It was time for a haircut. I’ve been to this barber before and was impressed by his old-style professionalism. His wealth of local knowledge was another drawcard.
The narrow alley to his shop was almost void of any pedestrian traffic, and as I walked into his shop I found the old man sitting on an old leather couch, bent forward as he read the daily newspaper. Or had he nodded off?
“Do you have time to cut my hair today?” I asked.
“My customers have deserted me. I’ve been open for two hours already and no one has come in yet.”
I remembered seeing the hand-written sign out on the kerb. “Barber open Sundays and Tuesdays. 9.00am – Noon.” The letters in different colours of chalk seemed to be written by a hand who knew the spelling, but lost its steadiness between points.
“Well, then I’m the lucky guy today,” and followed his gesture to sit in the grand old leather chair with shiny steel lattice footrest.
In front of me an array of scissors, combs and brushes were neatly arranged on dark green narrow pieces of towels.
He took my glasses off, carefully collapsed the sides and rested them on an open space on the towels.
The mirror in front of my reflected the face of a man well over seventy behind me.
“I’ve been in this business for more than forty five years now. I choose to keep working, but have cut it back to two days per week. I’m seventy seven this year.”
The way he selected and handled the scissors surely tells the story of a master of the trade.
“How do you want me to cut it?”
“There’s not much on top, but don’t cut the rest too short, thanks.”
He draped the barber’s mantle over my shoulder, took a sheet of paper towel, folded it neatly and tucked it between the mantle and my neck before he pulled the velcro tight.
With remarkable speed he sniped-sniped-sniped the scissors – all in the air. That was just the warm-up.
“I used to have enough customers to have the shop open for six days a week. People came in from the smaller towns too, but they have deserted me. I wonder if I should just shut the doors and walk away.”
I tried to comfort him. “May people do not even cut their hair these days; the styles changed. It’s become fashion to have one’s hair unkempt. And others just do it themselves. You can tell by the untidiness of the young folk’s hair, can’t you.”
He was not fishing for comfort, neither was he looking for an solution to his problem.
For a while the only sound was the clicking of the blades of the scissors.
He broke the silence by telling me and abbreviated version of his life story. After migrating from Italy following the war, the two newly weds settled in one of our of capital cities, but later, for the good of the two children, they decided to move out to our town.
“It was good then. It took some time to get to know people, but we were well received. And the kids loved it.”
He carefully selected another pair of scissors, and even chose another comb.
“They finished school and left to go back to the big smoke, leaving us alone.”
Alone. Deserted. The words rang in my ears.
From what I saw in the mirror he should have been finished by now. But there were apparently some hair on the back of my head that needed more attention.
“One came to visit us last week. She just left this morning. It was terrible!”
“I know. We always find it hard to see our lot go after a visit”, I chipped in.
“No, not that. The whole week with her here was terrible. We quarrelled all the time. All of the past and all the mistakes we make rearing them were brought up, over and over again.”
I was beginning to wonder if my ears were safe in the way of the sharp blades of the scissors, now markedly unsteady in his hands.
“It happens all the time. My wife stopped talking, and I am left to do the fending. I’m tired of doing it. Maybe if it’s better if she does not come to visit again. Just leave us alone.”
It’s funny how the Lord sometimes put you in a position where you don’t have a choice but pastorally care for people.
I tried, “Well, you have some grandchildren.”
“No!” I traced helplessness in his voice. “There is only one, but we may not contact him, and he is barred from contacting us. We haven’t seen him in four years. We can only sent money for Christmas presents.”
Why me, Lord?, I secretly asked. Why do I have to listen to this angry tirade of a lonely barber? I gathered my thoughts as I heard the words of the apostle, “Make the best of every opportunity …”
“This is where we have to apply our faith,” I said. “God is a God of the lonely and forgotten. He is always listening when we pour our our grief and sorrow at his feet.”
“I do go to mass from time to time, but I think I should stop doing that too. My wife is nagging me to go every day. Why? God is not listening. And He abandoned my children!”
I was sure there was nothing on my head to be cut any shorter, yet he picked up another smaller pair of scissors, which disappeared in my ears and my nose.
“Oh, boy,” I thought. “Just take it slow. At least I visited your shop today!”
“I’m ready to give it all away. A life of hard work, rearing children who now turn their backs on us, relatives who died in my homeland, and customers who left me alone.”
Maybe he should ask someone else to write more steadily on his chalkboard; the shaky handwriting might scare some customers away, especially if one keeps in mind the sharp scissors and the barbers razor.
Speaking of it. He gave a step towards mirror and picked up the sharpest instrument in his shop. With remarkable skill he unfolded the blade, grabbed what seemed like a leather belt hanging from a hook and swiped the blade forwards and backwards over the belt to give it an even better cutting edge.
It was time for me to say something, not only to help him not to injure me, but to calm his heart. As he was scraping the blade to line the edges down the hairlines of my neck, I said, “Christmas is coming. And it’s the story of God showing mercy to lonely and lost sinners by giving us his Son. Perhaps you have reached a point in your life where you need to put your hand in the hand of Him who died and was raised to make us His children and give us joy. You now that carol, ‘Joy to the world’, don’t you?”
“Well, trust Him who knew loneliness better than any of us.”
I could also tell Him about Christ who cried out, “Why have You forsaken Me!”, but left it to the Spirit of God to convince my old barber that a living faith in Christ is what his heart was crying out for.
With a tearing sound he undid the velcro of the mantle, removed the paper towel, puffed some powder onto my neck and brushed it away.
At the counter our hands exchanged money, and I noticed that the till was empty.
And so was his heart. And mine.
May the words of the Gospel reverberate in his mind when he hears, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Written by D. Rudi Schwartz