Monday, October 22, 2012

Gimme' A Head With Hair

My life came full circle last week. I was in desperate need of a hair trimming and I happened to duck into the same barbershop where I received my first haircut as a child during the days when barbers cut hair with dull axes and knives and were specialists in "bleeding." I remember so well when my mother first brought me to this place of sharp scissors and buzzing clippers, and long black combs dipped in a mysterious blue liquid. I squirmed and cried as if I were about to be tortured, despite the frantic reassurances from my distraught mother, and I was only twenty-six years old. As I grew older, I  requested, "Just a little off the top, and hold the leeches." My barber was Marvin Kennington, who had a tattoo on his arm which read, "I Love Ya Wanda." I always asked him about her but he was vague as to Wanda's destiny. Marvin cut my hair until I was a teenager when he became a professional wrestling referee under the name of Randy Roper and worked the matches on both TV studio wrestling and the Monday night main events at the Coliseum. We were good pals and I always enjoyed entertaining the notion that Marvin might have borrowed my name for his nomme de guerre. It's possible.

The strange thing is that the barber shop, located in a tiny space in High Point Terrace, looks almost exactly the same as it did decades ago. I sat in the very chair I remembered as a child, and when I  looked down at the footrest and saw the name "Koken," I was flooded with memories and became wistful, as if in a personal "Rosebud" moment. I knew it was the exact chair even before the barber had a chance to tell me how the gears and hand pump had been refurbished and the seats reupholstered. I chose the oldest barber there since I trust a man persistent in his trade, and also he was the only guy available. I regaled him with boyhood tales of bicycle rides and visits to the soda fountain in the drugstore that no longer existed next door. I believe the name was Farrell's, and the long-submerged memories came bursting forth, like the smell of the bubble gum that came in a pack of baseball cards, the taste of a real fountain Coke, or the challenge of a jaw-breaker. When I was through reminiscing, I realized I had been in the chair over 45 minutes and the barber was still snipping. Although it took him a while, my wife Melody said it was among the best haircuts I've had lately. The problem is, there's just not that much to cut anymore. I'm not looking for topiary spirals in the horseshoe fringe. Just clean me up so I don't look like Howard Hughes, and I'm good for another few months.

The only reason I went to the barber shop to begin with is that my wife won't do it. I have the beard trimmer with the hair-clipping attachment. It would take five minutes. Melody will pick my clothes, prepare my food, listen to my complaints, laugh at my bad jokes, and cuddle with me at night, but she refuses to cut my hair. She accused me of being a cheap bastard, but in truth, I've never enjoyed the barbershop experience. That's why I've had so few barbers in life. In all my years in the Bluff City, I've had five barbers: The aforementioned Marvin Kennington, Bobby Rye, Hector Flores, Jackie Ayers, and George Perry. With Marvin it was pretty simple; buzz cut in the summer; Elvis in the winter. Bobby Rye was a bespectacled flat-top specialist with a shop on Poplar Ave. He was a bit intense and not very talkative, but the man was an artist. Your hair would be as flat as a sidewalk, but he always left a small patch in the front to be propped up straight with a dab of Butch Wax. Bobby saw me from young adulthood until I reached the age of eighteen, when I stopped getting haircuts altogether. Because I was a musician and I could, my longhaired days ultimately turned into ten years. Upon returning to semi-normalcy, my barber was Hector Flores, mainly because he was also my landlord.

When I was nineteen, my hair fell out. Other men's hairlines recede; mine retreated. I first noticed it in the shower when the water level rose above my ankles because the drain was clogged with ringlets of my hair. I was traumatized and pondered what could be the cause of this hair avalanche. Was it because I had let it grow and the weight was pulling it out? Was it the pot? Was it my cheeseburger diet? I finally decided that it was karma for spending too much time looking at my hair in the mirror when I thought I was a teen rock star. Now there was more on the towel and the pillowcase than on my head. Other men begin to lose a little hair; I was shedding like a Collie. I became morbidly self-conscious, which will sound familiar to any man whose hair is prematurely thin, because everyone has sport with the bald man. You can't call someone ugly, or joke about anybody's weight, but the bald man is still fair game. It's improper to refer to a little person as a midget, but it's fine to call a bald man "slickhead," "chrome-dome," or "cue-ball." At high school reunions, they give funny awards for the shiniest pate. In a panic, I began to execute the comb-over to present the illusion of hair, until one night, some woman in a club exclaimed, "Hey! You're all bald on the top." In my show-biz desperation, I opted for the "hair-weave," which needed periodic maintenance for which I found Jackie Ayers. She remained my barber for the next thirty years until her retirement.

By this time, the pesky weave had been replaced by an off-the-rack, standard hairpiece. It was nothing for an old pro like George Perry to cut my hair and trim my beard in fifteen minutes, but he closed his shop too, which is why I ducked into High Point in the first place. I had a public event to attend and Melody declined to accompany me as long as I looked like a homeless vagabond. It was Melody who finally talked me out of the hairpiece. I knew I was reaching the age when I wasn't cute anymore, and the synthetic hair wasn't helping. My sympathies remain with the frustrated hairless, but it's been liberating to free myself from hairpiece bondage and all the accessories that go with it. Today, a balding man can just shave it clean and everyone calls him sexy. Years ago, everyone would just assume he had alopecia. Although it was a nostalgic jaunt through boyhood memory, one thing about the old barbershop has changed; men's haircuts cost twenty dollars and beard trimming is fifteen. I told Melody that if she thinks I'm such a cheap bastard, I'll give her the thirty-five bucks, drape a towel around my shoulders, and let her start hacking away. Consequently, it seems as if more professional haircuts are in my future. I may even return to my childhood barbershop once again, except they forgot to give me my lollipop.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

