Monday, May 4, 2009

A Rose in Sussex

Went down to the barber shop for a trim and to see Old Crusty. Lonnie lets him sweep up the hair and take out the garbage in exchange for a cot in the back, a decent lunch, and company during the day. He sings along with the radio and greets every customer by name. Some think Old Crusty's tetched but he's as bright as anybody up here, it's just that life's kicked him around and he's a little worse for wear.

Lonnie learned to barber in the service. He's clumsy with scissors and hardly has any feel for heads. Despite the array of cutting tools and stinky potions he uses, he can only give you three choices: short, shorter, or shaved. You want it cut fancier than that, go to Marie's Salon on 23. Lonnie's got big arms, a bull neck, and all sorts of tattoos. In the summer, when he wears his muscle shirt, you can make out a flying pig, a dragon, a yellow rose, and a mermaid with faded red lips. He keeps a .22 in the shop. Occasionally, if it gets slow in the afternoon, he'll have a beer and shoot at groundhogs across the street.

Sweet Lou's been goin to Lonnie for a long time. "Yeah, I know he doesn't do too good a job, but he's close, he's cheap, and he takes care of Old Crusty. There used to be another barber in town, but the business fell apart when his wife left him. I heard she took all his money and went to Florida."

Sweet Lou's been down at the shore most weekends, getting his condo ready for the season. He's always askin me to come down and spend a day with him. I ast him, "Why do I want to go to the shore when I got the lake right here?"

"Listen, John, I like the lake too, but it ain't the shore. In the summer, you can't compare the two -- when the ocean breeze comes in, you can smell the fresh seafood, and watch the pretty young women strollin down the boardwalk. It's heaven for a geezer like me. You should come down. Especially now, since you can't seem to find a job."

I thought to myself, you're right about that, but I ain't the only one. Wall Street may be bouncin back -- effin Free Market Boys don't care about people losin jobs, hell, they like it when people get canned. Cuttin payroll means lower costs means higher profits. But if you go down to the park any weekday now, you're gonna see all these men and women playin with their kids, and they weren't there last year. They were workin.

Old Crusty gave me a nod and a smile when I entered the shop. "Hi Poot, how ya doing?" The place was packed. Another sign of the times -- most of these guys work in construction. Deadsville these days. I counted six guys ahead of me and settled down with a book -- Robert Barnard's
Death by Sheer Torture. Funny how you can be sittin in a barbershop in North Jersey on a damp and crowded day and the next thing you know you're in a manor house in the English countryside surrounded by a nasty crew of eccentric Brits.

I was gettin into it when Old Crusty accidentally hit my leg with his broom. "Scuse me, sir. I dint mean it."

I looked up at him. "No problem. I know you didn't. Don't worry about it at all. Here...let me get up so you can get under the chair."

"What's that you're readin? A book?"

"Yup. It's a mystery set in England. Pretty funny too."

"I used to read but I don't any more," he said. "Books are too sad. Like
The Little Prince. Sometimes even the pictures make me cry."

"You're right about that one. Sometimes books make me cry too. Sometimes they make me laugh. Like this one." I held up the little Penguin paperback. "Not all books are sad. Books can make you feel all kinds of things."

"After I read
The Little Prince, I cried whenever I looked up and saw the stars."

With that he turned and went back to sweepin. The other guys in the shop stared at me. I heard one of them say, "Books. Ugh, they make you crazy." A couple of others chuckled. It only bothered me a little, after all, books
could make you crazy, if you let them. These guys had their ESPN and Maxim, their rifles and fishing gear. What the hell did they need books for? After all, the Big Thinkers who did read books screwed them out of their jobs, blew the economy, lost Vietnam and turned American cars into shite. Lonnie spoke up, “Aw, forget it, he’s just waitin for a haircut, like all you guys. I wouldn't worry about books makin me crazy, if I were you."

With that, everyone simmered down and the place got quiet. For me, though, the spell was broken. I couldn't go back to England no matter how hard I tried. Instead I thought about
The Little Prince and the foolish adults he meets who can't see how foolish they are. Goes for all of us. Or does it?

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