Friday, June 7, 2002

The Barber from Puyarim

I’ve found that there’s no better way to get to know a place than to visit the local barber shop. That was probably more true 40 years ago before the advent of superclipbestcut salons that roll you in and sit you in front of whoknowswho, but then Las Piedras Island strives to be an America of 40 years ago so the maxim holds true here. It’s a skewed view from behind the barber’s chair, and there are no doubt more comprehensive and perhaps more accurate assessments of a community, but none more frank.
To tell the truth, I know this more through anecdote and hearsay than personal experience. I tend towards taciturn in the barber’s chair. I had a consistent hair-cutter in San Francisco named Annie who laughed because I frequently napped while she worked, which could be blamed on her conversation skills as much as my sleep schedule. The combination of a speech impediment and English as a second language made for dialogue like that between dentist and patient, were she the patient.
Language can be overrated, though. I’ve had some great haircuts, and learned a great deal, in countries where I did not speak the native tongue. I had a haircut in Florence where the only instruction I could offer was “Corte,” and then sat back, watched and listened while a scene from some unwritten Italian movie took place before my eyes. Men, and only men, walked in, sat down, stood up, spoke, gesticulated, and generally just conversed for what could have been the most amusing, albeit completely incomprehensible, 20 minutes of screenplay I’d ever witnessed. In Seoul, I got a haircut from a barber done up in what looked like a surgeon’s coat while a staff of assistants took pains to offer assistance. Scissors and shears were handed back and forth like scalpels and swabs. And before I was allowed to leave, strips of tape were used to make sure every last shred of cut hair was removed from where it had fallen onto my clothes.
There are two “Barber Shops” on Las Piedras Island and they are across the street from each other on the main drag. One services children and the other chases them out. I went to the one that cuts children’s hair not because I am still a child at heart, nor because I like the name (Chuck was the name of the barber who first cut my hair and to whom I owed allegiance until I moved away from my hometown, and “Chuck’s Barber Shop” is the name of one such business here on the island), but simply because there was a parking spot in front of Randy’s Barber Shop and sometimes listening to fate rather than enforcing your will on events can be fun. It was in Randy’s that I met the Barber from Puyarim.
I will try to resist the temptation to insert more character than really exists into the Barber from Puyarim, but he comes from a place that has assumed mythical proportions in my imagination and he performs with such grace and flair that I’m afraid all my efforts to diminish his stature will fail. He’s an exceptionally ordinary looking man, just over six feet with nondescript brown hair, and yet when he turns on that electric razor and dances around behind the chair flashing and flipping he is a veritable Baryshnikov. He has this move where he dips as he clips then flicks his wrist so tufts of hair fly free from the cuttee and float to the floor (thereby negating the need for a staff of young Asian women to pluck hairs from his client’s clothes) which boggles the senses. He works fast and he talks fast. I was afraid to say too much dare I upset his rhythm. I told him I had recently moved here from the Bay Area and asked if he was from the island, which is how I found out he was from Puyarim.
Now, I had heard of “Prim” before except I didn’t know it was Puyarim. Puyarim is pronounced “Prim” and means laughing waters in the native language of the Puyallam tribe. I had been told it was sunny there and they had good golf courses. My barber confirmed this, “Yup, only 12 inches of rain per year in the city center. Of course it goes up an inch every mile you get away from there, until you hit 112 inches a year in the Olympic national forest. Lots of pilots retire there. They call it the Blue Hole because it’s in the rainshadow of the Olympics and they know from experience that there’s a lot of blue sky up there.”
To which I replied, “Hmm.” He went on cutting and talking and I really didn’t see any need to interrupt, except for that occasional “Hmm,” of recognition so he’d know I was still awake. And, I was truly awake. The Barber from Puyarim was no Annie, he had manifold skills. It was such a pleasure to just sit there and watch and listen that I was almost disappointed with the short duration of the experience.
“So you just moved here, huh? From California, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that story. Well, let me tell you this ain’t LA and it certainly ain’t San Fran-cisco.” He really did separate those two syllables. I Hmm’d. “You’re damn near off the map here, and you never know what to expect when you start looking over the edge.”
His words were vaguely ominous, but he glossed over them with more entertaining prattle about camping and hiking and the sanctity of our forests. He was a pleasant, engaging guy who expressed an affinity for the land and mankind’s place in it and our role in protecting it - not in so many words, and interspersed with the metallic rasp of snipping scissors, but that was the general drift.
I find myself now hoping my hair will grow faster so I can return for another performance without appearing too much like a groupie. How embarrassed I’d be if he took a look at my hair and dismissed me like a bothered rock star, “Come back when you need it, pal, can’t you see I’ve got real work to do.”
It was in this attitude of great admiration and sincere appreciation for work well done that I encountered him not two days later at the Department of Licensing. Soo and I had gone to take our Washington State driver’s test and hopefully get our licenses. I didn’t recognize him at first. Perhaps because I was flush with the success of acing my test, or perhaps it was because the Barber of Puyarim was sitting and I was standing, (an inversion of our usual postures), either way I nearly walked right past him. We did make eye contact, though, and he gave me a nod of recognition. I said, “Hey, how are you?” And, he replied, and this has given cause for hours of speculation, “Great, I’m getting my license back.”
What could this mean? Could the Barber from Puyarim have lost his driver’s license? And what might have caused him to lose his license? My mind raced, might the Barber from Puyarim have been driving while intoxicated? And, if this were true, what might be the implications of such self-destructive behavior? Might he meet a fate similar to other legendary yet tragically misunderstood artists, a Jimi Hendrix drug overdose or a Jackson Pollack car crash…
Oddly enough, that started me thinking about employment issues, I don’t know why (he writes sarcastically after listening to a voicemail from a recruiter explaining why some PR agency still doesn’t want to talk to him). What validation do we receive from our jobs, what sense of purpose? Coming from the perspective of someone who has not had a real job for almost a year now, and whose self-esteem teeters on every unanswered email, every resume submission that passes unrecognized, it’s not rocket science when I say, a job means more than money. I’m sure every rocket scientist that reads that will feel just a little bit smarter, just a little bit more sure of himself (or herself, of course), and will no doubt be validated in his (or her) career choice. But then what happens to the rocket scientist if he (or she) gets fired, if there are cutbacks and the world just doesn’t need as many rocket scientists anymore. What would happen if he (or she) had to learn a new trade, become a barber (or a beautician), for instance. Now I’m not saying the Barber from Puyarim was a rocket scientist, but it’s not such a far stretch to see where I’m going with this. Or maybe it is. Maybe I’m the only one who spends his time thinking about barbers and employment and what would happen if the former were treated like rock stars instead of, well, instead of like barbers. Maybe the Barber from Puyarim isn’t happy being just a barber (and maybe that’s exactly how he says it, “I’m just a barber on Las Piedras Island, cutting the hair of little brats and weird unemployed guys who lost their jobs in Silicon Valley and now sit around moping and writing stupid crap.” [OK, just focus on the “just” part]). So, maybe after he finishes work he goes and drinks away his feelings of inadequacy at the local dive bar, squandering his tip money overtipping the waitress who’ll never go home with him because he’s irretrievably unhappy, and, afterall just a barber. But, what a barber!
So, I ask you, would you rather be really good at something deemed by society or your father or whomever else you listen to, to be insignificant, or would you rather be average at something respectable and earn a decent wage. The next question, what if you were only really good at writing self-indulgent drivel that nobody else could give a flying fuck about.

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