A Reason To Believe

After my last article declaring an early triumph for Barack Obama, the comments I received were blistering, and rightly so, considering his somnambulistic appearance at the first presidential debate. To say that Romney ate his lunch is charitable.  Obama's debate performance was baffling. He had the opportunity to confront Gov. Romney on a range of issues, but for whatever reason, he chose not to, tossing away his best chance to repudiate the GOP/Tea Party platform and allowing the grinning governor back into the race. Among my many critics, one said that I had "spiked the ball on the one yard line," which is among the mildest rebukes I can repeat. The others were the same racially charged remarks that you might expect when accompanied with a side order of crow, or in this case, Jim Crow. I didn't like it. It was too stringy and definitely did not taste like chicken. I did, however, receive one serious comment from a gentleman to whom I promised anonymity if I could use his letter as the basis for a new rant. He wrote:
As an undecided voter, why should I vote for Obama? What has he done with regard to the economy, foreign policy, and galvanizing our country? And please don't insult me by shifting an answer to why Romney isn't qualified...What has your guy done?
A reasonable question deserves a reasonable response, and I believe I can answer this one without even mentioning the name of Mitt Romney. Anybody can google "Obama record" and come up with a long list of achievements, so rather than just writing a campaign newsletter, I would like to point out a few accomplishments that have affected me personally or the lives of people I care about. Some of these initiatives were passed in Obama's first two years when he had a bickering Democratic Congress; others were achieved in the past two years while the president labored against constant Republican obstructionism. The Tea Party controlled House and their equivalent in the Senate have blocked or filibustered every bill the Obama government has presented, yet the latest unemployment figure is below eight percent and the stock market has gone from 6,500 two months after Obama took office, to 13,610 today. Who wouldn't want over a 55 percent return on their investment in just three years? Critics have called this a "jobless recovery," while in a period of two years, the Republicans blocked nineteen jobs bills. This included the "American Jobs Act," which would have created two million jobs and provided tax breaks for small business, modernized 35,000 public schools, given companies tax credits for hiring veterans and the long-term unemployed, and invested in roads, bridges, rail and airports. Imagine what the unemployment number might be if Obama had a governing majority.

But enough about the Tea Party "know-less-than-nothings" who scream "Socialism!" with every breath, and on to your question. When you speak of "galvanizing our country," I remember the night of November 4, 2008, when an estimated 240,000 people jammed Chicago's Grant Park to hear the new president's victory speech. Millions more around the world heard Obama say, "If there is anyone...who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, tonight is your answer," or, "We have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red and blue states. We are and always will be the United States of America." Through my own tears, I thought that event was pretty damned galvanizing, but on inauguration day, a private dinner took place with a small group of GOP congressional leaders, including Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Jim DeMint, Newt Gingrich, Bob Corker, and evil linguistics genius Frank Luntz. They pledged as a party to block and obstruct President Obama on all legislation; in essence, undermining the economy to regain the White House. I believe sabotage is still a crime. The country was galvanized, but the great promise of the Obama election was wasted for political advantage and the governing process was poisoned. The Frank Luntz propaganda instructed, "Don't say 'healthcare reform,' say 'government takeover' instead, and before you knew it, a corporate sponsored, renegade "Tea Party" began showing up at congressional town hall meetings, wearing holstered weapons and shouting down their representatives with cries of "Marxism," and "Death Panels."

Which brings me to the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." What half the electorate once believed was socialized medicine was merely insurance reform after all. I have written past Rants about my decade's inability to buy health insurance from anyone, at any price, because of  "pre-existing conditions." I lived with it until I needed emergency surgery and suddenly my medical bills were costing more than my house. My wife and I found ourselves pleading with doctors and negotiating with clinics for brother-in-law deals and bargain-basement savings. Were it not for my subsequent admission to the Church Health Center, I would have either been dead or broke, or dead broke. Obamacare forbids insurance companies from discriminating against pre-existing conditions or placing caps on coverage. The Insurance bid'ness isn't complaining because they're gaining 30,000,000 new customers and no one yet has been assigned to see a government doctor, except at the Veterans' Administration, which saw an increase in its budget every year under Obama. The Congressional Budget Office once forecast Obamacare savings of $123 billion over ten years, before a GOP-led states rights campaign put the numbers and the program at risk. Meanwhile, there have been 33 separate House Republican votes to repeal Obamacare. I don't understand how a party with an active evangelical Christian wing could vote against a government that wishes to feed the hungry and care for the sick. But that's just me.

Lastly, I have a wife, a mother, a sister, three sisters-in-law, two nieces, a great-niece, and a stepdaughter. My life is filled with women, which is why I want a president who will protect their rights. I want to know that my mother's Medicare is solvent and my wife's Social Security benefits are intact. My stepdaughter will benefit from Obama's student loan reforms, and thanks to the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, my niece is paid the same as a man who does the same work. Under Obamacare, my other niece, who is expecting, can be assured of top-notch pre-natal, and post-natal care. And for any woman who may find it necessary to make a personal choice regarding pregnancy; under the president's plan, her privacy is protected and the procedures are professional, and not subject to the intrusive probes or unwanted ultrasounds of the GOP shame squad. Unfortunately, I lacked the space to discuss foreign policy, like the killing of Bin Laden and the decimation of Al Qaeda, or that minor detail of ending the Iraq War. There was that minor business of Obama bringing the country back from the brink of economic collapse while saving the auto industry, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and winning the Nobel Prize, but then I'm beginning to sound like a Google list. One group that is bound to benefit from Obama's re-election are professional investors. This includes a certain ex-governor currently running for president- so he'll have a soft place on which to land when he returns to wherever he calls home.