My barber is what Southerners affectionately refer to as a Big ‘Ol Country Boy.
He is, indeed, a large man. I’m guessing 6-foot-1, 240 pounds.
A large truck. A large pinch of Copenhagen tucked into his cheek. The tattoo? “Wild Country.” And it’s stacked across the back of his neck, with Country extending from the bottom of his left shoulder, across the top of his back, and landing at the bottom of his right shoulder.
His hat is a beige newsboy cap—think Peaky Blinders—and I’ve never seen it off his head. Large.
His fish: Large. His guns: Large. His piercings: Large. The Beard? You’re following me here, right?
The barbershop playlist playing over the speakers is his playlist, make no doubt about it, so the men who flip through last year’s Sports Illustrateds while waiting their turns in old leather chairs don’t bother to question it. Not any of it.
Johnny Cash. Old Crow Medicine Show. Willie. The Stones. CCR.
It’s one of those classic, old barbershops, tucked inside a former tobacco-processing building of sorts that some fancy Yankee probably snatched up and dusted off. There’s the overpriced outdoor store, the BBQ joint that tries too hard, the clever coffee shop, and the pastels of Moon & Lola. But I will concede that the Yank has some skills: the barber shop features old-style barber chairs, polished hardwoods, exposed rafters—it even has the classic barber pole spinning outside the door.
This—all of it—grabs me by the collar and drags me right back to 1974, depositing me in the barber shop my stepfather ran in a small Oregon town for 30 years. Not that I have to be grabbed and dragged—I go willingly, in fact. It’s a wink and a nod to a time when men came together and talked over the top of yesterday’s newspapers, about wars and crops and Nixon and baseball.
It mattered not where anybody stood in life. The town was only about 1,000 other farmers and mill workers and immigrant laborers and carpenters and schoolteachers and grocers and everybody had to figure out a way to get along. And, for the most part, they did. At least, they did from the vantage point of my 8-year-old eyes.
The same seems true here, through 51-year-old eyes, on a random Wednesday in 2017, where I roll in wearing my tailored blue jeans, Birkenstocks with thick socks, all while holding a large Americano in one hand and the keys to a vintage VW bus in the other. I was fresh off a Tuesday that was one for the books, so I’d spent most of Tuesday night ranting, crying, and cleaning poodle shit off the living room floor of an apartment whose walls are closing in. I read Rilke, soaked in a hot bath using my 17-year-old son’s lavender-scented Epsom salts, then laid on the floor with my feet up on the wall—to get some new blood flowing because that’s what a very dear and trusted friend texted me. I generally roll with life’s punches, but Tuesday put me up against the ropes and worked me over pretty good.
“Okay, legs up the wall, new oxygen to the brain, tomorrow is a blank page,” she wrote.
I did have the best night’s sleep I’ve had in two months. And the poodle is still alive. And I also found the blank page.
Fishing? I can fish. But I really don’t fish. To me, there’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the banks of a river holding a stick in your hand. I want to wade in, kick those rocks over, see what’s underneath. I want to find a flat stone and toss it, sidearm, to see how many times it will skip across the water. I want to chase salamanders.
Hunting? I’ve never shot at anything but old, near-sighted blue jays. I’m pretty sure the last gun I held in my hand was my Daisy BB gun, at age 8, and even then, “shooting” was twisting the end off, pouring about 50 BBs directly into the barrel, pointing it toward the sky, then pressing the trigger. Now, the compression in your average early 1970s-era Daisy BB gun isn’t much more than—as my father would have said—a rat fart. So the BBs would sort of heave themselves, reluctantly, about 10 feet into the air, then rain down on our heads as we stood there squinting, grimacing, our shoulders around our ears, waiting in eager anticipation for them to bounce off our noggins. That’s right, I said we. I had even talked my 6-year-old nephew into joining me.
