The heat is starting to bare its teeth in the city. Even a centimeter of afro makes a difference, so earlier today I went to the Haitian barbershop off Flatbush, between the Bergen and Grand Army Plaza stops, to get my head right.
The shop has three ancient barber chairs, a stack of boring magazines, pictures of Obama and Aristide and Mandela and Dr. King and Ronaldo on the walls. There's a big window facing the street. When I walked in, there were two barbers there, the most I've ever seen.
The phone rang once while I was getting my hair cut, an actual wall-mounted land line with an actual cord that made an un-ironic bbrrrriiing.... bbrrrriiing....etc.
No one picked it up.
The barbers (and most of the customers) are all like early retirement age. There's a laid-back, retirement vibe about the place that borders on dourness. A short, bald man in jean shorts came in and took a seat in one of the plastic, three-slotted school chairs for customers. My eyeglasses were folded on the counter, so his face came to me as a light brown smear against the wall. Him and the other barber sitting in his barber chair barely uttered a word to each other, just stared out into the bright, hot street, watching the people pass on the sidewalk. No hurry to think of something to talk about.
That's when I got to wondering about the earthquake.
I wondered if maybe they'd lost people close to them. Or maybe they didn't lose anyone directly, but just carried the burden of the disaster around in their guts, in a kind of no-need-to-acknowledge-it-because-we're-all-thinking-about-it way. I wondered if, a couple years back, conversation in the barbershop was more lively, hopeful, buoyant, smattered with laughter.
But then I thought that I was being silly. What a narrow, lazy, American way of reading news headlines into the blurry faces of strangers, trying to peer into someone's heart using an old, rolled-up copy of the New York Times.
It's this kind of desire to see into people's minds and hearts--and the accompanying feelings of guilt and futility at ever being able to actually do this--that leads me inevitably, ineluctably towards writing fiction. Also, I thought of a nice line: "My hair fell right off the bone."
Sitting there, the electric clippers buzzing and bumping against my skull, I felt I was 3/4 of the way towards a mournful, crisp New Yorker-style "Talk of the Town," or, if the men would not agree to being interviewed (probably the case), at least I would be assured a slot in The Best American Short Stories 2012, Selected by Edwidge Danticat, who would invite me to Haiti with her and her family the next time they were going.
He carefully gathered the black apron off of me. Sweat was pooling in my armpits.
"Nineteen," he said. I raised my eyebrows: suspicion. He only charged me fifteen dollars last time. My barber had a long face with deep lines carved on either side of his mouth. Not a bad-looking older gentleman at all. He had visored my eyes with his hand right before spraying me with the alcohol. I had really appreciated that. So I reached for my wallet, hairline and temples still burning and emptied my wallet.
I snatched up my bag from one of the little plastic chairs where I'd left it. For some reason, I thanked the other barber and his friend, both still staring out the window. To the man who'd cut my hair I mumbled, "Have a good one." Each gave a quiet little nod, which might have been their way of saying, "How come we never see you at church?" or "Good luck with the heat!" or "Yes, it's true, life has felt strange since the earthquake," or "Nice haircut, young man," or "Please move, you're blocking our view."