. . . Monday November 28, 2011

The Return of Amigo

My hair was getting too long in back, so I took the same walk I’ve taken every now and then for the past twenty years. I went looking for Amigo.

I didn’t expect to find him. The last eight or ten times I’d walked the four or five blocks down to 2nd and Mission, I came up empty. Most of the time his barber chair sat empty. After a few months, there was another guy wearing a black velour sweatsuit and thick chains standing in his spot. I was desperate so I went in, sat down, and closed my eyes while this stranger worked his neon-striped clippers with one hand and took Android phone-calls with the other.

In between calls and clips I asked what happened to the man who used to cut in this chair. The guy, now with a few clumps of my gray on his black velour sleeves, told me he’d been in the hospital for awhile. Then he switched to Spanish and held the rest of his conversation with the other cutters. I picked up most of it. No one used any of the conjugated versions of word morir, but it didn’t sound good.

Over the next few months, as my hair grew, I took that same walk with that same purpose pretty often. By the time I hit the center of the crosswalk near the shop, I always had my answer. I could see his chair from there. It was either empty or occupied by the guy in velour. So I’d turn around and head back to my office, brushing my fingers through my ever longer hair, becoming more certain with each block that it was inevitable; Amigo was dead.

We shared decades together, me and Amigo, looking at my head in a dented mirror on the corner of 2nd and Mission. That mirror has recorded the silent movie version of my life. Me with brown hair. Me coming back to San Francisco. Me looking out at the rise of the Internet industry as it rushed across the streets South of Market. Me reading the day-old headlines pressed against the plastic windows of the newspaper racks that still attracted a few quarters on this corner that time forgot. Me the husband. Me the father. Me with gray hair. Me thinking of things to write while Amigo thought of things to cut.

I never knew his name. Our exchanges were always the same. I’d get the center of the crosswalk. He’d look up and motion me over to his chair and say: “OK, Amigo. Same ting, tapered in back?” I’d say yes and mumble something about leaving a little length on top, but by then he was already cutting.

For the first part of the cut my mind was back at the office. But by the time Amigo spread warm shaving cream across the back of my neck and pulled out his dulling straight edge, I’d have lost myself in the place. The shelves bowed with a history of brushes, gels, and tonics so old even Google wouldn’t know what I’m talking about; the original price tags covered with layers of dust older than my kids. No one ever bought any of the shampoos, ointments, or replacement blades for razors not sold since the 70s. The wall never changed.

These were the constants. The fans above the door surrounded by cracks of light coming from the San Francisco sky. A little hand broom. A stack of old newspapers. A push-letter board with a list of prices. A few spare jugs of that barbershop blue liquid. Embedded in the wall, a black and white clock with no minute hand. When a place has been around long enough, you stop measuring in minutes.

According to my more modern timekeeping devices, it was usually about fourteen minutes after I sat down when my barber would hold a hand mirror behind my head and say, “OK, Amigo, you like da taper?” I’d peel off a twenty, tell him to keep the change and head back to modern life with shorter hair and a clean neck.

The barbers behind the other chairs changed over the decades. For a few years, there was a Russian guy who wore a silk shirt and a thin gold chain. He once got a tip he considered too small, and when the customer left, he muttered something about him being a kike. I’d been pretty much silent in that chair until that moment.

“Hey,” I yelled, instant beads of sweat rolling over my now filled forehead veins, “I don’t want to hear that fucking word in here.”

There is no silence like a barbershop with the clippers turned off and the scissors still. The guy in silk waved his scissors in my direction. I thought of those Saturdays when my dad took me to the barbershop near my childhood home and repeated the same jokes about being nearly bald. That was before he was one of only two people in his Polish ghetto to survive the Holocaust and then spent years in the forest fighting back against the Nazis. Those are the things you think about when an angry Russian barber is waving scissors in your face. Then you just hold up a finger and say, “Don’t say that word again.”

A long pause. Then, finally, a snip. Amigo went back to tapering.

I’d given up on ever seeing Amigo again when I made my familiar walk down to 2nd and Mission, resigned to having my hair cut by whoever happened to be behind his chair. I got to the middle of the crosswalk, looked up, ready to be disappointed. That’s when I saw him. A little thinner. A little more frail. But it was Amigo, sitting in his own barber chair, waiting. I extended my open palms to my side to silently ask, “What are you doing back?” He raised his fists over his head.

When I walked through the door, we had our longest conversation. I asked him where he had been. He held his thumb and index finder a couple inches apart and said, “Dey take some ting out of my colon, dis big.”

I told him how good it was to have him back. He thanked me, sat me down, and said:

“OK, Amigo. Same ting, tapered in back?”

An older guy with a smoker’s cough walked in, sat down in another chair, and bellowed: “Listen. Let me make this as simple and clear as possible. A quarter inch off. Everywhere.”

I looked at the shelves of old hair tonics and the clock with no minute hand. I’d been meaning to include them in a story for months, but I always figured it would be a eulogy. Instead, there I was with shorter hair and cleaner neck thinking about a new story, the one about the return of amigo.

All of it rushed through my mind. The people crossing the street. The long ago retired hair products. Me as a kid sitting in a barbershop chair next to my dad. In a world that changes by the second, I just sat there for those fourteen minutes thinking about the greatness of constants. The same ting.

When he was done, my barber held up a hand mirror behind my head and said, “OK, Amigo, you like da taper in back?”

I didn’t even need to look.

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Concentration is important!