It seems to me that every so often reality takes a while to set in. Oh, sure, we “know” something is factual, but the impact, the meaning, the effect on our lives may be delayed and then abruptly hits home.
That’s what happened to me recently during one of those middle-of-the-night “wake up and can’t get back to sleep” episodes. Lying there in the quiet darkness listening to the gentle chiming of our clock marking the quarter hours and the bonging of the striker sounding the hours, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Mike the Barber is no longer with us.
He lost his battle with that nearly-ignored mass killer of men - prostate cancer. I don’t know how long I knew Mike - perhaps 30-40 years - but for decades when I announced, “Going to Mike’s for a haircut”, my Sweetheart-for-Life responded, “Tell him not to cut it too short.” - an instruction I would dutifully relay.
Mike would agree, “Got it. Not too short.” and then proceed with the usual cut. The outside of Mike’s was marked on the street (north) side by a slowly rotating barber pole announcing Mike was open for business.
On the west side, which was unbroken by windows or doors, was a mural featuring a huge rainbow. I always meant to ask Mike about that, but never did. I wish I would have. On the east side, in the triangle formed between the parking lot and two sidewalks was a good-sized patch of sunflowers. I once asked Mike about them and he told me he thought they were beautiful - as have the hundreds of people who passed this busy intersection daily and admired Mike’s sunflower patch year after year.
Mike’s was a comfortable place that never appeared to change. An aquarium was in the corner with the fish gently swimming around, apparently contented with their lot. Just inside the street door was one of those old fashioned scales we used to see everywhere. I never saw anyone use the scales - it was just there.
Waiting customers parked themselves on what looked like an old wooden church pew - its solid surface kept polished by the trouser seats of uncounted thousands of guys patiently waiting their turn. Mike had a table piled with stacks of magazines. Once in a while someone would take one and glance through it, but for the most part, they were just there. I was occasionally tempted to dig through to the bottom of one of those stacks to see what I might find but I never did. Wish I would have.
Mike’s price list was simple: $4.25 for “regular” and $3.75 for “senior” regardless of the style of cut. Anyone familiar with the price of haircuts elsewhere might wonder how he could stay in business at those prices. Well, I once timed Mike through five consecutive haircuts. He clocked in right at twenty-five minutes from when the first guy sat in the chair until the fifth one got out - roughly five minutes per customer. (He regularly “tidied up” my beard and mustache in about two minutes.) He was fast and efficient in his work but never appeared to be in a hurry.
He didn’t have a cash register or till but kept the shop’s money in a drawer with the bills lying loose and the quarters in an open top box. With his price structure that’s all he needed - bills and quarters. Simple, fast and efficient.
Another feature of Mike’s was the long-established understanding among customers that whoever was in the barber chair could determine the topic of conversation - if he wished. This wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but was just another part of Mike’s that just “was” - and it worked very well. Mike didn’t have one of those “take a number” things. Upon entering you simply noted who came in after you - anyone already there came ahead of you and their order didn’t matter. When everyone waiting came in after you, it was your turn. Simple, but effective.
You know, we memorialize the “movers and shakers” in our society by naming buildings, streets, or maybe a hospital wing after them and that’s just fine, but Mike wasn’t a mover or shaker. He was not an imposing figure, in fact, he was a rather ordinary looking guy - an independent, small business owner who found his niche in our small town/rural society. I always figured Mike was a wealthy man - but not in money or possessions.
His wealth lay in his customers - a multitude of guys who knew and liked him and kept coming back for years on end. That’s true wealth. I’ve been trying to think of some way to honor Mike’s memory and figure I’ve come up with something appropriate. I would like to see Mike’s sunflower patch, now weed covered and of no commercial use, become transformed into a memorial garden of sunflowers - a continuation of Mike’s long-time beautification effort. Now that would be a fitting tribute to this remarkable friend and neighbor. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.