I slide my car neatly into the last open parking space in front of the shop. The street is lined on both sides with vehicles, their owners patroning the small restaurants and stores up and down the main town center. This town, the neighbor to where I live, is one of my favorite places to visit. Crossing the threshold into the county limits is like stepping back to a different period in time. The architecture and small town, charm is something straight out of the pages of a history book, and not reflective of today’s society; yet it still exists and thrives in this tiny little corner of the planet.
The large imposing stone buildings lining the downtown corridors are old-world throwbacks to an era where solid craftsmanship was an obvious source of pride. The large ashen structures, former mills, and foundries mostly, have been severed into smaller storefronts, filled now with modest businesses consisting of flower shops, ladies fashion boutiques, jewelry stores, coffee shops, bookstores, and more. The bustling sidewalks are testaments to how there is something for everyone hidden amongst these non-corporate world gems.
I put my car in park, turn the keys and remove them from the ignition. I click the buckle of the seatbelt, and it immediately retracts, freeing me from my place in the driver’s seat. I look over my shoulder quickly before opening the door and stepping out. The wide street is full of a steady stream of mid-afternoon traffic coming from both directions. The drivers are hurriedly making their way back to work after escaping their offices for lunch. It’s one of the first sunny, warm days we’ve had this season. The volume of people driving and walking by clearly shows that everyone is welcoming the reprieve of the spring sunshine after a long winter.
I cross behind my car, which is nestled between a blue Toyota at my rear, and a white Honda in front. I step up onto the sidewalk as a woman pushing a baby stroller zips by me. “Excuse me,” she says, as she cuts in front of me, clearly in a hurry to get to where she is going. I smile and think to myself, “Slow down, enjoy this day, you never know how many more you’ll have,” but I say nothing to her in return. I watch as she passes and disappears around the corner.
I walk across the wide sidewalk and glance quickly at the mounted adornment on the outside of the building. The swirling red, blue, and white stripes announce the nature of the establishment before even having to read the sign affixed above the front entryway. The sign, black, adorned with white writing confirms what the swirling pole already told me, ‘Barber Shop.’ The large wooden display peeks out into an awning, providing a small cover to the large storefront windows, shading the establishment from the hot afternoon sun. A large sandwich board on the sidewalk announces ‘Haircut & Beer only $25’. I know from having been here before they also give hot towel shaves and shoe shines as add-ons to their service.
I pull on the handle of the door, and it opens outward toward the street. A small bell tinkles above my head. I walk inside, and I’m instantly met by the murmuring voices from clients and barbers occupying the six cutting stations. The furthest chair from the door is manned by an older gentleman, well into his 70’s, but still with a spring in his step. His white dress shirt and black bowtie, formal attires to his uniform, are out of place with the pair of Nike sneakers on his feet, he’s told me before, he’s old enough now that he gets to wear comfortable shoes. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to his elbows, and despite his age, his hands still move deftly over his client’s head. I watch him as he works, his comb in the left hand, a pair of scissors in his right. He stops suddenly, looks up at me, and in a loud booming voice, not matching his slight frame and stature shouts towards me, “SAINT! How are you doing?”
He’s calling me by a long ago nickname given to me when I was no more than 14 years old during the days I now refer to as ‘my boxing days.’ A typical boxer I was not; my quiet, and shy demeanor, and preference for listening over speaking meant that people would frequently describe me as meek and sensitive, and often a little awkward. These traits coupled with my habit of extreme politeness and good manners, which had been drilled into my brain from infancy by parents who extolled the virtues of refined children that were seen and not heard, had earned me the persona of an ‘altar boy.’ The taunting name, a favorite used by peers who liked to tease me about my strange quirks and small size. These traits and the taunting I endured made me see myself as flawed and resulted in a timidity that I would carry with me even to today.
My devoutly French-Catholic trainer, who was aware of the caustic mocking from my peers, felt that embracing their words was the best way to overcome them. He felt that as I was already being teased for being ‘pious’ and given my outward appearance of not being able to hurt a fly, let alone get into a ring and slug it out with another man, this begot me the nickname ‘The Saint.’ Whether by coincidence, proper training, or divine intervention from the name, it quickly became known that when the bell rang, and the first round started, I would, and I quote my trainer, “Fight like God was on my side.” Before long, the taunting stopped, but by then, the nickname had entirely stuck. Boxing, and later kickboxing, became my passion and hobby until the fateful day in the ring when the sharp left hook sprung forth a bloody nose that refused to cease, and a trip to the emergency room revealed that the next fight I would be in was me versus cancer. Though my boxing career is long over, for those that knew me back in the day, the name ‘Saint’ still lingers. And while the name holds no meaning for me in the fight world anymore, a part of me still identifies with who I used to be, at a time when it was easy to get back up after the bell had tolled.
I call back across the room, and the man now crosses the floor to come and see me, “Doing great Herc, how about yourself?”
