Hope and Haircuts

November 20, 2008

Two barbershops, fifty years and three thousand miles apart.

At one I had my first haircut without a parent in tow. It was in Florida, and I was a young boy new to the South. The father and son proprietors were Alabama crackers. The only time they spoke more than a few words was when talk turned to farming. They grew corn outside my small town of Maitland. I could tell they wanted to be with their crop rather than mess with other people’s hair.

What I remember most was their only employee, a black kid about my age who swept up hair. We often exchanged glances that felt like long conversations between occupants of different worlds.

The second barbershop is where I get my hair cut now. Two black men, both Portland natives, run it. They and the clientele talk non-stop. Greetings at Leon’s include elaborate handshakes that they’ve patiently taught me, man hugs, and sincere inquiries into everyone’s lives. I wish I could say a white boy sweeps up the hair, thus making it a perfect parallel but opposite universe. It is indeed the perfect place if I want a dose of Portland history from a different perspective or animated political talk. Discussing the presidential campaign during haircuts at Leon’s helped me understand what Barack Obama’s opponent didn’t: “hope” was much more than a campaign slogan.

Last week during my first post-election haircut, hope had taken on a new dimension. “I know Obama’s going to turn this country around,” Horace said as he snipped away at the back of my head. In the mirror I saw him smiling.