Settling in to a place that you intend to call home is something like landing an airplane or mooring a boat — it’s a process worked out in stages. Yesterday, I took a major step in the business of living somewhere new: I found a barber and got a haircut. I’ve already seen a local dentist and set up an appointment with an area physician, but these somewhat disorienting, mildly disconcerting adjustments don’t come close to the seismic psychic shift that settling on a new barber requires. I’ve been postponing the switch for some months now, primarily out of loyalty to Arlene, a hard-working mother of three who’s cared for my ever-thinning locks and sometimes-fragile ego for over a dozen years. For months after I’d moved north we carried on this crazy affair. I’d commute three hundred miles to southeastern Massachusetts to get a haircut, (and to take care of other business, of course), and Arlene would even come in on her day off to meet my crammed schedule. “This can’t go on,” we agreed. We both knew a pleasant thing had come to an end.
And so last night I drove down the peninsula to Coleman’s barber shop. Fellows around here get their hair cut at night because, for years, Coleman’s has only been open on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from five to eight o’clock. Coleman’s claims to be the oldest business in continuous operation in the same location in the town of Brooksville, Maine. For fifty-five years, a Coleman has been clipping and shaving away in a tiny shop by the side of the Coastal Road, one of the prettiest roadways in America, in my opinion.
Barbering has been a side-line profession for Ronald Coleman since he inherited the shop when his father fell ill and couldn’t keep things going. Ronald was going to close things down at that point, but his father’s customers wouldn’t let him. When evening services were no longer offered at the shop, they started showing up at Ronald’s house nearby on Sunday morning. They knew he wouldn’t be at his day-job then. And who could argue with the logic that getting a haircut when you need one is a simple matter of self-respect? Not Ronald, at least. He relented, re-opening the doors to his father’s shop as a “temporary arrangement.” That was thirty years ago.
When I walked through those doors last night, I stepped into a world I thought no longer existed. Surrounded by things I remembered from barber shops of long ago, I felt like a fourteen-year-old out for a Saturday morning trim at “Jimmy”s barber shop on Sumner Avenue in Springfield Massachusetts. There were the razor stropping straps dangling from the side of the chrome and porcelain barber’s chair. On the shelf was the fluted glass cylinder filled with blue liquid for disinfecting combs bearing the reassuring logo “Barbicide” for all to see. Nearby lay the silver clip for keeping the barber’s cape snug around your neck, an effective hedge against an itchy back and neck for the rest of the day. There’s even a clock on the back wall that’s all in reverse; you have to look through the barber’s mirror to tell what time it is. The framed mirror on the west wall is small as barbershop mirrors go, only about three by four feet, like one you might find in a Trappist monastery where the abbott insists on taking measures against the vanity of preening monks.
Some of the shop’s trimmings simply indicate that you are in Maine. You can hang your hat and coat on a stag’s rack and not worry about being cold because of the sizzling flames coming from the propane heater mounted on the north wall. This is clearly a male sanctum — the hunting, fishing and boating magazines piled a foot high on the table in the middle of the waiting area tell you that.
The entire shop measures no more than twelve feet wide by twenty feet long. It is, in fact, a recycled building. The compact wooden structure was originally built as a ticket and post office for steamboats plying the waters of the nearby Eggemoggin Reach. It was transported here from its original setting at the end of the stone pier where the steamers tied up. Everything about the place takes you back to another time. There are no chairs in this waiting room, only a single narrow bench painted chocolate brown that runs along the walls.
Stationed at the big chair is barber Ronald Coleman himself, a wiry, puckish man with a red baseball cap covering his head. Clearly, there’s little need in this community for a barber to use his own head as an advertisement for good grooming. When you go to Coleman’s for a fifteen-minute haircut, expect it to take a half-hour, especially if there’s no one waiting to get into the chair after you. Ronald, a born conversationalist, takes half the time you’re in the chair to trim your hair with precision; the other half he’ll spend illustrating his points and emphasizing his convictions with grandiloquent waves of the hair clippers. Right from the the start I knew what sort of haircut this would be. In answer to the question, “How would you like it cut?” I tried the old bromide, “Trim the sides and add some on the top.” Ronald didn’t miss a beat. Pointing to the evening’s clippings strewn across the concrete floor and turning to the cabinet he replied, “Hold on, I’m getting out the Elmer’s glue!”
Of the many things Ronald spoke of last night, one stood out — he told me what he likes best about what he does. “On those benches along the wall a lot of friendship happens,” he observed. “The regulars come back for haircuts more often than they need to. I think it’s a way of keeping up with their neighbors — hearing how someone’s family’s doing, what’s good and not so good in people’s lives. Sometimes all they’re looking for is the pleasure of a friendly argument. Things change a little in the summer; lots of folks from away get their haircut here, many coming year after year. Last August, two fellows who lived most of their lives in the same place in Maryland but never knew each other met over there on the benches while they were waiting their turn. They talked through two haircuts and were still going strong as they walked out the door together. Summer’s when the artists come by to ask if they can set up their easels outside and paint the place. We’re small, but I guess we’re scenic!” Ronald concluded.
What I got for my eight bucks plus a tip at Coleman’s was an everyman’s haircut, that is to say, it looks a lot like the typical trim worn by every man who ever lived through the nineteen-fifties. When I go back, I’m going to ask Ronald to keep a little more hair on my head when he’s done, but I don’t really expect to get a fashion statement the next time I’m due for a trim. I’ll probably get pretty much the same cut, and that’ll be OK with me. I think I know how these things go; you get asked what you want and are given what people can do. When I worked as a parish pastor, I would preach on a different biblical text every Sunday, but my kids would always insist that it sounded to them like the same sermon every week.
The standard clip wasn’t all I got from my first visit to Coleman’s barbershop. Last night I walked unsuspecting into a Hopper painting and was reminded in a two-hundred forty square-foot room of the majesty of the commonplace. Last evening I attended a graduate-level seminar on how to build community. In the course of getting my ears lowered, I encountered a winsome master of the art of hospitality. I found a place to which I could return just as long as Mr. Coleman’s and my own “temporary arrangements“ for life hold true.
It’s at moments like this, sitting in that tiny shop with its sounds and sights and smells, that I find myself inwardly repeating a mantra which is nothing more than a commentary on the obvious: “This is now, and it will not happen again. I am traveling through life in this world now. I have these neighbors, this set of friends, this lover, these protagonists. This is what I’ve been given, for now.” I can’t explain the mystery and the miracle of this holy ‘now.’ What I do know is that often I am so easily distracted by life that it keeps me from truly living. So, like someone at a county fair who’s prone to getting lost and needs frequently to consult those maps they post with the fat arrow telling me ‘You Are Here,’ I’ve taken to walking into barber shops at strange hours and reminding myself that I am, indeed, here. This is where I’ve settled at last. I have these stories to tell, these stories especially, these stories alone. And I find that it’s enough — more than enough — that I been given this now, this searing moment, these shining days, for a life.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012