Sunday, April 13, 2008

Black bird

It’s been 89 days since my last haircut. I know because I distinctly remember my last one, two days before we left for Japan. It was supposed to be three days before, but my particular lady wasn’t working 90 days ago. She was working 89 days ago, so that’s when I got my haircut last. For someone whose hair can’t be trusted to behave past a certain length (it gets all eccentric and listens to Thelonious Monk) 89 days is an unforgiving amount of time. My cherry locks are now in tendrils around my ears and winding down the nape of my neck like that of a careless boy’s on summer vacation. It’s time. Papa needs a new do. Though I’ve put off cutting my hair for some time, I’ve actually been thinking about it for several weeks and mulling over just how to go about doing it. Not the actual style, but the experience. I’ve been planning the experience. Allow me to explain something about myself. In the depths of my body, among the guts and black stuff, lives this curious little goblin that enjoys placing me in unfamiliar and sometimes bazaar circumstances where I'm made to perform various rights of passage. Because, He tells me when I ask why I do the things I do. Because you’ve survived a ten day fast. Because you’ve eaten raw horse meat. Because you’ve been zipped up in a suitcase. He continues with increased enthusiasm. These ‘becauses’ are proof that you’re alive. Proof that you’re doing things other people are too chicken shit to do. Nobody can take these small triumphs from you, He says excitedly. Not me, not anybody. Not ever. Fair enough, I say, but couldn’t drinking cobra blood in Cambodia kill me? I nod toward a webpage I have pulled up and am researching for a planned trip to Southeast Asia. Maybe, the goblin says. And then we share an awkward silence. So anyway, the goblin tells me that my first haircut in Japan is an opportunity to add yet another notch on my belt of interesting experiences, so for several weeks I have been scouring Numazu city for the perfect place. While busy streets are peppered with several high-end salons, the labyrinthine side streets of Japan are home to many tiny, much more intimate barbershops. This has been ground zero of my search, and the other day I cruised past a small shop that looked particularly intriguing. At the base of a crumbling two-story building, rooms for rent on the second floor, in what looks like a modified one-car garage, sits a small barbershop. It’s distinguishable only by the rotating candy striped windmill hanging from the awning. Bloody perfect. So, this afternoon upon finally pulling myself from a deathlike ten-hour beer, tequila and wine-induced slumber, I head out for my long overdue trimming. After parking my yellow bicycle alongside a drainage area, I open the door to the shop and duck in to find only one chair with a teenage boy seated in it and an old man in a surgical mask standing over him administering a shaving. “Konnichiwa,” I say, and the old man responds with a slight bow. The boy keeps his eyes shut. “Uh, haircut?” I ask removing my hat and making scissor motions through my Ronald McDonald tresses. “Sumimasen,” the old man says and makes an X with his forearms, Japanese body language for no. “Gomenasai, gomenasai, sumimasen, gomenasai.” I interpret all this to mean that he’s closing soon and not taking any more customers, so I thank him and leave, despondent but understanding. Well shit, I think once outside. I cannot, simply cannot, go another week without a haircut. It’s out of the question. My students aren’t looking me in the eye anymore when I speak to them. Instead, they’re focusing their attention on my disorderly curls as if inspecting my aura, and it’s making me uncomfortable. With a stiff resolve, I climb back on my bike and pledge to duck into the first dingy, cramped barber shop I happen across. Meandering through the side streets, it doesn’t take long, and a matter of minutes later I’m leaning my bike against the side of someone’s home and entering a building with rotating candy stripes trumpeting skyward like a unicorn’s horn. The shop is wedged between two houses and is larger than the previous, having several chairs all wrapped in vintage red leather. There are no customers, two men are apparently on duty, though. The first is an elderly gentleman with wilting eyelids like two collapsed tents. He doesn’t seem to notice as I enter. “Irashaimase,” says the second man, younger than the first, quite possibly his son. “Konnichiwa.” I