When you move to a new town or neighborhood one of the first things you have to do after you unpack is to find services. Any town, no matter how pathetic, has some services to offer. Our town, which doesn’t look like one in any traditional sense, currently boasts three nail salons within a block of each other, a beauty salon, pet grooming salon, tanning salon, dry cleaner, laundromat, two delis, a bar and an extremely overpriced gas station.
One of the many services we lack is a decent barber. Rob found one over in the next town run by Sicilian immigrants. A few of the barbers don’t speak any English which is fine for Rob who speaks Italian. Jackson was starting middle school when we moved here and was accused of being two things; a farmer, because he wore a pair of overalls and a girl because his hair was a little long. And I mean a little. Rob was busy on Saturday afternoons with his Italian lessons so I brought Jack to his barber.
“I so got this,” I told Jackson. As a middle school teacher I believed I had the solution to the “girl” tease. In my urban school all the “cool” kids wore their hair very short with a little fringe of bangs sticking out in front.
We arrived at the barber’s at a busy time and Jackson handed me his glasses as he took the first chair that opened. “He wants a crew cut with those bangs,” I explained fanning my hand across his forehead. The man, who I later learned was named Joe, smiled and nodded in agreement but no actual words were spoken.
I sat down behind a half partition that blocked my view and picked up a magazine. Before I opened it, all of ten seconds, I turned to Quinn and said, “You know I better see how it’s going.” I stood up and saw Jackson’s bald head. Joe lifted the cape from Jack’s shoulders and I watched his auburn locks fall to the tiled floor in one sweeping gesture. I strained to see if there was any hair on his head or just scalp. I could tell Jackson knew there was a problem and he reached for his glasses which I had been clutching into a tighter grip. Reluctantly I handed them over and watched the tears well up in his eyes as he ran from the shop while I paid.
“Ciao, ciao,” Joe called back to me as I handed him a tip and left.
The three of us held each other in the parking lot and I consoled him that it looked good. “A real boy cut,” I exclaimed before capitulating and saying how sorry I was. As a victim of severe pixies as a child I knew the powerless feeling of an awful cut. Jackson lamented that Monday was picture day. It should be noted we did not order pictures that year because his hair looked so bad.
A woman overheard us and came over with her two young sons. “If it makes you feel any better that’s the kind of haircut my boys want but their Catholic school won’t allow it.”
It didn’t make us feel any better but I noted to myself that his haircut was too unfit even for Catholic school. But I had to wonder what exactly would have happened to them at school if they had fallen into the speedy hands of Joe the Sicilian barber.
Rob who was a bit taken aback by the severity of the cut asked, “Didn’t you know what you would get if you said crew cut?”
“That is not a crew cut!” I spat. “It’s a baldy sour. A baldy sour is shorter than a crew cut. What’s the Italian for baldy sour?”
Jackson spent the weekend inside a baseball cap and by Monday other issues in our lives began to trump his head. We’ve all suffered terrible haircuts and we all know the cure: time. Rob took over Jackson’s visits to the barber and we rectified the problem. But for some reason circumstances dictated that I had to bring him again the following February just before his birthday. There I was nervously traveling back to the scene of the crime.
Rob explained, “Just say, non troppo corti. It means, not too short. He’ll be fine,” he said waving us off.
Rob has had his own misunderstanding at this barber. His struggle to decipher Sicilian into standard Italian has left him and the barber using a few English words. Once he came home and said that his haircut was called The Caesar.
“Really?” I asked. “Because it doesn’t look anything like Caesar’s hairdo.” Rob has short curly hair and never had anything close to a bang.
“Well I can’t explain it, but it is.”
He later found out that the barber wasn’t saying Caesar but scissor. Something like, “you wann’em a Caesar?” It took several trips before he realized his mistake when the barber asked him the same question brandishing a scissor in his hand.
So as Jackson and I drove to the barber I was nervous something could go wrong for good reason. I recited, “Non troppo Corti, non troppo corti,” over and over. I asked Jackson not to talk so I could concentrate. I’m terrible at remembering foreign phrases and I did not trust myself to get it right so I continued to recite it. By the time we arrived inside the shop I looked Joe in the eye and said, “Non troppo corti,” with such a flair that I had added an Italian accent and a slight hand gesture.
Joe spent the entire, much slower, haircut speaking to Jackson in Italian. When he was finished he continued to speak to both of us, rambling on and on in Italian and pointing at the haircut. I couldn’t understand him but Jackson looked pleased with the cut so I smiled and bobbed my head saying, “Si, si.” I felt helpless.
I walked up to the cash register to pay the owner, who did speak English, but he too had reverted to speaking Italian thinking I could understand him. I believe he told me how much I owed and I handed him a twenty, hopeful I would get change. I nervously kept up my ruse deciding it would hurt their feelings if they knew I was an imposter. I was in too deep. It was nearly five PM and I managed a, “Buona sera,” and left before they could ask me anything else.
I know I should have come clean and explained I didn’t comprehend them after I had pronounced, “Non troppo corti.” I guess a warped concept of inclusion prevented me from owning up to my lack of understanding of the Italian language. But isn’t that what we’re all looking for in life, to feel included. It’s why we like to find and return to the local businesses over big box stores. When we walk in they recognize us, smile and we feel good about spending our time and money there. At Christmas time each year these Italian barbers place a spread of cordials and liquors out on the counter and offer their customers a drink. Rob always looks forward to it and plans his cuts around the holidays. He likes being a regular. And for just that moment I felt included. To bad I didn’t understand it.