Parker Avenue was quiet except for the steady patter of the rain outside, and the occasional distant rumble of thunder. It was a dark gray day and there was only one establishment still open on the street. The customers of the barber shop sat and read magazines and squirmed awkwardly in their uncomfortable plastic seats. No one removed his hat. No one made eye contact. And no one spoke. It was an unwritten law. There was always religious silence while Jack cut someone’s hair. All that could be heard in the barbershop was the snipping of the scissors from the back of the shop. The snipping stopped. Everyone looked up expectantly. The snipping resumed after a murmured exchange. The men in the waiting room sighed and went back to their magazines. Jack was different from other barbers. He did not believe in small talk while the haircut was taking place. He was a level above.
Jack considered his job a work of mercy. He saved men’s reputations and personal respect. He was a fixer.
The bell rang as the door burst open, making everyone jump. Clive slammed the door behind him against the pouring rain. He was a personal friend of Jack, and, like many, he never thought that he’d need his help. But he was wrong. They all were.
His hat and coat were dripping, but he didn’t remove his ski cap to wring it out. He took off his scarf and wiped his wet face on his sleeve before his eyes took in the group of men already waiting. There was an evident lack of open chairs. He sighed and put his scarf back on again. Those waiting cast him sympathetic glances.
“Just popped in to say hello, Jack!” Clive shouted unnecessarily to the back of the shop. His voice echoed in the silent shop and everyone winced. The snipping ceased for a moment in reply. Jack would not verbally reply to anything while cutting someone’s hair, but his brief pause constituted an acknowledgment and return greeting. Clive added, “Hello,” quietly to all the waiting customers and darted back out into the street in search of another way to salvation. The bell dinged, and silence returned to the barbershop. The men tried to concentrate on their magazines, usually used for picking a haircut in most other barbershops. But not Jack’s. Jack was the one who decided what to do with whatever mess he got.
The snipping stopped again and the group looked up nervously and expectantly. There was a short silence and then a man appeared from the back room and came back to the waiting room. He nervously collected his umbrella and scarf and went out into the rain with an air of apprehension. You never knew what Jack’s haircuts looked like until you got home. There were no mirrors in the shop.
Jack had too much respect for his own skill and his customers’ dignity.
After the bell dinged behind the last customer Jack came to the front with his list. “Gary Smith,” he read, and looked up expectantly. A teenager in a Yankees baseball cap stood up. Jack gestured him to the back room and cast an almost motherly glance over the cowed group of men who had come to him as their last resort. They shifted in their seats and wished he wouldn’t make eye contact. They all knew that Jack was the only one who could help them, but they didn’t want to acknowledge or be personal about it. Jack’s place was confidential. You came there in dire need, did the deed, and left with no one the wiser. He would never call you with advertising, and you would hopefully never have to admit to anyone that you’d ever heard of this specific shop.
Jack understood their embarrassment. The feeling that these men created hung heavy in the air of the barbershop every day. That was what it was for. But it gave him a certain sense of superiority to scope out his customers. He knew they relied on him for salvation. And they knew he knew it.
The teenager, Gary, settled uneasily into the too-big barber’s chair, looking instinctively for the mirror. He’d gotten the address for this place from a friend, the only friend he’d told in his time of panic and desperation. That kind of furtive underground was the usual method men found their way to Jack’s shop.
Jack fluidly draped himself into his easy chair facing Gary and gestured for him to remove his cap. Jack spoke as little as possible. It increased the professionality of his shop’s confidential reputation. It also helped control emotions.
The teenager slowly and reluctantly reached his hand up to his hat. He hated the Yankees, in fact he hated baseball in general, but his brother’s old cap was his only form of protection.
Gary took off the baseball cap.
Jack kept an extremely impassive face. Outwardly, he might as well have been made of stone. Inwardly, he was dying. It was bad. It was really, really bad.
“Hm...” he exhaled, a tone higher and slightly shakier than usual, almost as if he was suppressing a laugh, although that was unimaginable for Jack. Gary squirmed and avoided eye contact. Jack studied him a moment more, and then suddenly leapt up and into action.
The snipping of the scissors became audible to the group in the waiting room. They still squirmed and avoided eye contact, but no one checked his watch. They would every one of them be here for as long as it took. They couldn’t just leave Jack’s shop to find a shorter line elsewhere. They had already been elsewhere. They knew they couldn’t go back out into the world until Jack fixed them.
Some of them had been in the waiting room for a full hour, but everyone still sat quietly with his coat on. Jack left the heater off so that no one would be driven by the heat to take off his hat against his better judgement. Jack was considerate that way.
Eventually the constant snipping ceased and the teenager emerged, slightly more relaxed than he had been before. Being in a room with Jack holding a pair of scissors had a certain calming effect. It was reassuring how capable he was. A grateful customer had once told Jack that if he was British, he’d be a butler. Jack silently held the opinion that if he was British, he would be the stern archangel of restoring dignity and calm that he currently was.
The teenager left, swinging his hat in his hand. He had the appearance of one still slightly uncertain, but with a little hope restored to him that perhaps his life was not so entirely destroyed as it seemed.
Jack summoned the next of the group, one of the ones who had been soaking in the atmosphere of shame and fear for over an hour. The others twitched and waited as Jack did his stuff on the lucky one. They could wait. No one could leave with self-respect unless he waited.