Monday, April 28, 2003

Finding My Legs

One day I’ll find a decent place to have my hair cut in Berkeley. I know a good barber in Palo Alto, but in the eight months I just spent at home in California, I was in a rut. When I began to feel the hair pouring over my ears and neck, I usually popped in to Supercuts or one of those wretched places on Shattuck. Each time I’d say to myself, "For a buck more I could have hired a guy with a lawn mower and gotten a better haircut." And each time I’d think, "Can’t wait to get back to Mr. O., my barber in Hiratsuka."

I didn’t spend a lot of time pining for Japan those eight months. I was really happy in Berkeley and I lived in the present the whole time. And coming back to Japan has been very hard. The weather, the politics at work, the loss of Friday nights at shabbat, the Sunday nights at Linda’s, the day-to-day with Taku and with Jerry and Karl just around the corner. It’s been rough. Aside from time with the Harringtons and with my friend David’s family, it’s been lonely and empty.

Today I felt the hair begin to bury the legs of my glasses and I decided it was time to renew my acquaintance with old Mr. Oshima. For four years now he’s been cutting my hair, and unlike the five-minute hatchet jobs at "The Clip Joint," or whatever that place on Shattuck is called, a trip here to the barber is almost as good as a trip to the onsen.

Mr. O always meets me with a look on his face that suggests I’ve just made his day. The entire staff bows as I enter; Mr. O. escorts me to the barber chair, everyone else clicks their heels and takes their stations. One kid makes sure the towels are hot, another sets out the shaving mug and razor, a third prepares the combs and plugs in the hand massager. Mrs. O. bustles around and whisks the loose hairs from every corner of the room, and all attention is on me. It’s tailor made to make you feel like a king.

That’s the way it was. Today was different. I walked into the barber shop in the late afternoon. There was nobody there. Mrs. O. was in her apartment in the back of the shop and only one kid was holding down the fort. When he spotted me, he dashed back. Going for Mr. O, I thought. Have to get the old man to take care of sensei. They’ve got some sort of unspoken agreement that I get the boss man.

It’s not simply that I always get a first class haircut. I’m genuinely fond of the man and I enjoy our conversations. He’s well-informed about world events and I always learn something. He’s witty and charming and he’s genuinely fun to talk to, unlike most barbers who always talk more than I want to listen.

Today was different. Mrs. O. comes out, bows low to me and apologizes, "I’m sorry. Mr. O. isn’t here. Would you be willing to have the boy cut your hair?"

"No problem," I tell her. It really isn’t. The kid will do fine.

He’s nervous. Maybe I was a bit too hasty in agreeing. He’s a skinny kid with thick glasses. Hope he can see what he’s doing. Hope he can tell where my hairline ends and my ears begin when he’s got that razor in his hand.

I learned years ago that within the first two or three seconds a barber puts his hands on your head you know whether or not you’re going to get a good haircut. The kid puts me instantly at ease. We don’t talk. I don’t want to assume he has views on the war in Iraq and I don’t want to distract him. But the scissors are soon flying and the comb is running up and down the sides of my head as if he’s been doing this for thirty years. The kid is good.

Mr. O. never asks me about my preferences. He knows them. Learned them the very first time I went in there four years ago. But the kid asks me if the part goes here, if the back is high enough, if the sideburns are the way I like them. He wants to know about mousse. "Do I look like the few remaining hairs on the back of my head would benefit from mousse?" The question makes him turn red.

I try some conversation. I tell him how lousy the barbers are in Berkeley, and I realize I’m only making him more nervous. He’s really trying hard to get this right the first time so I won’t tell Mr. O. the day was a disaster. I’ve got to lighten up with the suggestion I’m a harsh judge of haircuts.

I’m in the chair for forty-five minutes. Forty minutes longer, in other words, than the Supercuts record. He stands back and I can see in his eyes he’s proud of his accomplishment. And he can see in my eyes that I’m in agreement. Mrs. O. is suddenly there to lift the gown and send me on my way. "Tell Mr. O. I’m sorry I missed him today," I tell her, hoping I don’t freak out the kid. "And tell him this kid is good!" Mrs. O. has a sudden sadness in her eyes. "My husband passed away in November," she says.

I’m struck dumb. I had just been sitting there wondering why I couldn’t remember the word for barber while I was talking to the kid. Now my vocabulary loss over the past eight months is even more serious. "I’m so sad," I say to her, hoping I don’t sound too insensitive. I can’t remember the fixed expression for "I’m sorry for your loss!"

I really am shocked. I know enough not to make this all about my reaction, though, so I say to the kid, "Tell me your name, so I’ll know to ask for you next time." He blushes again. It’s too much. His face has written all over it, "I’m not worthy that you should ask my name."

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a former tenant who has the most annoying habit of speaking constantly of his accomplishments. "After my success at Portland Junior College, I can pretty much write my own ticket to all the best educational institutions in the world," he writes. I alternate between feeling sorry for him for his insecurity and wanting to take him down a peg. Here things are so remarkably different. Here this shy nervous kid with the thick glasses who has just done such a good job is embarrassed at my compliments and I have to tone down or I’ll put him into a shock similar to the one I’m going through at the moment.

Three or four more comments on how sad I am. Why can’t I remember that damn expression! And what’s wrong with my head that "barber" won’t come to my tongue? I want so much to tell this woman what a good barber her husband was. "I used to enjoy those conversations so much," I tell her. She knows my fumbling is sincere. "He always looked forward to your coming," she says.

When I go out into the street, I’m confused and don’t know which way to turn. I realize I’m terribly shaken. I go across the street to the wine shop and buy a couple more of the bottles of French cabernet I got the other day. The shopkeeper says to me, "Glad to see you liked that. I knew you would!" I ask him if he can sell me a case at a discount. "Of course," he says. "And I know you don’t have a car, so why don’t you just buy what you need from time to time and I’ll sell you the individual bottles at the discount price.

I know this is a sneaky way to get me coming back, but right now I see only the charm of the small shopkeeper that characterizes this neighborhood. The family barbershop, the family wine shop. They’re still holding their own.

It sinks in that I’m home. These people treat me well. I want to come back to these places. I’m home again. I’m really home again.

I decide to stop at Starbuck’s for a cup of coffee in Hiratsuka station before catching the train for the 3-minute ride back to Oiso. I sit down with my latte, open my book on the battle in the Central Asian republics between the Islamic fundamentalists and the old Soviet guard, and I feel the tears coming into my eyes.

"Tokoya-San" says the little voice in my head. Mr. O. was my tokoya-san. The word is back and it doesn’t feel like it ever left any more.

I try to focus on Kazakhstan.

"Goshuushou-sama," the voice says. "I am heartily sorry for your loss."

Oiso, Japan
April 28, 2003