He stops about four feet in front of me, spreads his feet, bends his knees, and raises his fists into a fighting position. He throws a couple of loose jabs into the air toward me. I quickly reciprocate the stance and open palmed, catch his punches in midair. He laughs merrily, stands up, slaps me hard on both shoulders, and leans in to kiss me on both cheeks. He turns to face the center of the room, clearly, now, there are several sets of eyes watching the display. He announces heartily in his slightly Greek-accented voice, “This is my favorite client you know!” In reality, it’s quite likely that he says this about everyone who he cuts on the regular, but in the back of my brain, I like to think that maybe, just maybe, I do mean a little more to him than the others.
“I’m just finishing up with another client,” he tells me. “Go sit at the bar, have a beer, and I’ll be with you soon.” He slaps my arm again. “And don’t you dare think about letting one of these other schmoes cut your hair,” he leans in and whispers loudly to me. Undoubtedly, everyone in the shop has heard, yet instead of being offended a few chuckles and groans fill the air. The barber in chair three looks at Herc and myself, he grins, and tosses over his shoulder, tongue in cheek, “Wouldn’t dream of it Herc, would hate to have to kiss him.” I erupt into unreserved laughter and make my way towards the bar. Herc heads back towards his chair, calling out to the bartender standing behind the bar, “Get the man a beer and be quick about it, Ben!” Ben shouts out, “Aye Aye Captain,” and gives a mock salute to Herc’s back.
The men employed in the shop have all been trained by Herc personally. He moved here from Greece sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, as a young man, penniless, but full of hope and promise. He opened his shop after years of working hard labor jobs to be able to afford a small storefront. He told me once that he came from a long line of barbers and that he didn’t believe in fancy haircutting schools. He said he preferred to take men from the street and ‘teach them how to do it right.’ Each of the employees working for Herc now, and in the past, have found in him a mentor, a friend, and a support system. They put up with his bad jokes, and curmudgeonly ways because each of them knows that in the end, nobody has their back more than Herc. I have always felt this way about him as well.
I met Herc as a child. I was about nine or ten when my father started taking me to his shop. I remember him pulling coins from behind my ears, quarters, dimes and pennies. I was clearly too old to enjoy the magic in the trick, but he’d sometimes let me keep the coin, never if it was a quarter though. He’d always tell me when it was a quarter that “Three more would make a dollar,” and “I could go out and earn my own dollars,” and he would stuff the quarter deeply back into his pocket.
Herc and I became fast friends. He told me he boxed a little himself back in the day. Said to me he was once a Golden Gloves Champion, a claim I never believed, but also never refuted. I didn’t want to know the truth; his story was better than any truth could ever be. He started coming to my fights from time to time. I’d occasionally hear his rough, gravelly voice calling out to me from the stands. In the absence of any grandparents who lived close by, Herc became a surrogate. It didn’t take me long to feel like he lived up to his name, in my eyes, Herc was strong, kind (in a gruff kind of way), worldly and wise. Herc, to me, was indeed the real Hercules disguised as a tiny, bald, Greek barber.
I sip my beer at the bar, Herc, a business genius has made this place into a man playground. The barstools are motorcycle seats mounted to beer kegs; the floor has scattered rugs made of burlap. The walls decorated from floor to ceiling in sports memorabilia. The front of the cash counter is the grill of a classic black Cadillac. The chairs are red leather and lean back to allow for a good clean shave. The waiting area – for those not at the bar, is a leather couch in front of a table made from a large tree ring, with an ax for each leg. The only thing in the shop that matters to Herc is the soft Elvis tunes piping out of the speakers overhead. Herc is an Elvis fan through and through. I asked him once when I was younger, “Why Elvis?” His reply, “Good voice, great hair.” The conversation never came up again; I guess that was all I needed to know.
The bell on the door tinkles again, and Herc’s customer has gone. He’s sweeping up the hair on the floor. He insists on doing this himself. He says that a clean barber is a good barber. He calls over to me at the bar, “I’ll take you whenever you’re ready Saint.” I gulp the last of the beer in the bottle and hand it over to Ben, thanking him for his service. I walk to the back of the room to join Herc.
I sit in the red chair, and Herc wraps a drape around my neck like a full-body cape. It’s light blue with white stripes and puts me in mind of either a 1950’s barbershop or a prison jumpsuit; I’ve never been quite sure which it reminds me of more. He says to me “Just cleaning you up?”
“Yeah,” I reply, and he gets started on the work. He chats away to me for a while. The weather, the business of the shop, and sports are all topics that come up. My hair is quickly coming together. Eventually, Herc pauses and looks at me in the mirror. He puts his hands on my shoulders, tools still clamped in each fist, and asks me, “So how are you doing? I mean, really how are you doing? I heard the news,” and he squeezes my shoulders lightly.
I give him a straight smile, not one that dictates emotion, but one meant to comfort the person who’s being smiled at. “You know,” I reply, nodding solemnly. “I’m hanging in there.”
