What Delilah Didn’t Understand

This is the barbershop that the Old Man has been frequenting for the last 20 years.  It’s part of a chain, staffed by young women, who move briskly through their work while exchanging pleasantries and chatter with each other and sometimes with their customers.  The main attraction for the Old Man is that he doesn’t have to make an appointment—it’s not a doctor’s office, for god’s sake—and the service is cheap.

He can’t bring himself to call it a hair cutting salon or any of the fancy names people use these days.  The thought of spending $50 or $60 at a salon is repugnant to him.  He knows women who take their little children—like their hair “style” really matters—and bully their husbands into salon treatments.  Not his kind of people.

Since he began to noticeably age, the Old Man has been getting a buzz cut, which is a lot like the crew cuts he got as a boy.  Now he likes them because they are extremely easy to maintain, requiring no care at all, actually, and because they give him the tough look that he favors.  All through the years women have told him they like a softer look.  One even wanted him to put some pounds on his belly.  Talk about repugnant.  But now as then, the Old Man prefers the hard, jaw-and-cheek-bone-prominent look that is highlighted by the buzz cut.

No amount of insight and maturation can compete with the dictates of the old locker rooms, the gatherings of boys and young men that so colored his youth.  The boys were merciless with anyone, boy, girl, or grownup, who showed any accumulation of fat.  They cultivated a hard guy look—Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, John Wayne—those kind of men.  Even though the Old Man considered himself sensitive and, as a teenager, often hung out with girls, so they could talk about feelings and books—even though he honored his feelings, he preferred the hard look that betrayed none of them.

As Marci, the hair cutter, neared the end, trimming his eyebrows—“They’re a little bushy, don’t you think?”—and his ears—“That’s what older fellows need”—he makes some faces, alternately hardening and softening his expressions and, making sure the beginnings of a double chin are hidden, settles on one that is engaged but uncommitted.  In that state, a memory slipped into view.

The Old Man was ten.  He’d just finished a race against his friends Kevin and Angelo.  The three of them were the fastest kids in the class and often raced, mostly for the fun of it but partly to show off.  As he walked back from the finish line, he came upon one of the school toughs—his moniker was, in fact, Toughie Rizzuto—beating up on one of the smallest kids in the class.  Without thinking, the still-young Old Man—his name was Sam—jumped the tough and they fought it out.  That meant they pushed and shoved a bit, warning the other not to try anything too bad, and kept snarls on their faces.  There wasn’t a real punch thrown.

But that fight was one of the most important events of the Old Man’s life.  The school was divided equally among Irish, Jewish, and Italian kids, of whom the Italians were the toughest.  When they gathered, they gathered in gangs.  When the Irish and Jewish kids gathered, it was in groups.  The Irish kids lived south of the school.  The Jewish kids, north.  The Italian families lived across the creek, which served as a stern boundary.  No one was supposed to cross the stream into Italian territory.  Or else they’d be beaten up.

But Sam crossed it all the time.  He loved balancing on the trees, like a tightrope walker, that had fallen across the stream during the Hurricane of 1954.  He loved, even more, daring anyone on the dreaded other side to catch him.  Sam figured that he could outrun any of the Italian kids, even Angelo, if need be.  His friends warned him and warned him, but Sam kept crossing the stream into the Italian forest. Angelo knew.  It was a secret and a joke between them.  Maybe a bond between them.

In any case, Sam’s performance that fifth grade day formed and consolidated his reputation among the Italian gangs:  “Don’t mess with Sam.”  And it wasn’t just that Sam might hurt someone.  It was because his willingness to fight made him one of them.  An honorary Italian.

The membership bought him years and years of cover.  It didn’t matter if he talked with girls or that he was an egghead—that’s what kids who studied and went to the “advanced” classes were called.  They kidded him about that but what they were really saying was, “That’s just Sam.  What can you do?”  They didn’t even seem to mind that, even adopted him as their pet egghead, though, with the exception of Angelo, Sam didn’t spend his free time with them.  The adoption was symbolic.

By junior high school, they were together on the football and basketball teams.  No problem being teammates.  That was part of the code that guys lived by.  The teams were like another gang and in that place, Sam and the Italian boys were joined at the hip.

But looking back, Sam was pretty sure it was The Fight—way back in fifth grade—that  made his reputation.  He was OK.  He was tough.

For years, maybe decades, that agreement gave him a sense of security.  As an adult, he’d meander through tough city streets feeling safe.  He wasn’t a fighter and couldn’t really defend himself against street kids, who practiced the martial arts every day.  And outsiders might say that he wasn’t that strong, though Sam thought he was.  It wasn’t until he was about 45, when a friend who was a Tae Kwon Do expert told Sam that he wouldn’t stand a chance with a practiced fighter that Sam actually let that reality in.  But even then, he still felt protected somehow by the verdict of the Italian gang in 1954.

With college, Sam’s hair began a circuitous path, possibly in search of the strength he had known as a youth.  During college, it got longer—and longer still during graduate school.  That led to years of long and kinky hair, what was then called a jewfro.  The Jewfro, in particular, earned his wife’s resounding approval.  But even the jewfro eventually fell to shorter hair.  Middle age brought the type of cut that could be brushed and given a part.  That was an intermediary stage.  With each few years, Sam’s grew shorter and shorter until it culminated in its present day buzz cut, which was a short as it could be without making him bald.

When his haircut is complete, he glances at the mirror, squares his shoulders, and energetically walks out of the shop to his “muscle car,” a gray Toyota Camry.  .

 

Advertisements