This Tuesday I woke up at three in the morning, cleaned up, had breakfast and coffee, and got to the Tucson International Airport by 4:30. At 5:40 the plane left nonstop for Chicago. It was quite a shock to go from warm, quiet, dark Tucson and in a matter of a few hours arrive in cool, loud, daytime Chicago. Even the train from the airport was clunky, jolting, and noisy. I exited at the Jackson station downtown to be greeted by slightly overcast skies with a pleasant crispness to the air. My idea was to walk a couple miles east to my hotel in Chinatown. I chose the hotel because it was affordable, got good reviews, and was a mile away from the optometry conference I was attending.
I prefer to walk whenever possible. I like to get the feel of a place. The best way to do that is to be on foot or in certain situations, on a bike.
As I walked east, dense downtown high rises with fancy restaurants, cafes, and bars gave way to light industrial businesses, large residential buildings, and a train relay and transfer station to the south. As I walked, the multi-ethnic diversity of faces and colors slowly changed to mostly Black residents. I was hungry and was looking for a place to eat lunch when I passed the Studio 19 Hair Salon with a sign showing a woman facing left, a man facing right, with the classic red and blue spiral on a white cylinder. I popped my head into the open door and asked if I could get a haircut. A young and friendly African American woman smiled and said, “Sure, I’ll let the stylist know.“
I took a seat near the window. The woman in front of me was getting some kind of treatment. It looked like her naturally black hair had been bleached blonde and now was being dyed red. Two televisions were going, each loud and on different stations. A few minutes later a man walked in, friendly, smiling, wearing an African Dashiki with a black goatee extending a couple inches from his chin. He greeted me warmly and invited me to sit in the barber’s chair. “How much is it? I asked. “Uh, thirty bucks. Hi, I’m Nathan.” “I’m Dan. Good to meet you. Yeah, that’s fine,” I said, and sat down. “How do you want it?” he asked. “I don’t know, just shorter,” I said. “I don’t like it when they cut it straight across in the back. Just follow the natural hair line, but shorter,” I added. “You mean, you want it rounded?” he said. “No, I don’t want it straight or rounded, just shorter and along the natural hair line,” I said. “Okay, got it,” he said. “You want me to trim your beard too?” he asked. “Sure,” I said.
He started in the top and back with an electric razor. I’ve had my hair cut countless times and by far the most common way to go is a scissor cut, with perhaps an electric razor along the edges. But he was passing the razor in wide swaths. It felt odd. At one point the razor grabbed a chunk of hair and came to a stop. He pulled back, regrouped, and then kept going. I could tell he was struggling but I sensed he was sincerely trying to do a good job. I wasn’t worried. I felt that what would be, would be. Whatever happened, if I didn’t like it, it would grow back.
Slowly, he seemed to find his groove. He moved with more confidence. I wondered if I smelled cannabis on his shirt. “Ha,” he said, “We’re gonna do something different here, something you probably have never seen before.” “Okay,” I said, “I trust you.”
Nathan’s phone rang. He put down the razor, “Hey baby,” he said in a deep seductive voice. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Well, come on by baby. I’m just here doing a hair cut,” he said as he put down the phone and picked up the razor again.
“That sounded like your girlfriend. Is that right?,” I asked. “Yeah, that’s right. She’ll be here soon. “You married or got a girlfriend?” he asked “I’ve been seeing someone but it’s not working out. I’m pretty sure we just broke up,” I replied. “She probably wants to get married, right? They always want to get married. I’ve been dating Rita for five years. She’s always be like why you gotta talk with those other girls when you got me? And then there are some trust issues, but that’s my fault,” he said. “No,” I said, “The woman I was dating does not want to get married. I am sure of that. She wants to be independent.” “Are you sure she doesn’t want to get married?” He said. “Yes, I am absolutely sure,” I replied. Nathan kept moving the razor over my head.
“How long are you in Chicago?” he asked. “Five days,” I replied. “Doing anything for fun?” he said. “I’m not sure. I will be pretty busy. Anything going on?” I said. Nathan got excited and put down the razor. “This is what you do. You got an iPhone? He asked. “I have a phone but it’s an Android,” I said. “You got Facebook on it?” “Yes,” I said. He grabbed his iPhone and showed me his Facebook page. “You press here, then here, see here it says events?” he said. “Yes, I see” “Now look,” he said, “Here’s a list of things to do this week.”
I looked at the events and I saw a list of three or four. Every event showed a photo of an attractive Black woman or group of people having fun. The first was a woman in a skimpy dress with a champagne glass. “Look right here. This bar is just around the corner. Ladies night tonight. That’s a good one. Ah, and here’s another,” he said. He scrolled down and it read, “All Black Yacht Party.” I looked in his eyes to see if he was joking or saw the humor in what was happening. Nathan was very excited about showing me how to have a good time. He thought it would be a good idea for me go to an all Black party on a boat where I knew absolutely no one. I admired his enthusiasm.
Nathan picked up the razor again and went back at it. He was doing very detailed edging along the sideburns and then the beard. He was an artist at work, paying great attention. He must have spent, I don’t know, twenty or thirty minutes on it.
At this point an attractive woman walked in and sauntered by in blonde suede high heel boots, the short ones, wearing tight capris and a business-style blouse buttoned all the way up. “Hey baby,” Nathan said, once again in his deep seductive voice. She sat down a few yards away in the corner of the shop and brought out her phone. She had black straightened hair, just above shoulder length, and wore metal rimmed glasses.
Nathan handed me a mirror. “Let’s see what we got here,” he said. He dropped the barber’s bib and rotated the chair to the side. I liked what I saw. He stepped back and took a look. “Oh wait, I’ve got to shape the back right there,” he said, pointing. He picked up the electric razor again, for thirty seconds, ran it across the back of my head once again. I looked down and saw a lot of white, fluffy hair on the floor. “There we go,” he said, “it’s just right now.” He put some shaving cream on the edge of my beard and used a straight razor to clean up the sides. “Perfect,” he said, and it was.
Rita came over and stood by the chair. “Sorry, baby, that it took so long,” he said to her. I said hello and she said hi. I handed Nathan two twenties, thanked him, and headed out the door. As I was leaving I heard him say, “Let’s go get something to eat.”
It had clouded up a little since I had entered the barber shop. A cool breeze had picked up from the north, from Lake Michigan a mile away. I continued walking east to my hotel in Chinatown, looking once again for a place to have lunch.