By Sean Dietrich
I’m in North Alabama, far from the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Long stretches of the Gulf Coast are trashed. But by a divine miracle, my family is safe, alive, and accounted for. So are my friends and neighbors. A miracle.
So I’m getting a haircut.
I almost went for a haircut yesterday, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the televised hurricane coverage. It was high adrenaline stuff.
Gone are the days of sedate news reporters who look like your father’s dentist, seated behind news desks. Today, we have a breed of brave journalists, fearless, with the courage to risk their lives for breaking news, public safety, and six-figure incomes.
Yesterday, I watched one such reporter stand on a beach, enduring gale force winds that were strong enough to ruin most reproductive organs.
He screamed into the camera: “It’s windy out here, guys! Super, super windy! Back to you, Bob!”
I shudder to think of what could’ve happened if he hadn’t told us that.
Anyway, my mother texted me today and told me the lethal storm passed over her home yesterday. Today, she is enjoying sunshine, crocheting a scarf.
Like I said, a miracle.
So getting back to the barbershop. When I enter the shop, a bell on the door announces my arrival. This is your average clip joint. There is a barber’s pole out front.
Inside are men who gather for no particular reason. They pause their conversation when I enter.
I greet them. They are quiet. But soon, they go back to telling stories like before.
I am grateful for their stories. I’m tired of hurricanes, storm surges, and reporters with death wishes. I need something to take my mind off the anxieties of Hurricane Michael. And that’s exactly what I get here.
Soon, I am sitting in a barber’s chair overhearing stories of all kinds.
The woman snipping my hair is a hairdresser—trained in cutting women’s hair. There is a difference, she explains, between being a barber and a hairdresser.
“A hairdresser can cut women’s hair and men’s hair,” she says. “But a barber cuts men’s hair and tells dirty jokes.”
This shop is full of white-haired men who love jokes. They talk and talk. She listens to their outlandish tales without interrupting because she is a smart woman.
In her line of work she has learned the two cardinal rules of old men:
1. Always tell clever stories intended to make people laugh.
2. When all else fails, fart.
One man is talking about his son, who sells agricultural equipment up in Pennsylvania. It’s not a funny story, per se, but it’s good to hear a man brag on his son.
Another man talks about his fishing trip, and about getting stranded on a lake. Men laugh. I laugh. It’s a good tale with a great punchline.
Then, a man with a walrus mustache tells a joke about the preacher and the farmer’s daughter, and several of us nearly ruin our pants.
Then. An older man begins talking about the old days.
This topic is holy. And it brings out the best in elderly men. They talk of their own history with a kind of reverence you can feel. They wear looks on their faces that make them seem older and wiser than they are. They smile. They recite the simple poetry of our people.
One man recalls the autumn evening he stole his brother’s Chevy so he could take his first sweetheart to a movie.
Another recalls the day he kissed his sweetheart goodbye and went to Korea, then Vietnam.
The man in the barber chair next to me, cape around his neck, tells the story of how he met his second wife:
“She was a school teacher,” he says. “My first wife died when I’s twenty-six. I was raising my boys on my own, and this pretty teacher come into town…”
His story is beautiful, and he tells it so well. After one year, he finally worked up enough courage to ask her out. He took her to Huntsville and bought her a steak and a glass of beer.
They were married a lifetime. She is no longer with us.
When my haircut is finished, I bid these men goodbye. I wish I had a good joke to tell them, or a good story, but that would only spoil it. Today, I was here to listen.
I crawl into my vehicle and breathe a few times. I call my mother. She is glad to hear from me, and I am glad to hear her voice.
And even though this hurricane caused a mess that will cost billions to clean; even though it looks a war zone only thirty miles from my house; even though a storm almost killed us all, we’re alive. And I am grateful for that.
I am grateful for old men who tell stories. For laughter. Good haircuts.
And any miracle involving my mother.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.