remove my cap again and jab my scissored fingers into my curls. “Haircut?” “Hai, dozo.” He motions toward one of the chairs. I do as instructed and sit down, then produce a picture from my bag – one of my sister and I at my brother-in-law’s birthday dinner – that I feel I look particularly dashing in and point. “Like this. Same.” “Same,” he repeats and nods, fingering the curls at the nape of my neck and making a sour face. “Shorter.” “Hai, shorter.” “Hai.” And with that he begins misting my hair with a pleasant, albeit grandfatherly smelling tonic from a contraption attached to a hose. Then he goes to work. From the reflection in the mirror I see a small collection of Mickey memorabilia and a Furby doll. A soccer game is playing on TV. Some manner of black bird is caged and clucking by the door. The old man seems to be asleep. The cut goes off without incident. The barber is quite meticulous, I must say. With an impressive attention to detail, he spends much of his time on my hairline, around my ears and neck, where attention is needed most. He is a gardener with a talent for edging, and I am the proud owner of a neatly manicured lawn. “Just cut?” He brushes my forehead and neck with a duster when finished. “Shave?” I rub my cheeks and raise my eyebrows inquiringly. “Hai.” Suddenly the elderly gent appears at my side and sweeps my smock away and replaces it with a red and white-checkered bib. I am swiftly tilted back, and the younger man massages my face with several coatings of various ointments, preparing my hair follicles and making them plump and ripe for shaving. Then comes the lather, then the blade. His strokes are short and precise. Economical and calculated – quite unlike the careless sweeping slashes I make while shaving in the shower. I have always wanted a professional shave, and am thrilled to be on my back staring up at this barber’s water stained ceiling. I’m suddenly struck, however – the barber’s blade against my throat – remembering a short story I read in Junior High. Can’t remember the title nor the author, but it was about a simple wartime barber who is put into an extraordinary position when the General of an occupying army stops in for a shave. The story is the barber’s internal deliberation of whether or not to take the General’s life. I can’t remember how it ended. The trust I’m giving this barber, though, is quite profound when you think about it, and how do I know he’s not deliberating just as the barber in the story was? Maybe he views English teachers as an occupying force, Generals of a colloquial army. Maybe killing me could be his contribution to his country – a spontaneous and misguided attempt to regain Japanese sovereignty, we all have our part to do, right, it’s like recycling or voting. Maybe he doesn’t care for Americans or white people in general. Maybe he’s just always been curious about murder and lacks momentary self-control. What’s to stop him from slicing my throat and letting me bleed out, wriggling in a puddle of my own chocolaty, syrupy blood, beneath his small collection of Mickey memorabilia? Just go to sleep, go to sleep forever, he’ll whisper in my ear, and I’ll close my eyes and do as I’m told. My imagination is reeling at the possibilities. I’ve always had a slight preoccupation with how I will die. My death needn’t be valiant nor noble, just something interesting and climactic. I’m afraid that I’ll go in a stupid way, you know, like choking on pancakes or something. How shitty would that be? What’s the point in living if it doesn’t conclude with a bang and a pow and make other deaths jealous and say holy shit, did you just see that? But on reflection, I reckon falling to the blade of a racist Japanese barber would suit me just fine, so I say a quick prayer of repentance for the unspeakable things I’ve done and resign myself to my fate. In the end, the barber doesn’t murder me. And he actually gives a pretty nice cut and shave. I give him 3,000 yen for services rendered – an acceptable price to pay for living another day – deliver a slight bow and say, “Arigato gozaimashita,” before turning to leave. On my way out, I look down at the black bird, who is eyeing me and clinging to the bars of his cage with his talons. His tongue bobs inside his beak like a polished black pearl. He clucks once and then says to me in the clearest of voices, “Arigato gozaimashita.” Grin. Talking birds. Now that’s how you conclude a haircut. And a blog entry.

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