Monday, May 31, 2010

The Perfection Guild

This story is fictional. Any similarity to real people or hangovers is purely coincidental.



The Perfection Guild

James woke up in a strange apartment with his face stuck to a dirty Persian rug and decided that it was time for a change. He had a vague recollection of coming to this apartment with a small group of people after the bar they were at shut down for the night. When he looked around he saw a heap of sleeping human on the tattered loveseat next to him. From another room, he heard a shower running. James realized that he had no desire to face these people this morning and tried to stand up. When he did a wave of sublime pain filled his head and he had to sit back down. He looked at the sofa and realized that there were two people sleeping there. One was a young woman, maybe 20 years old whose skirt was stuck just below her waist, revealing her ample bottom. Out of modesty he tried not to look. She was wrapped up in an unfamiliar bearded man. The shower suddenly stopped and James heard someone step out of the tub. This gave him an extra push to leave. He stood up with pained determination and exited the apartment just as the bathroom door opened.

James walked down the stairs and passed by an elderly woman standing in the door of her apartment. He nodded a greeting at her and she shook her head sadly. This suddenly filled James with an irrational shame. He thought back to the night before and analyzed each part bit by bit. He hadn't really done anything wrong except drink a bit too much but was still filled with a sense of guilt at the sight of the disapproving old woman. James left the building and was on a sunny sidewalk in Manhattan's East Village. His hangover made the world seem a little distorted and there was a terrible taste in his mouth, but he was happy to have the day off from work. He left the apartment behind and began his day.

The sidewalks were filled with happy couples pushing expensive strollers to brunch. James wondered what the secret to their contentment was. They were fit and smiling. Many of them seemed to be having important conversations on their cell phones. What kind of jobs did they have? How could James get one? What was wrong with James that he was just a cashier with a college degree, barely able to afford his rent? Why did James feel so horrible on this Sunday morning while all those people seemed so pleased with themselves?

Next James stopped at a cafe to use the restroom. He washed his hands and looked in the mirror at himself. Lines that weren't normally evident stood out on his face and purplish circles appeared under his eyes. It felt like a preview of middle age. He scrubbed his face to see if the face in the mirror would become more familiar. Then he wet his hair so that it would lie down on his head. It was getting rather shaggy and needed to be cut. When unkempt, James could tell that his hairline was beginning to retreat. James decided that as an act of renewal he would get a haircut.

Upon leaving the cafe James turned off the avenue onto a narrower street lined with staircases and small shops. It was almost identical to the surrounding streets, but there was something intangible that drew him to it. Maybe it was a little cleaner, maybe it was slightly quieter. There was a pleasant smell in the air, and the sound of piano music drifted from an apartment window. He followed the music which seemed like some sort of practice piece made up of simple scales, but it was played exquisitely. James found himself passing a barber shop and remembering his decision to get a haircut, he walked through the door.

The barber was seated in a chair and seemed to be in some sort of meditative state as James entered. When he was finished with his thought, he looked slowly up at James. The barber examined James carefully before saying anything. James was frozen by the man's stare. The barber looked at James from beneath huge eyebrows and heavy lids. He had dark, active eyes which seemed to collect everything they looked at. Then the man flexed his hands and said simply, "Haircut?"

James was broken from his trance and said, "Uh...yeah. Just a trim really, I guess maybe a little bit off the..."

"You look terrible," the barber interrupted, "Go to the Cafe across the street and drink a cup of coffee. I think you'll find the coffee there to be very good. You will feel better after you drink it. Then come back to see me. I'll be ready then."

The Barber's expression compelled James to follow his instructions. But as he exited the barber shop, he realized just how bizarre the situation was. He thought about going home and taking a nap, but stopped when he looked back into the barber shop and saw the old man staring at him. James crossed the street and took a seat by the window at the cafe.

From his perch James watched the old man hone his scissors carefully, and then oil them. He examined his comb, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. James thought he saw the barber performing hand exercises when his coffee was delivered. "Smells good," he said to the waitress.

"It's perfect," she said firmly then flashed a friendly smile and walked away.

