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Ear-Lowering

            It doesn’t look like much from the outside, just a little tiny building next to another little tiny building on a seldom-traveled dusty road, with an old railroad track (almost never used anymore) across the way on a raised gravel bed, parallel to a fence keeping a few trees and a lot of crab grass and nothing else from escaping.  It has two windows and two doors (only one was ever unlocked).

            In the bright heat of summer, mats of straw hang from the awning to block the sun.  The old air conditioner rattles steadily away, threatening to break loose from its braces.  On the window, stenciled letters proclaim the name and nature of the establishment, “Leon’s Barber Shop,” right next to the well-known symbol of the trade, red and white stripes faded with age.  The parking lot, really nothing more than an extension of the old road’s shoulder, seldom bears the weight of anything other than pickup trucks, most of which are equipped with gun racks, the purpose of which is rarely lost on their owners.

            This is an establishment for the “good ole boys,” the rural, weathered, ranch-hand and construction worker types who lay cable and drive steam shovels during the week and spend their weekends hunting and fishing.

            A handwritten sign often ornaments the door, warning patrons of Leon’s next “business” trip— he’d be in Vegas or on a riverboat on such and such a date for so long a time, so the shop would be closed, just so you know— in the proprietor’s scrawling hand.

            The door squeaks as it opens; not an ominous noise, more of an indifferent welcome.  The scissors stop then, and Leon utters his greeting— he knows all his customers by name, even if he does call everyone “Bubba”— before going back to whatever head he is trimming.

            Aside from the heavy atmosphere of decades of cigarette smoke, Leon is usually the first thing that strikes the attention of a newcomer.  He is a tall, elderly man, kindly in his manner and relaxed in motion; his face exudes a certain charm— his flashing teeth, beneath a white moustache and well-groomed white hair, when coupled with his bright, crinkled eyes, give him the appearance of a thin Santa Claus.  A simple gold chain circles his neck, half hidden by his blue barber’s shirt, the pocket of which bulges with the ever-present rectangular bulk of a half-full cigarette box.  The blue material is covered always in the trimmings of many carpets of hair, in all varieties of thickness and color.  The heavy creases of his grey pants clearly show the outlines of his legs, those lanky sticks of flesh, long and thin almost to the point of emaciation.  He wears black shoes, smartly polished— a trait only visible when the piles of cut hair are shaken from them— and socks to match.

            The shop itself often gives the impression that one has stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting; the barber chairs are genuine antiques, with original metal fittings and blue leather upholstery.  The front wall, the one with the windows, is lined with chairs, a motley of sagging armchairs and chairs without, some soft and others roughly padded.  A stool graces this wall, too, though it usually serves as a table.  At the far end of this wall is a large, high-backed wooden bench, burdened by a microwave and a coffeepot and strewn with magazines.  These last are a retrospective anachronism, displaying guns and hunting records from a dozen years ago on their yellowing pages.

            Leon adds to the Rockwellian ambience by talking softly as he snips.  His voice is quiet in its way— a slight sound much like a stick running lightly along a picket fence.  It flits along in its baritone staccato, covering a myriad of subjects, from sports (“how ‘bout them Astros?”), to politics (“Y’all heard what Clinton’s done now?”), to life in general.  He often pokes fun at his customers, many of whom have been coming for years— "you want a little more off the top?  If I take any more off the top, I’d have to be a brain surgeon!”-- and his customers take it happily, laughing with him even as they ruefully mourn their sun-polished scalps.

            His customers, the blue-collar redneck types, are loyal.  They come to talk and to get their hair cut, nothing more.  The daily copy of The Chronicle is often untouched, save perhaps for the sports section, although the classifieds, with their trucks and livestock for sale, are usually gone by mid-afternoon.

            The entire place is the epitome of rural, empty Texas.  Leon’s customers are white, calloused workers who do what they can to make a good living.  They graduated high school, but few went much farther.  They are war veterans, police officers, and auto mechanics.  They are raw and uncut, informal and ruggedly outspoken.  They smoke and drink and curse, and they go home to spend time with their wives and kids.  They are family folk, friendly and warm, no matter how rough around the edges.

            An educated, uninformed newcomer is hard-pressed not to comment on the general aura of backwoods ignorance.  His impression is, at first, supported by a brief glance at the front wall, with the Budweiser-can airplane and ratty “shop hours” sign hanging in the windows.  Even the tattered paper hanging near the door screams, “rustic!  Once in a while, though, the conversation turns thoughtful, and the city-boy in the chair is mildly surprised.

            Even so, he only has to look more closely at the wall for a testimony to the ability of these people to think.  There, in fading print on that cracking, yellowed paper, is an astonishingly astute thought, crystallized for all:

Good decisions come from wisdom.

Wisdom comes from experience.

Experience comes from bad decisions.

            Leon may be a bit out of the way, but his customers will swear that it was never a bad decision to get their hair cut in "Downtown" Cypress, across the road from the railroad tracks.

 

 

 

       Author's Note: Although Leon and his barber shop are undeniably real, I am forced to admit that my characterization of them here is in many ways greatly exaggerated. My first experiences with Leon's barber shop were long ago, when I was much younger, and everything seemed quite a bit larger than it actually was. Many of the perceptions here reflect my memories of those first visits, rather than what may actually be true. Even so, the yellowed paper and its wisdom does exist, along with all the lessons that may surround it.

 

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Copyright ©2000 Adam Rutledge