The Haircut

September 22, 2020

The following is a story I wrote last month for a class on American Literature that I am teaching this year at The Lyceum. The moral of the story at the end is taken from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Once upon a time there was a man named Bob, who lived on the east side of a large, post-industrial American city which, for convenience’ sake, we may call Cleveland. Because a mysterious, deadly virus was then ravaging the world and causing mass hysteria, Bob had not been outside the doors of his house for many months; but one day, when the sun was shining and the sky was uncommonly blue, Bob decided to go outside. And, as he felt the warm sunlight upon his face and breathed in the fresh air and heard the birds singing and saw the chipmunks filling their eager faces with nuts, it occurred to Bob that he needed a haircut. So, putting a government-approved face mask over his mouth and nose, he walked down the road until he came to a barbershop; it was owned by a man known to all the townspeople as Uncle Luigi. Uncle Luigi had been working at the barbershop every day faithfully except Sundays and holidays for at least the past 75 years; no one really knew how old Uncle Luigi was, but he was of a very advanced age, and whether he could see or not was open to question; some said he could, but others were of the opinion that, after so many years in the business, he no longer had any need to; he was able to cut hair now by sheer intuition and habit, repeating mechanically the same actions, just as he would repeat to all the same jokes he had been telling since the Great Depression. When Bob entered the barbershop, since there were no other customers present, he was immediately ushered into the blue, swiveling barber’s chair, an apron was tied about his neck, and, after some perfunctory pleasantries and instructions from Bob about how he wanted his hair to be cut, Uncle Luigi set to work, chopping, combing, snipping, clipping, lathering, shaving, moving with a speed astonishing in a man of his age. Because Bob had not had a haircut for nearly six months, his hair had grown to about a foot in length, and, as his blond tresses now fell about him, drifting upon his apron and onto the floor, they reminded him of sheaves of wheat, seen from afar in a country field on a late summer’s day. But, as Bob was pleasantly contemplating this, remembering people he had known and places he had seen, he suddenly felt a sharp pain on the left side of his head. “Ouch!” said Bob, wincing; then, looking down at his apron, he saw there, horrified, a familiar object in an unfamiliar place. “My ear!” he exclaimed. “That’ll be 20 dollars,” said Uncle Luigi. Reluctantly, Bob paid Uncle Luigi the 20 dollars, without tipping him, wrapped his ear in a napkin, and silently walked out the door, vowing to himself never again to patronize this barbershop.

As he stepped out into the sunlight, he began wondering what to do about his ear. It still hurt; in fact, the pain was more noticeable now, a kind of dull throbbing accompanied by a steady effusion of blood. As he looked about, fortunately he saw that, next door to the barbershop, a new doctor’s office had opened. Stencilled on the window was the name “Theodosius Neanis, M.D., General Practitioner.” Bob entered the office. There was an air-conditioned waiting room, with padded chairs, potted artificial plants, nondescript geometrical paintings on the walls, and racks filled with copies of People magazine. The receptionist’s desk was entirely glass enclosed. Behind the desk a young doctor, who could not have been much older than 20, was busily engaged in a conversation with his secretary. Bob stood patiently at the window for a few minutes, then finally, to get the secretary’s attention, he tapped on the glass. Eventually she swiveled about in her chair, and opened the little hatch at the base of the window. “Yes,” she said, “can I help you?” Bob explained that he had just been at the barbershop next door, where the old barber Luigi had accidentally cut off his ear; it was bleeding pretty profusely, and he thought it needed to be attended to. The secretary turned about in her chair and looked at the doctor; he whispered something to her, then turned and walked back into his office. She turned again to Bob. “Are you already a patient of Dr. Neanis’s?” “No,” Bob replied, “this is my first visit here.” “And what insurance do you have?” Bob had to explain, with some embarrassment, that he did not have insurance, as such, but he was enrolled in a health costshare cooperative, which meant, essentially, that he would pay up front, and hope eventually to be reimbursed. As he was explaining this, he felt weaker and weaker. “Are you already registered in the Cleveland Clinic system? … Have you been tested yet for COVID-19?” The secretary’s words confused Bob, and seemed to be coming from a place farther and farther away; he tried to reply, but was unable to; the waiting room itself seemed to be both revolving and fading into unreality; eventually it disappeared entirely, and all Bob could see were green, pleasant fields with sheaves of wheat, glowing in the late summer’s sun.

Moral: Beware of the young doctor and the old barber. (Franklin, no. 86.)

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