A short story about loyalty, racism, and friendship.
“Don’t we pay you enough to get a decent haircut?” He spoke to me as though if I was his bitch. I was about to tell him what this bitch would do to him and the words were on the tip of my tongue and about to explode across the conference table, but I thought better of it as I felt Angela’s three-inch spikes pierce my leather loafers. The answer was “no,” but it would have required me to get fired to say it, or at the very least arrested. I also wanted to say that nappy hair was a right and how I spent my money was my business, but instead, dry tears of rage just reddened my eyes in their sockets. I had to laugh, spin my chair around, get up, and leave. Some people couldn’t take a joke and I would have had to take a bullet to quit whooping his ass. I managed to wink a grateful glance at Angela as I left. It was the reason we always sat next to one another in meetings. She needed to know someone else weighed the sexist comments she heard and I needed to believe every comment wasn’t color-referenced, even if it was.
As I got back to my office, I tried to figure out why I got so angry. I knew that son-of-a-bitch was too stupid to be a decent racist and that he would have to have his white robe and hood bloodied from the white cross he was burning on my lawn to understand that I didn’t really need my lawn tended. I’d met his type before. Hell, I was surrounded by them. He was just the type of guy to tell me how unfair life had been for the White people since they started wasting so much time educating the Negroes. He still called Blacks Negroes and couldn’t begin to pronounce African American. What century was he living in and where was I? I had imagined him so dead, so many times.
I spent the next few hours busily typing into my computer and answering some of the most mundane questions from clients, but that’s what they paid me for. Keeping busy also managed to quell my anger. By the time six-thirty came around, I felt almost normal. I knew I was supposed to stay until seven or so, but you know, “screw them if they can’t take a joke,” I mumbled to myself. There were many things we had to do to try and rescue our sanity; leaving on time was one of them.
It had been three weeks since Bernie got laid up, so I was more than in need of a trim. I missed our conversations and the gentle advice of an old man who had been around. He’d been cutting hair in his little shop on the wrong side of town since the early eighties when he had finally saved up enough cash and told his boss to go to hell. He was the only Jewish guy I knew who served in the war. He once remarked to me that he was the only Jew he knew who fought in the war. He was also the only Jew still in the old neighborhood and he was known for rescuing more than one little kid sitting on the sharp precipice between boredom and a jail sentence.
When I was a kid, Bernie had a jar of hard candy sitting on the counter. I’d seen it many times as I walked past the shop. I thought I was being sneaky and cool taking advantage of the Jewish guy asleep in the back of his shop when I’d grab one piece, then two, and later three. I did this for a couple of weeks when one day the sleeping Jewish guy said, “the next time you come in, grab a broom and sweep up a bit. Nothing’s for free, son.” I was so scared to have some White dude talking to me that I dropped the candy and bolted out the door. I didn’t expect to ever return, but over the next few days, it was all I could think about. Eventually, I went back in, grabbed the broom and swept up. It was the first time I realized I could be seen and had been told what to do about it. I didn’t even know I needed to make amends, but there it was. I never stole again. I also started going back to school.
Bernie loved being the man, but was quick to remind me that we all worked for somebody and if we had to write a check, chances are we owed somebody, too. I had tried to say that I got a check, so didn’t that make me the boss of my own money? He’d just laugh and say, “No Schmeckel. With the way you spend money, you don’t get a check, you get a stub. You don’t even get to feel the wad of cash as they rip it out of your pocket.” It was true then and it's true now. With school loans and all, I rarely had two dimes to rub together. Bernie’s insistence on cash was the only reason I had a few bills in my pocket every two weeks. He thought it best I sprinkle a little around the neighborhood.
At Bernie’s suggestion, I had stopped driving my BMW to his shop. I had practically moth-balled the thing anyway. He’d ask me, “Who you showing off for Schmeckel, me or you? Nobody else cares. Unnecessary attention is unnecessary and attracts unnecessary people. It doesn’t make you bigger, it makes you smaller.” There really was very little need for a car in the city anyway.
Anyway, the trains were running a little late that particular night, so I had been spending my last few moments perfecting my apology to Bernie and hadn’t immediately noticed I was being followed. When I did notice, I did what I always did; I turned around and walked straight toward the guy. I didn’t blink, look to the side, or any of that. I stared him in the face and let my hand slip inside my trench. Most of the time, the glint in my eye and the slight smile across my face was enough to send the guy in the other direction. Nobody likes the prospect of running into someone more dangerous than they are, especially on these streets. The guy made a sharp detour and I did the same, but not before taking one last look over my shoulder, just to make sure. It was clear, so I continued on my journey. The things we go through for a decent haircut. I told myself the only reason I came back to the neighborhood was for the haircut, but of course, I bought my groceries here also.
I was going over how to embellish the story for Bernie when I saw a young man slip out the door of his shop. In and of itself, it shouldn’t have caught my attention and it probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been primed by the other guy. This kid walked too fast, hugging his pants at the crotch to hold them up, and he kept his head too low to be up to any good. I quickened my pace. I didn’t have a good feeling. The kid’s hair was too long.
When I got to the door, I saw Bernie lying on the floor. I hoped he was unconscious as I quickly surveyed the place. There was no one else in there, so I bolted the door before I knelt at his side. Guys have been known to scavenge when they think somebody is down. Then I saw the blood. I immediately pushed my fist into the wound in his stomach, grabbed a towel off the chair, and spun around for a phone. I had stopped carrying a cell-phone when I came to his shop; also because of Bernie. He’d said, “Why be so available?” Since I couldn’t come up with a good enough answer, I left the phone in the car. As I hung there anxiously between where I needed to be and where I was, Bernie stirred. He looked at me and all he could say was, “I’ve been in two wars and I get shot in my own house by some young punk with an itty bitty gun.” That was a good sign and he held enough strength to put pressure on his wound. I dialed 911.
So as I sit here today I tell myself, "I’ll get my haircut when I’m good and ready." I’ll just have to deal with the attention of nappy hair for a while. Bernie will hook me up as soon as he can. Of course, when I see Bernie later tonight, he'll probably ask me if they pay me enough to get a decent haircut.