Archive for August, 2010

A Deficit

Pete’s touch is astonishingly calming.  He gently folds down the collar of my shirt, puts the stretchy tape around my neck and then sweeps his two fingers around it before he secures it along the nape.

The white vinyl cape comes next, also secured in the back.  With a hand on each shoulder Pete smooths the surface – I can see this in the mirror and feel it when I stop to think about it.  Mostly I don’t because Pete and I are talking.  Talking about something, but nothing too, at the same time.

His fingers flex, fanning out to their fullest over the top of my head and he uses the gentlest grip to position my head so that it’s lined up opposite of his.  He moves his eyes back and forth quickly surveying the situation and then the little muscles in his fingers, which are still atop my head, motions for me to adjust the way I’m holding it.  Slightly – just slightly.

Vast bold sweeps of the electric razor move across my skull.  Front to back.  Side to side and it’s over in less than a minute or two.

From behind and with one hand, Pete pushes my head forward and then with multiple gentle motions he moves the electric razor up and down along my neck moving from behind my right ear to behind my left ear.

“Take a look and see if this is short enough,” he says while offering me a round hand-held mirror.

I run my own hands around my skull and tell him it feels fine.  “I do it by touch,” I tell him.  “I can tell how it looks by the way it feels.”

Now the electric razor begins to dart to various spots along my hairline.  Pete and I are talking, this time about the politics.  When he needs to make a point he stops the clippers, places one of his hands on my shoulder, lowers himself just so and looks me right in the eye.  But when our eyes connect it’s in the mirror in front of us and somehow his point becomes my point (or vice-versa) because even though we’ve made eye contact, we’re doing so by being side-by-side.

I wonder if it’s this very fact alone that make barber shops such intimate places.  Discussions with one’s barber can include virtually any topic, but unlike any other setting, we’re always talking to one another from the same physical perspective.  And we are simultaneously looking at each other and ourselves, eye to eye.

Men are usually jockeying for a position – namely to be correct and we typically do this via any number of physical and/or verbal maneuvers.  To make our point we will do almost anything to subjugate the other party.  In the barber shop, however, learning takes place on what must be the most level playing field that men ever encounter.

Pete moves his clippers behind my ears after gently folding each one forward.  He tilts my head from one side to the other as he works his way around, tidying up and looking for rouge hairs.  I hear the purr of the foam dispenser and within a moment I feel the warm gel being placed along the back of my neck.

Pete reaches for the straight edge, then with the most benevolent touch moves my head slightly forward again.  It’s only the sound of the straight edge that I sense.  With a damp cloth he cleans up the remains.  He tells me about his youngest daughter’s first communion while doing so.

A dash of powder and then dusting with the brush.  The white vinyl cape is released followed by the stretchy tape around my neck, which is by this time damp.   Before I get out of the chair, Pete reaches into my shirt and unfolds my collar, placing it into the correct position.
“I like your hair this way better,” he says.  “It makes you look tougher.”

As I collect my hat and glasses from the rack across the room Pete jostles towards me.  “Wait.  Don’t move,” and he reaches out to hold my arm as if he needs to steady me.  I stop and he steps a few feet into the room with the clippers to get the couple of hairs that he missed.

What Pete does isn’t necessarily unique.  What is unique, perhaps, is that the majority of Pete’s customers are gay men and gay men are not accustomed to this manner of touching.  I suspect that regardless of orientation, men in general are not accustomed to this level of intimacy with another man.

So often gay men are trapped into an environment without touch.  The casual reader may find this interesting because gay men appear to be more free with their emotions than their straight counterparts.  Underneath this freedom of emotional expression there is often a very subtle power play that’s trying to work it’s way to the surface.

“Will he like me?”  “Does he like me”?  “Do you think he’d like to go out with me?”  “Is he  more interested in me than that other guy?”  The layers of internal dialogue that take place within the context of gay men being physical with one another are almost paralyzing.

Heterosexual (straight) men use sports as a means for physical closeness with other men.  The ass-grabbing, group-hugging and locker room towel-snapping isn’t just permitted, it’s expected.  Even as spectators, straight men will embark upon a level of physical expression towards one another that ends immediately after the game.

