Maybe I should get out more often.

I grew up above a barbershop on Main Street. Red and white striped pole on our front lawn. For a while when I was in grammar school, I would get a snip and comb every morning on my way to school. Mr. Crist, the barber, would splash some smelly stuff on there. There were mirrors on both walls, and, high in the chair, I could see myself repeated into the vanishing point.

Fifty years ago, I had an Italian grandmother-in-law who called me barba, beard, the same as in the original Latin and root of the word barber—but not of barbarian, which, I think, is how she meant it. I wasn’t patronizing barbershops at the time. And I was Irish.

Funny profession, being paid to groom strangers, but it goes back to the origins of luxury and specialization. Better than being a bricklayer. When you think of a groom, you think horses, someone who attends to the many needs of a beast, not just brushing its mane. And for ages that is what barbers did—not just cut hair and beards and give shaves, but also trim nails, lance boils and cysts, clean ears and scalp, pull teeth, set bones, and apply tourniquets. Your go-to man (always man) for your physical surface needs. In fact, that red-and-white striped poll in our Main Street front lawn originated as the symbol of a tourniquet applied to a wounded limb.

At some point, the barbers moved their trade in off the streets to shops, which evolved into neighborhood social points where men (always men) could enjoy the camaraderie of their peer beasts being groomed, and eventually, regrettably, into barbershop quartets.

The ladies have a separate history, culminating in their beauty salons, about which I am not authorized to comment. Suffice to say, the word beauty never appears in the history of masculine establishments.

I eventually married a hairdresser. Or was she a beautician? I’ll have to ask. This stroke of frugality freed me from barbershops for several decades. It was not so strange being groomed by someone I loved. The arthritis in her hands finally forced Connie to pack away her scissors and shears, and I have had to return to the world of barbershops. Or at least to the East End Barber Shop. Next visit I will bring my glasses and try to read the line of script on the papyrus-white skin of my groomer’s lovely underarm.