Sure enough the coffee was perfect. For the first time James was able to discern the subtle complexities of flavor that TV commercials advertised and epicureans droned on about. Suddenly his head ceased to hurt and his thinking became fluid. He was now ready for his haircut.

One interesting thing about a haircut is that it is difficult to leave in the middle of one. You can walk out of a movie or play and not feel too bad, but our vanity makes us a prisoner in the chair of a barber. James realized this after the first hour of his haircut. Up until that point the barber shop was completely silent with the exception of the mechanical squeaking of the scissors. The old man didn't stop the scissors once during the entire process, yet things were progressing very, very slowly.

"So, is this going to take much longer?" asked James. His voice shocked him as it disturbed the perfect silence. There was a noticeable absence of usual barber banter.

"You can leave now if you like," said the barber sternly. James was a prisoner in the barbershop chair.

"No, no it's okay."

"You'll see it's better than okay."

"Okay."

"Was last night unusual for you?" asked the barber casually.

"Excuse me?" exclaimed a surprised James.

"Don't move your head. I move it for you. Do you often drink like that?"

"I suppose every once in a while. Maybe once or twice a week."

"Why?"

Not even the coffee had prepared James for this line of questioning.

"I don't know, why not?"

"Does it make you feel good?"

"No, not really."

"But you had a really good time last night."

"Not particularly."

"Then why?"

James had no answer. He wanted to get defensive but was afraid of what the barber would do to his head. The barber grabbed James firmly by the chin and positioned his head in an unexpectedly comfortable position.

"Do you drink to escape?"

"What do you have against drinking? Don't you ever partake? Are you a recovering alcoholic?"

"I drink sometimes, but I never smell like you do right now. Hold still!"

"I don't know. I guess after a week of work, I just like to let my hair down. You must do the same, in some way."

"I do celebrate each completed day with a bit of grappa. But, my weeks don't end. I work every day."

"Oh man, I'm sorry. That must be tough. New York rents and all."

"No. I own this place; the whole building as a matter of fact. I just don't believe in weeks ending. The secret is to make your living at something that you don't want a break from. For me it's cutting hair. I cut the hair of Senators. Since televised debates began, I've helped decide elections. Business men pay me fortunes to cut their hair before board meetings."

"Wow. Then why do you have this little shop?"

"I like cutting hair. Not every politician or robber baron deserves a good haircut. It gives me a place to work with everybody."

"And you deemed me worthy for a good haircut."

"You're different. It's not that you're worthy of a good haircut, it's that you needed one."

The barber pulled James' head into another ergonomically correct position. James looked for a clock. The time was now slipping by very quickly as the old man painstakingly cut his hair. The scissors never ceased their quiet squeaking and clicking. James seemed to feel individual sections of strands of hair fall away from his head. The shadows outside had visibly shifted and James stomach began to make angry noises.

"Perfection takes time James," the barber scolded. "James, did you like that coffee you had earlier?"

"Yes. It was great actually...it was..."

"Perfect."

Squeak click squeak click squeak click.

Silence.

"James. You drink to escape from a life that you find uninspiring. I was once like you. Then an old man introduced me to Perfection. He was a short order cook who made the best food I've ever eaten. It was perfect. Always. Like you, I assumed that he must hate his job. But he showed me that he loved it through the food he made. I ordered breakfast and didn't receive it until one in the afternoon. But, when it was served, it changed my life. I grew up cutting the hair of my 8 brothers and sisters. I liked it a lot but grew up and got a job at an ink factory. It was miserable work and I wanted to escape just like you want to escape from your job. I was on a path of destruction, the booze, the girls, the emptiness...but then that short order cook explained to me this lifestyle.

"I gave up everything and devoted my life to cutting hair. I sold all of the furniture in my apartment and bought a barber's chair. I invited my friends over and I cut their hair for free, but eventually they began to find me strange. After a while they stopped hanging around me…or maybe I stopped hanging around them. I went back to the cook and while he was making a perfect milkshake for me he explained that the road was difficult and sometimes lonely. Then he pointed at an empty shop across the street from his diner. It was this shop. The previous tenant moved out and he had arranged for me to have the shop. So, I quit my job and moved my barber's chair into the shop.

