The end is near: It’s time to grade the stacks of final papers, estimate student participation grades, tabulate everything and record the sums. Yesterday it was also time for my ritual end-of-semester shearing. I dislike getting haircuts intensely, but I couldn’t stand being trapped in this house any longer—not another gottverdammt minute in this lovely old house—and set off to get some sun on my hairy white shins, on the walk of shame.
Mrs. Churm drives the boys to school and herself to work every day, so I walk a lot—to and from campus, doctor’s appointments, the town library, the small grocery for last-minute cilantro or a loaf of bread. I’m very happy not driving and often think best walking some route I’ve covered a thousand times.
But to get a haircut I have to walk through our suffering downtown, across a busy highway, down a long empty block, and the length of a strip mall. There aren’t may pedestrians. Coming back I face the same vista, except the tiny shorn hairs are down my shirt and making me itch, and the sun presses on my pinkening scalp. Often I have to wait for the walk signal at the biggest intersection and feel so exposed that I call somebody on my cell just to be doing something. The only thing more depressing would be walking back with plastic grocery sacks cutting into my hands, like the grad students who live across the street, or humping bags of dirty clothes to the laundromat, like the bickering couple who live a half-mile away.
Still, it was a beautiful early summer day. Leaves are finally out on the trees after recovering from a hard frost in April. In my neighborhood there was the quiet buzz of lawnmowers and a smell of cut grass. In the old downtown, people sat at tables on the sidewalk. The smell of roasting garlic, barbecue, and fresh bread got me to the busy highway.
Let’s face it: I don’t have much need of a real barber, so I go to the $9 place—and use coupons. It’s in the strip mall, next to the place where you trade your car’s title for high-interest, short-term loans. There’s also a crappy electronics store, a rent/lease-to-own furniture store that preys on the poor (Hablamos español, the poster with model Kathy Ireland says), and the pizza joint that cuts its mozzarella with American cheese.
The hair stylist was heavy, tired, and wore too much makeup. She’s always working, whenever I go, any time of day. She said she was off tomorrow and wanted to spring her kids from the sitter and go show them a good time. Then she remembered she’d said she’d work half of Keisha’s shift. Tiny photos of three little girls were stuck in the frame of the mirror next to her stylist’s license. She changed the subject and wanted to know what the deal with Paris Hilton was. “It’s only a 45-day sentence,” she said. “And now she’s petitioning the governor for a pardon. Forty-five days is nothin’. I’ve known a lot of people did more time than that. Martha Stewart did more than that, and had house arrest afterwards.”
That quick, the haircut was done. I tipped half the cost and started for home. Drivers stared as I waited for the light at the highway, then I walked past the sheriff’s office and county correctional facility. It’s a boom economy for the law, and the building is brand-new. Two big women herded eight little kids out the doors. “No, I said!” one shouted.
I passed the county courthouse, several lawyers’ offices, and the parking garage where the homeless sleep. With my newly shaved head, and a body that is not, let us say, indicative of spare time and disposable income, I evidently looked like no one of consequence. A beer truck ran the end of a yellow light and veered in front of me. A guy in a pink oxford shirt, with a courthouse I.D. around his neck and briefcase in hand, wouldn’t budge as he passed on the sidewalk, and my face scraped a café umbrella. His haircut was not from Bo-Rics.
I don’t blend with the poor, though. Maybe it was the turquoise t-shirt Mrs. Churm just bought me from Land’s End, but I got hard looks from some guys hanging in a parking lot down from the methadone clinic. One spit dangerously close to my toes, and I tried to appear unfazed.
Past the liquor store with NASCAR and support-the-troops posters in the windows, past the abandoned building that looks like a turn-of-the-century firehouse, then into the transition zone with its health-food place and Victorian rentals, until finally I was back in my own neighborhood, itself only on the fringe of where many tenured faculty live.
It’s probably best not to question too closely one’s place in contemporary America.