“It’s not fair you know,” he says, his accent a little thicker than I’ve ever heard it before. I look into the mirror, and I see his eyes, they are searching for my own in the reflection. We lock gazes in the glass. His eyes are honey brown and clear; his olive toned skin has formed into wrinkles filling in the corners around his still long thick lashes. His eyes are brimming with tears. I’m taken aback slightly; I’ve never seen him like this before. He clears his throat lightly, and the tears evaporate before they fall, “I’m an old man,” he says. “You’re still so very young.” Without thought, his fist, the one holding the comb, is lightly pounding up and down on my shoulder. It’s as if at this moment, he is doing his best to beat away the cancer that is coursing through my body. It hurts slightly, as everything does these days, but the reassurance of his touch outweighs the discomfort, so I don’t ask him to stop.
“It’s not about age,” I reply. “That’s just the way the universe sometimes works,” I say, both to him and to myself.
“Universe be damned,” he retorts. “It’s still not fair.” His tough guy entity rushes back in and chases his momentary sentimentalism away. He goes back to cutting my hair.
I change the subject, “So when are you going to retire Herc?” I ask.
He looks at me and grins cheekily, “When I can’t cut your hair any longer,” he says.
“Really?” I ask, shocked, seeking confirmation of what he said.
He pauses momentarily, thinks about what he’s just said, and laughs heartily, “Okay, well, maybe a little longer than that.”
I laugh with him. There’s nothing that can be done now but to laugh. It’s not that the situation is particularly funny, it’s just that life still has to go on, with, or without me in it. Herc’s life, my children’s lives, my friends, family, the people I love, and even the people I don’t know, will all move forward. In these last weeks or months I have left, I’ve made a decision, I want the laughter to far outweigh the tears. I want the tough moments to pass quickly, in favor of the joyous moments where life seems worth living. What I’ve come to learn is that life has a definitive start, and as Newton’s third law dictates, ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”, meaning that so too, must life end. Nobody promised me 80 years. Nobody promised me a long story. Nobody promised me anything but the here and now, and I intend to make the most of it while I still can. Herc may feel like the universe is unfair but I see things differently. I see the 36 beautiful years I’ve lived – sure, there have been hard times in those years, but, on the whole, I’ve been pretty darn blessed. I have a birthday looming just around the corner, who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky enough to have 37 trips around the sun. If not, well, that’s okay too. As long as I’m here, I’ll just keep taking in the beauty that is of this world, of the people in this world, and of the ordinary average everyday things. I’m blessed, truly, because now I don’t have 80 years worth of time to take for granted. Now, I only have the present, and it is beautiful.
I look around the shop briefly, taking in my surroundings before Herc cranks my head forward and says, “Do you want me to cut your ear off? Stay still.” I feel like I’m a kid again when he used to threaten me with the same thing.
I laugh again, and the laughter feels so good as it rolls through my whole body, “Nope, think I’d like to keep my ear Herc,” I reply.
I hear him mutter something under his breath that mysteriously sounds like, “Kids these days,” but I can’t be sure that’s what he really said.
“I’m going to miss this,” I say faintly to Herc. I don’t want to make a big deal about the sentimentality of the moment.
He matches my tone, and equally quiet, Herc replies, “I know, me too, Saint, me too.”
He puts down his comb and scissors on the ledge below the mirror and exchanges them for a small round brush which he uses to wipe the hair clippings from the back of my neck. It tickles slightly, and I shiver. He unfastens the cape from around my neck, spins it around and gives it a snap in the air like a magician or a matador. I love his theatrics. I stand from the chair and turn to face Herc who is standing only a few feet away. I push my hand towards him in the gesture of a handshake, “Thanks, Herc,” I say. He slips his hand into mine, his grip still firm and sturdy, and he pulls me forward throwing his arms around me in the tightest embrace I’ve ever had. We stand motionless for a few moments, neither of us caring what anyone else in the shop thinks of the display of affection.
Herc pulls away first, pushes me lightly on the arm and says, “Get outta here, this one’s on the house.”
I nod and smile at him. He turns away, grabs the discarded cape from the back of the chair, and goes to hang it on a hook on the wall. As he turns, I can hear him singing, Elvis’ Love me Tender, softly under his breath. I walk towards the front of the shop; my back turned towards Herc and the rest of the barbershop crew. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again, and that’s okay. I feel like if I’m not, I will have said goodbye in the most perfect way. As I approach the front entrance, the door flys open, the bell tinkles again from overhead. A dark-haired boy of about seven, flies into the shop, his dad following closely behind. From behind me, I hear Herc’s booming voice calling out to the boy, “AH, Matthew, how’s my favorite customer?” I smile wide, chuckle to myself, suspicions confirmed, and I think to myself, “It’s all perfect.”
I slip out the door quietly, Matthew’s dad still holding it slightly open to let me pass. I walk to my car, pause to look at the building once more before getting in. I can see Matthew sitting in the red chair I was just in, Herc and him chatting together happily. Silently, I wish them both luck. Luck for the hope that Matthew will find what I found in Herc so many years ago, a friend, a mentor, maybe more? Maybe, just maybe, love.