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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Here Comes My Ball and Chain

I AM AN ENTHUSIASTIC FAN of train travel. I’ve had reason to shuttle between upstate New York and Chicago on several occasions, and hopped the Lake Shore Limited whenever possible. I can’t sleep during the overnight trip, but I have difficulty sleeping anyway. This is the story of a visit I paid to my Chicago-based family members in November 1993, a date that’s easy to remember both because I was carrying a Motorola MicroTAC cell phone and because my sister and I saw a production of the show “Assassins” at a downtown theater on the 30th anniversary of the event that climaxes the show.

More specifically, this is the story of how I learned how effortlessly racial harmony can be achieved. As my weeklong visit ended, I had to dump a rental car at a location a few blocks from Union Station, from which my train would depart. I’d given myself a few extra hours during which I could explore the downtown streets. My mother’s house, where I’d been staying, was in the northwestern suburb of Buffalo Grove, and, except for the hard-won trip into the city on the 22nd to see that show, my vehicle sat idle in the driveway.

But by the time I hit, after I’d walked from the rental place to the train station, lugging an ever-heavier bag, I’d lost my wanderlust. There’d been too much mom. I wanted to get the hell out of Chicago. A haircut, a little something to eat . . . then a long, relaxing train ride home. And there’d be a note of romance in that train-station barber shop, a throwback to the old days when you could get your face shaved and your shoes shined without leaving that chair.

Union Station, it turned out, no longer shared my sense of romance. No barber shops to be seen and no barber shops, I learned when I asked at a service desk, to be found there. “But you should be able to find a barber shop nearby,” the attendant told me. He indicated a passing porter. “He probably knows where there’s one.”

The porter regarded my head and said, “You should go see Mr. Leak. He’s got a place over on Jefferson. Go out the station on the Jackson Boulevard side – come on, I’ll walk with you – and then you turn left on Jackson and walk a couple of blocks to Jefferson. Go left and you ‘ll see his shop on the left. Mr. Leak’s. And don’t you worry. Mr. Leak started out as an Army barber. He knows how to cut white-people hair.”

I followed the directions and easily found the place (it has since closed and been replaced by a Subway franchise). A couple of steps down and into the crowded, noisy place, where four barber chairs, each with a barber and customer, dominated the room that otherwise was ringed with wait-here chairs and hung with TV sets. Although the TVs were on an blaring, I swear they were silenced as soon as I entered. Certainly all conversation suddenly stopped. Some ignored me; a few stared pointedly my way. Mine was the only white skin in evidence, and in this context it was a pink, pasty, flaccid shade of white I wore.

As intimidated as I felt, I knew I’d feel worse if I walked out. I took off my heavy coat, hung it on a nearby stand, and settled into a chair, pretending to be unaware of the attention. I picked up a magazine. Ebony. Self-consciously arresting the impulse to replace it, I leafed through its pages with insincerely exaggerated interest. In other words, I went the Full Ofay.

Soon enough, the oldest of the quartet of barbers beckoned me to his chair. It was easy to tell that this was Mr. Leak. He wore an aura of command. People emerged from a back room to put a word or two in his ear. He chatted with others who were waiting, asking after family members. He kept enough of an eye on a television to trade comments with the other barbers about the basketball game in question, speaking learnedly, it sounded to me, about the players and their prospects. After he determined that I wanted a routine trim – “No flat top?” he said, laughing – he proceeded to massage my scalp.

Which combined with the warmth of the room and the comfort of the chair to drag me into a stupor, soon supplanted by sleep. It should have been the least likely place for nap-averse me to journey to Nod, but it was like going under anesthesia as the sounds of basketball and conversation and ringing phone swam into gentle background cacophony.

Except for that persistent phone. “Anybody going to get that?” asked Mr. Leak, and I realized that the ringing was issuing from my MicroTAC, across the room, deep in my overcoat pocket. “It’s mine,” I said groggily, suddenly aware of the potential for still more embarrassment. I felt as if – I feared – there was a system of etiquette at work here of which I was ignorant, even as I realized the incipient bigotry in such a thought.

“Are you going to get that?” asked Mr. Leak as the establishment’s chatter quieted again. “No, no,” I said. “It’s just my wife, checking up on me.”

The place exploded. Shrieks and other types of laughter mixed with comments like, “Oh, yeah, you don’t want to be answering it!” and “They always checking up on you, ain’t they?” and “Hoo-ee! My old lady is always on that phone, looking for me!” and I was drawn into the most basic, the most fundamental of bonds, that of the woman-harried male. Mr. Leak himself chuckled loudly and clapped me on the back, and my haircut commenced. ///

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