"Business was brisk as word spread quickly about my skills as a barber. The other people in the neighborhood were very supportive. Eventually I stopped seeing my old friends all together. But I never felt lonely because of the other shop owners and because I concentrated on my work. I became better and better, but was never satisfied. I began to lose customers because as I reached harder and harder for perfection, my haircuts took more time. But as the number of customers declined, the ones I kept were all important people...artists, captains of business, great scholars, statesmen...

"I was still a young man at the time and while my work consumed me, I still could be swayed by a pretty face. One day a senator's daughter walked into the shop looking for her father while he was getting a haircut. He still had about three hours left to his haircut. What impressed me was that she sat and watched the whole thing. She studied me while I worked and talked with her father. She even offered to get me coffee, though I declined because it makes my hands shake. By the end of those three hours, I was smitten.

"When we went out on our first date, the florist from down the block made me a bouquet of flowers from her private greenhouse behind her shop. It was made up of both the rarest orchids and the most common flowers in the city. But they were arranged perfectly. I brought her to the restaurant two doors down where we were served tasting menus which amounted to a symphony of tastes and textures combining foods which the average person could not imagine placing together, but each dish was simple with the freshest ingredients. During the meal, the pianist who lives above the cafe improvised exquisite music which transcended all genres. The tempo and melody changed with each course, providing a perfect soundtrack to our conversation.

"We were married six weeks later."

"To a Senator's daughter?"

"To Jill. Hold your head still."

"Was Jill perfect?"

"Jill was perfect to me. But my peculiar lifestyle wore on her. At first she was content to sit in my shop with me and to watch me work. But, because I don't talk when I work she became frustrated. At night I went home and was still thinking about the haircuts of that day and the haircuts I would give the next day. I had no stories to share with her. She became bored. The one vacation I took with her, I brought her to Buenos Aires with me to cut the president's hair. She wanted to go to the beach, but I got caught up giving haircut after haircut for days on end to prominent Argentines. She finally blew up at me and screamed at me in the middle of a haircut. Startled, I almost made a mistake, and I looked at her in such a way that she got on the next plane back to New York. We were divorced soon after.

"When I returned, the other shopkeepers were waiting for me outside of my shop. They took me to the cafe across the street and we opened a bottle of grappa. Each person took their turn telling me a similar story. They also told me stories of other people who had stopped working on the street because they fell in love and didn't want to sacrifice that for this lifestyle. I found that these people are my family. We take care of each other and keep each other company at the end of the day. We are the Perfection Guild."

James had nothing to say after this unbelievable story. He remained silent for the last hour of his haircut. And sure enough, when it was finished, it was perfect. Before he could reach into his pocket to pay the Barber, the man asked, "There is no charge for this haircut. Just go home and think about what you want from life. Maybe you have a passion that you want to commit yourself to. Maybe you don't. Just think about it."

"I can't think of anything that moves me that much." said James with a tremolo of shame in his voice.

James stumbled out onto the street, made clumsy by his hangover or the profound state of thought the conversation with the barber put him in. When he got to the next avenue, he turned out of the cruel sunshine into the soothing darkness of an open bar. The shame and nagging search for purpose that had plagued James earlier that day melted into relief that he was not cursed with the desire for Perfection.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

$21 a Month

I don’t like to think of myself as someone who is easily manipulated by marketing. Advertisements normally don’t even register with me. But one day about two years ago, a few well chosen words would make me part with just over $21 every month for the last two years. It came in the form of a guilt trip and it went something like this. “If you feel that National Public Radio is a part of your life then don’t you think that you are a terrible bastard if you don’t give us some money?”

I’m paraphrasing of course, but one of those famous pleas from public radio station WNYC in New York City really hit home for me. This is because, the more I thought about it, public radio was a part of my life. Nothing was more soothing than waking up in a Sunday haze and turning on the radio to hear soothing voices provide the news about the media. I lived in a four room railroad apartment at the time and positioned a radio at either end of the dwelling so that I could wander freely around, puttering while listening to the deeply nerdy and hilarious game show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!” During the times when I left my day job in favor of a life tending bar, trying to scrape together a career in fine arts and loafing, WNYC would keep me company as Brian Lehrer kept me up on the news in New York, the City I loved so deeply. Saterius Johnson woke me up every morning. How many people can say someone named Saterius wakes them up? Nine million.