Maybe it’s simply an American male phenomenon.  I have two Islamic friends, one from Afghanistan and another from Somalia.  My Somali friend always greets me with a caress and will walk with me arm in arm.  The same is true with my friend from Afghanistan.  There is a kindness that I feel with these two men that that I do not feel from my American friends.

As I consider all of this I’m intrigued by how touch is so lacking in our lives as American men – and as a gay man myself, I personally know this to be true.  None of it would have surfaced, these thoughts and this short essay, had it not been for the caring, gentle touch of my barber Pete.

Maybe it’s accepted in the barber shop simply by the mere fact that the barber himself is the one who has access to all the sharp implements.  As little boys we learned quickly what it meant when the barber said “hold still”.  The consequences seemed immense.

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Think with me for a moment…

Let’s say that I want to live in a big house. Well, it doesn’t have to be that big, but what I’d like to have I can’t quite afford – a couple extra rooms and a larger kitchen. Maybe an extra bathroom.

Currently, however, I can only afford something that’s less than I truly want, so I have two choices. Live without a home or buy something that’s affordable and put a little work into it.

Let’s say I chose the latter. With the loan I’m offered I purchase a small house that’ll do for now. It’s practical and does the job – providing shelter as well as offering an investment opportunity.

Over the course of a couple years I spend a little, make some repairs, remodel the existing kitchen and bath. Spruce up the yard. Neighbors walk by and see the work and decided that perhaps they can spruce up their place a little too. Fresh paint, a new porch and maybe some new landscaping.

Then one day, a few years later, I realize that not only is my current home looking better than ever, but the neighborhood has gotten better as well. More people have taken it upon themselves to repair or at least tidy up their homes and yards. It took some work. Not just for me, but for everyone in the neighborhood.

The next year I decide to sell my house and with the profits I’m able to buy a house that’s got more of what I want. It has a bigger kitchen, a second bath and a spare bedroom. I like it! It’s what I dreamed about having for a long time, and had I not purchased my previous home, (and put a little work into it) I’d have not been able to create a profit. In fact, the neighborhood may not have even improved. Essentially, the investment paid off, not just for me, but for my neighbors. They can expect a profit because, over all, the neighborhood improved.

What happened with this theoretical housing model is what can happen with the 3C rail corridor – so long as Ohio politicians decide to, at least invest in a little something. I agree that we’d probably all prefer high-speed trains zipping in and out of town that could carry us to Chicago or New York in a matter of hours. But right now that’s far too expensive.

And sure, expanded rail service in Ohio is going to take some investment. We’ll need train stations, some new switches and we’ll probably start by using some existing equipment. Just like my first house – it’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

And while we live with what we can afford, we add a few more jobs here and there. Our train stations attract a certain amount of attention and maybe some businesses pop up to support those traveling by train. It costs a little to maintain, but it’s an investment. We’re working towards a goal.

A few years later it’s decided to upgrade the tracks and remove some of the grade crossings so that the trains can go faster. New technology allows for improvements that were not possible just a few years earlier. But, because we made the initial investment, we can now capitalize on the existing infrastructure.

Some may think that this is an over-simplified model. Perhaps it is. After all, I can zip to and from Chicago and New York by plane and I don’t have to think about making an investment of my own.

Understand, however, that our airports have not been built by the airlines. And our highways have not been built by the automobile manufactures. Indeed not. Airports and highways are built through federal, state and local funding. These government funded facilities support economic opportunities for the associated communities.

As an example, might Experience Columbus find it difficult to attract conventions if Port Columbus were to shut down? Would our hotels find guests if they could only arrive and depart by automobile? Would our shopping centers and entertainment venues survive if our highways could not bring in visitors? Could UPS deliver your package if our streets didn’t exist?

As a reader, you may never ride one of the 3C trains. Or maybe you will. But as a resident of Columbus, and as a resident of Ohio, you’ll receive tangible benefits by having this city connected to a national passenger rail system.

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