Can you imagine what my mother must have been thinking, looking out the back window and seeing us two knuckleheads standing in the field, creating BB rain? Every time, without fail, we squinted and grimaced as if boulders would be raining from the skies. My mother wasn’t the You’ll put an eye out type. She was the You put an eye out, that’s your problem type. Better yet were the one-on-one tackle football games in the mud. In a complete downpour. She’d fling the back door open and yell things like, “Haven’t you enough sense to come in out of the rain?!” No thanks, I’m good, I’d think. Because if you beat a kid enough, if you tell him he’s a goddamned moron enough, if you force liver and onions down his throat until he pukes, he’s probably going to stay out in the rain.
And a little rain never hurt anybody. Even when it’s raining failing marriages and struggling businesses and just plain, old-fashioned shitty Tuesdays. But I still seek the cover of Wednesday, and I’m not sure I need the haircut as much as I need the conversation with Big Ol’ Country Boy. Because he’s always a good reminder of, well, everything. Jobs and kids and fishing and outlaw country and football and the best pizza place in town. But that’s near the liquor store and he’s trying to stop drinking, so he has an agreement with his girl that he stays in the car while she grabs the pepperoni and mushroom thin crust.
Funny, when Tuesday had gotten away from me, I decided Wednesday would require some self-care. So I had walked over to the barber shop to get a Wednesday appointment. The receptionist said his only availability was the 9 a.m. slot, and I happily took it. She seemed surprised by that, because it seems most of the South doesn’t do much before 10 a.m. But I happen to love the 9 a.m. slot because it’s always just him, me, his playlist, and the fascinating connection of his denim-bearing Southernisms and my tie-dyed Oregonisms. I’m the vintage bus to his diesel-powered truck. I’m the sandals to his large boots. I’m the Americano to his Blue Monster.
Besides, I know well enough to understand it’s not the 9 a.m. slot anyway; it’s actually the 9:07 slot. Maybe even 9:10. Anything earlier than that and you’re going to spend a few minutes sitting in the chair, watching him finish opening the shop—grumbling under his breath at the computer screen, pecking at the keyboard one finger at a time, fiddling with his iPod, and looking for his Blue Monster. “What the? I just set that … oh” and he’s shaking his head and walking over to where he has spotted his Blue Monster on the counter.
The Blue Monster is a Monster drink in a blue can. I don’t know what the flavor is, but I’m guessing bullshit isn’t one of the ingredients. He gets the Blue Monsters from the clever coffee shop, between clients. He’s not exactly a Pumpkin Spice Latte guy. He looks about as comfortable in there as I am in a bait shop in Harnett County. I mean, I can do it. And I will do it. And we’ll each make a friend or two along the way. But it’s not where either of us is going to hang a hammock, you know?
So when I’m in that coffee shop, hacking away at life on this laptop, his entrance is difficult to miss. He rolls in, Large, scanning the crowd as he drags his boots past the tables of stay-home Moms pushing muffins at toddlers and sales reps trying to escape the monotony of their home offices. He tosses me a nod.
Him: “Stay away from the cinnamon rolls, man.”
Me: “I’m trying.”
He buys his Blue Monster and passes me again on the way out. There might be a fist bump, there might not. But there’s always another nod.
Him: “Later, man.”
Me: “Flip side.”
Flip Side isn’t on any map I’ve ever seen, but I do feel that, at the very least, I’m within the county limits of Flip Side when I sit in his barber chair at 9:07 on a chilly Wednesday in November.
Him: “Chris Stapleton?”
Him (fiddling with his iPod): “Feels like a Chris Stapleton day.”
Me: “A buddy just introduced me to St. Paul and the Broken Bones.”
Him: “My kind of beat?”
Him: “I’ll check ’em out.”
He flings the hair bib over me. My feet extend from beneath it.
Him: “Don’t your feet get cold in those sandals? It’s November, man.”
Me: “A little rain never hurt nobody.”
Him (shaking his head again): “Damned hippies, that’s what y’all are.”
We’ve been tight like this for about a year now. Because the conversation will always turn to fishing holes and music and sons who play football.