But that wasn’t enough to make me call the station and hand over my credit card number. I was sure that plenty of other people, richer than I were reaching for their wallets and pocketbooks to support public radio. Hmmm…public radio. I began to think of my introduction to jazz.

I did a little radio myself back in college. The show I’m most proud of was my stint on a show called the Jazz Oasis. I learned to love jazz when I was in high school. There was a DJ named Eric in the Evening on WGBH in Boston who provided a solid base of knowledge. I was searching through the lower part of the radio dial for a college radio station because I was an angsty teenage product of the nineties. Then from out of the static and Spanish language stations I heard a heavenly voice singing. “Who is this guy?” I asked the radio, transfixed by that voice. “That was Nina Simone,” answered Eric in the Evening.

After that, every night I would sit in my dimly lit kitchen, drinking hot cocoa and thinking profound thoughts about my angst, my future as a film maker and my haircut. All the while I would listen to Eric in the Evening give me an education on Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Nat Adderly, and living legends like Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis. I would go on to ask Eric in the Evening for an internship while I was in college. He politely declined several times. But I was persistent. And he continued to decline. But, even though I never got to work for Eric in the Evening, he provided me with an education that I am grateful for to this day.

I reached for my wallet and thought, “Well, I guess I can spare a few bucks to honor Eric Jackson and the years of jazz tutelage and angst reduction he gave me.” But, I still wasn’t ready. It’s tough to get me to spend money on something that I can’t eat or drink. I didn’t even own a couch because I figured “Why spend money on a couch when I have a perfectly nice, free chair to sit on.”

Then I sat in my free chair and began the reminisce more about public radio. I remembered when I really fell in love with the radio. It was at a time when I was commuting an hour to Boston everyday in my swanky ’89 Cutlass Calais. At this time I had a girlfriend in Vermont whose hippie house I would drive to on Saturdays after work. It was before Christmas and I was on my way for a visit to the Green Mountain State. I forgot to bring cassette tapes with me for the trip and I started looking for something on the radio. Once I was out of range of the Boston rock stations and I desperately searched for some entertainment. For some reason I stopped when I heard a slightly nasal, but ultimately soothing voice telling a story. It was the story of a man working at a department store as an elf during Christmas and it was hilarious. I don’t know what made me stop to listen to a guy talking on the radio, but it changed my life; slightly, but still changed. I don’t know if I ever had a better time driving than that night, released from my own department store job, looking forward to Christmas, driving to see my girlfriend who I was crazy about and being introduced to David Sedaris on the radio.

The love affair with the radio intensified during that period. I listened to the news every morning on my way to work. I listened to commentary on the news on the way back to work. And then on the weekends! Driving for two and a half hours to White River junction, marking time with public radio. When I hit Route 93, A Prairie Home Companion would start and somehow Garrison Keillor’s voice would keep me awake all the way to Route 91 in Vermont. The reception would start to go at that point, but I could find Mr. Keillor’s folksy banter again if I turned the dial just a little to the left when I passed the Saw Mill Road exit. Soon, as I approached the power plant on the right side of the road, a hippie woman took Garrison Keillor’s place, and kept me informed of all things New Age. I wasn’t so much into anything New Age, but would pull my window open (it didn’t roll down) to smoke a cigarette, knowing that soon I would be amongst friends and more importantly, girlfriend. I don’t have that car, or that girlfriend anymore. The girlfriend is married to a great guy and the car is probably siding on someone’s house or perhaps a soda can. I do still listen to David Sedaris on public radio though. I’m not saying that David Sedaris is always there for me, but public radio is.

So I reached into my wallet and called WNYC. I made my recurring pledge of $21 a month. They sent me a CD of radio programming that I could have listened to on the internet anyways. But, even today, I have not cancelled my recurring pledge. In all fairness, I should be contributing to my local NPR station, but I still contribute to WNYC; maybe in hopes that WNYC will be my station again one day. In the mean time, I have traded Saterius Johnson for Bill Buckmaster, who has an equally cool name but provides me with slightly less exciting local news here in the desert of Arizona.