I’ve had two long-term barbers in Los Angeles, Darnell and Jesse. Both are great fun, both are Christians, and both have said some memorable things. Today, after leaving Jesse’s shop, I seemed to be visited by ghosts.
But first, Darnell. In the early years of this century, I was walking down San Fernando Road in the Media Center village of Burbank. “Hey, Big Man,” a voice said. “you need a haircut.” That was Darnell. He was reading his paper on a bench across the sidewalk from a shop he rented from a sour man named Richard. Over the years I’d learn to walk past Richard, who stood at the first chair giving rinses to centenarian ladies, and make my way to the back of the shop, where Darnell had been exiled. The two men didn’t get along.
But Darnell filled my head with L.A. music history, soul, Jesus, and the Devil, whom he believed was real.
“When things are going good,” Darnell would tell me, “that’s when The Devil looks for you.”
Darnell took great care of my hair, and would announce that I was “back in the game” when he finished with me. And I really felt that I was. He had a beautiful basso voice.
Darnell maintained that Beethoven was black. He told me, with some sadness, that Bill Withers was a domestic abuser. He hipped me to the band The Main Ingredient, headed by Cuba Gooding, Sr., who did this exquisite version of “Summer Breeze.”
Darnell and Richard had a falling out and Darnell bounced around. I paid extra for him to cut our hair during the pandemic in our house, but it was expensive, and I haven’t seen him in a while.
Then I found a barbershop in my neighborhood, owned by Jesse, who wasted no time in telling me that he was a Christian. With neither of these men was there any pressure, but I found it interesting that getting a haircut was the place I could be sure to hear about Jesus, He Whom no razor had touched.
Jesse is younger than I am, and he’s not so Christian that we can’t talk about horror movies. A few months ago he told me that there was a woman in his barber college that would always show up in the background of group photos, and his classmates would call her The Grudge, as she appears blurry, menacing, and brunette.
Today I ask Jesse if he’s seen the trailer for the new “Exorcist” movie.
“Yeah,” he says, “I remember I saw the first one in this place I lived that was haunted.”
I didn’t know that Christians believed in hauntings, but I love hearing ghost stories.
“A lot of old people die on the toilet,” Jesse informs me, “and my aunt was in the bathroom of the house and saw this guy walk past her in the mirror, on the way to the toilet. An old guy died on that toilet.”
Jesse also takes great care of my hair, and even wraps my face in a hot towel for a straight razor shave. This is where my ghosts start appearing.
Lying back in the chair, with a hot black towel across my face (the hot towel is there to open my yawning pores and make it easier to shave me), with just the tip of my nose sticking out, I say, “Straight razor shaves and hot towels connect us to our grandfathers.”
My grandfathers were dead long before I was born, but as soon as I say that, I get a chill.
I pay Jesse, tell him I’ll see him in a month, and leave, driving west to Costco, as I am a Man of a Certain Age.
For the past two weeks I have been listening to a 40-song R.E.M. playlist while driving and, until recently, I wasn’t able to finish it because my routes were too short. I’d arrive at my destination and then start the playlist at the beginning when I get back in the car. It’s summer, and I don’t have a lot of money, so I’d mainly drive to work or to my girlfriend’s house. Alas, that latter trip is recently out of the rotation. Necessary, but sad nonetheless.
I relate the news of the breakup to some friends around the country. My friends respond thoughtfully, gently, dryly. There’s none of that trying-too-hard “You got this!” positivity. Of course I got this. What’s the alternative? I got this like I got chicken pox, and I’ll get over it, and it’ll pop up in interesting places forevermore, such is Life’s Rich Pageant and herpes.
Driving around, I finally reach a later-period R.E.M. song, “Leaving New York” (2004), that came out right around the time I wasn’t paying much attention to this band that was so important to me 15 years earlier.
It is a beautiful, poignant song. I must have played it a dozen times. I think it was lying in wait.
While driving I think about how R.E.M. would be a band I’d see if they reunited, knowing that, when they disbanded in 2011, they vowed never to get back together. And suddenly I remember that I had seen them live, on the “Green” tour, I think, with a woman I had powerful feelings for … and the guy she was dating, who’d also been my friend. During the song “You Are the Everything,” she was holding his hand, leaned over to me, and shouted “I love you” in my ear. I hadn’t thought about that in decades.
Listening to the playlist over the past couple of weeks, I regret taking REM for granted and have a new appreciation for Mike Mills, bass player and backup and very occasional lead singer. In an Occasional Lead Singer battle, Mike Mills would kick The Edge’s ass.
“The Edge.” Jesus Christ.
In front of me is a white Volkswagen Beetle, a car with which I’ve lately become familiar, as my ex-girlfriend has one. It is moving very slowly, which is hard to do because I drive especially slowly. It is going slow enough for me to scan its license plate to make sure it isn’t my ex in front of me, trying to stop my car. Then, not engaging a turn signal, the Beetle takes a right to reveal that it had been following a red RAV-4.
Yet another ex drove one of those. Like the Beetle, it is the same color and year as the one I remembered. Like the Beetle, no one I know is driving it. How weird is that? After these two cars, I half expect to see my first girlfriend’s 198(6?) Celica and I am glad I don’t, because at this point it would be a fire hazard in these dry hills.
I get to Costco and, among other things, I buy cat litter. The brand Costco has is called Scoop Away, and that always makes me think of a melancholy Roxy Music song. I move through the aisles, smiling to myself, thinking “Scoop Away the heartache.”
I don’t plan to hasten my death, to remove barriers to preventing it, or anything like that, but the day has been filled with friendly ghosts, some fresher than others, but ghosts just the same. I think we’re all ghosts to some people, even if we still exercise purchasing power.