Me: “Your son’s football season still going?”
Me: “How’d they do?”
Him: “His school team, not so much. His travel team was pretty good though. He’s a Big Ol’ Country Boy, you know? Gonna be an even bigger ol’ boy when he hits high school. Kinda excited for that.”
Me: “Him? Big Ol’ Country Boah? What?”
His son is one of those red-meat-eating offensive linemen. Mine? He soaks his sore punting foot in lavender-scented Epsom salts.
Him: “Hey, how’s that book of yours coming along?”
Me: “Good, I guess. Some really interesting story lines have developed, just as I sorta thought they might. And I’m going back out to Oregon next week to work on it a bit more.”
Him: “No shit? Hey, how’s the fishin’ out there this time of year?”
Him: “That’s right, you ain’t the guy to ask that. You’re the salamander guy.”
Me: “Yeah, the salamander guy.”
Him: “Can you catch them things even?”
Me: “I don’t know. I know I never did.”
Him: “You never even caught one?”
Me: “You could get close, maybe if you found one sunning himself, dozing off. But nah.”
Him: “Man, if I ain’t never catch a fish, I’d stop fishin’! I mean, what’s the point?”
Me (shrugging): “I don’t know, the thrill of the hunt?”
Him (shaking his head in disappointment): “Crazy, man.”
Me: “Hey, you ever do get to Oregon, I got a frat bro who is the best fishing guide in the state. I can hook you up.”
Him (stopping the cutting and combing): “That’s slicker’n goose shit right there, brother.”
Me: (A bit disappointed he didn’t catch my ‘hook’ pun, but he’s not exactly a pun guy, so I’m over it.)
Him: “Hey, you gonna give me a discount on that book when that thing comes out?”
Me: (Even more disappointed my life’s passion has been summed up as a Thing, but okay.) “Sure—how about I trade you a free book for a free haircut?”
Him: “That’s a deal right there, man.”
The conversation is always bit of an amusement park ride, rounding another corner, darting left, the jolt to the right—then the ride slowing to that click-click-click of the car climbing toward the mystique of another stretch of tracks.
Him: “I know exactly where I made my mistake.”
Me: “Yeah? That’s a pretty big discovery right there, you know.”
Him (thumbing through his drawer, looking for his straight razor): “Yeah, see, I got throwed ’round as a kid. Always told myself I’d never do that with my kids—and I never have. But what I did do was figure if I was doin’ somethin’, I was doin’ it with the kids, ya know? So I never made time for just the two of us. She got tired of that.”
Me: “That make sense. I got throwed ’round a lot, too. You hold ’em close, hold ’em tight, you know? Kinda funny what that throwin’ round does to a guy, isn’t it? I mean no, it’s not funny, but you get me.”
Him: “Yeah, I getcha.”
The other barber has arrived, and now the conversation turns to the confusion of working the computer, printing receipts, and, finally, the mistake he’d made reaching into the register when the drawer was open.
Him: “Man, the girls up front, they don’t like that.”
Other Barber: “Yeah, I could have warned you about that one.”
Him: “Ain’t worried ’bout it none.”
Other Barber: “Nah, me either.”
I’ve not lived in the South long, but I’ve lived here long enough to know that Ain’t Worried About It None translates to “It really wasn’t right nor fair but it’s not anything that is important enough for me to fight nor argue about. I am moving on. Now, would anybody like some ribs off the smoker?” Which, really, is a dumb question.
Him: “I mean, hell, ain’t like I’m gonna steal!”
Other Barber (sorting yesterday’s receipts): “Nope.”
Him: “Ain’t no thief!”
Other Barber (not even looking up): “Nope.”
Him (now holding court): “Well, mighta stole a heart or two in my time …”
Other Barber: (snorting)
Him: “But ain’t like I hadda grab ’em by the hair and drag ’em away, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Other Barber and Me: (laughing)
Him (big, thundering laugh): “I mean, ya get me?”
His arms extend wide, inviting a look at his thick frame.