Friday, August 17, 2007

Elegy of a Haircut

Last Saturday I sat in a new chair for the first time in over fifteen (maybe more) years - and had my hair cut.

The barbershop is a special place. There is an amazing aura about it. Especially if it's in an old building with some character and time worn stories to show.

That's the kind of haunt where I've had my hair handled for many years running. A little hole in the wall which probably wouldn't be suited for anything other than the one chair, sink, table, and mirror. The proprietor's name was Gus.

Gus is an old Greek gentleman with stories to tell. Well, I couldn't always understand his stories, actually, because of his heavy accent. And he'd get upset at you if understanding what he was trying to say became too much the challenge. Oh, how many times he'd have to repeat himself. But you could always catch enough to follow along.

"Good customer!" he'd tell the others waiting when I was in his chair. But that's the nature of this relationship. I'd been with Gus since my teenage years. He got the collicks out of my hair. I gave him a shot after he bought the shop from it's previous owner. At the time of its stewardship under the other man, I couldn't stand the shop. Perhaps I wasn't ready to have my head in that place so young just yet. Maybe the barbershop is not for boys, but men. Still, I found him a little rough.

It's a real risk putting your life and trust at the mercy of a man wielding knives. There's an inherent trepidation. Not only could he make you look embarassingly bad, but a wrong cut in the right place and bleeding you will be. Of course, this is the history of barbers. They knew where to cut when belief was that yielding blood was the way to cure all ills. So one hopes the person allowed so close to your face is not only well trained but good hearted. A man who you can trust.

Gus was certainly all of this. And, so, an enjoyable experience he would create. From the smells of the barbershop to it's sounds and sights, it made for a nice moment of relaxation.

Upon entering his shop, Gus would greet you. If walking or driving past, he'd wave hi. "Can you get me, Gus?" I'd inquire. "Sure!" he would respond. No matter what time, even after official "closing", "If someone wants to come in, I take them" he told. Gus would offer you a paper (Sun-Times) if you had to wait. Or just get up out his own own barber chair where he rested picturesque (dressed in traditional white jacket) while there were no customers around. Then it was time to be seated, and over your front the apron cover laid. There you'd stay, enjoying the few minutes of quietude. Every so often, about three months for me, this short time taken, away from the world, watching it all pass by. Indeed, on the avenue where his business resides passed traffic, foot and motors both. Life moving on which you are usually a part of, bustling, now momentarily removed - to witness from the other side. Soft music played on the little radio, classical typically - unless is was Saturday and Chuck Schaden's old time radio in the time of WNIB. It was just there for him to listen to while he worked, but I enjoyed it also. The sounds of the street, too, offered intrigue - cars passing, people chatting, busses squeeling, commerce. Here I saw the seasons pass. Summer's warmth in airconditioned comfort. Or winter's early darkness and the barbershop's twilight glow.

I'd come right before a special event, at times, to make sure I looked so sharp.... even running late to my appointment. "Had to get a haircut," left to explain.

"Sorry it's been so long," I might apologize if I let may hair get more lengthy than usual. "No problem!" (and no extra charge), he would say. Then we'd chat, perhaps, about life, family, sports, the neighborhood, the weather, whatever. Had I seen him Saturday we would have talked, no doubt, about horse racing. Gus played the ponies back in his day. And I share some interest in the topic. So with the Arlington Million off and running that fine afternoon, we'd likely have struck up some conversation. "You got a ticket?" I might have asked to set us off and running.

I always loved the aftershave Gus used. He even gave me a bottle full once. Or having my hairline shaved at the neck. It just can't be the same at some salon or Supercuts as here.

And, of course, when it was busy the guys would chat. Nothing too serious, usually, but men sharing the company we need.

What's this, the phone is ringing? He even had an old rental unit. Complete with a genuine dial. "Gus's barber shop!" came the answer. Typically, a telemarketer. Click.

Back to finish the job. A pinch on the nose with that lotion. And brushing off loose hair. Off came the apron, time to sweep up. Last person there tonight. Pay him the small fee, offer a tip. Into his pocket or making of change at the little old antique register. Then came the age old exchange. Gus had a candy container. It wasn't just for kids. A sucker, some hard candy, occasionally chocolate bars. "Can I have one, Gus?" he'd often be asked by a middle aged or elderly man. I didn't eat them much, but still accepted the suckers he frequently gave. They'd pile up, or I might choose to enjoy. One year, I found a few I had around, and offered them as Christmas gifts pulled from my pocket. Much appreciated by the recipients, they even asked for choice of flavors. This, then, was always a nice, fun gesture of his and certainly made me smile.

Time to go. Out the door. "Have a good weekend!" he'd wish you, then wave farewell as you stepped on the bus. Or maybe he'd beat you to the door. Bottle of dinner wine in hand from the local liquor store, you'd see him heading home with arriving family car or at the corner bus stop.

Gus hasn't been terribly well for some time. He's aging with all its aches. And this past Spring, his back gave out. He took generally ill. Rumor is his lease expired and has not been renewed. No longer does his chair reside at the long serving establishment, with white coat overhanging for the night or weekend's rest. Empty sits his shop.

His career as a barber in this Chicago storefront has come to an end. And we are all poorer for it; especially those of us who were his patrons. Goodbye, Gus!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Billy The Mime

A friend of mine likes mime. She's REALLY into it. This has piqued my interest.

About a year and a half ago I attended a performance of traditional miming for contemporary times by a class of theater students at Northwestern. It was kinda cool. Complete with a tuxedoed man holding up the introductory titles of each piece.

While I don't follow the miming world (is there still much of a "miming world" in popular performance art?) extensively, I do find intriguing the physically mimed gesticulating of other artists. And, occasionally, something slides my way that suggests I should go out and see this.

Word that this particular performer, Billy the Mime, would be in Chicago was just the thing. Mimes typically come off as cheesy, quaint, or just plain odd and uninteresting, even weird. Here was heralded an artist who took both his craft and his expression seriously.

Indeed, he challenges with serious, yet wildly entertaining work. In several pieces he offered Saturday night at the Lakeshore Theater on Broadway he provided a series of selections with meaning. These are thoughtful pieces. This is no child's play. Sex, drugs, rock and roll were all onstage, plainly for what they are. An exploartion of the dark recesses of humanity, but also our joys, our wonders, our funny foibles.

A remembrance of canibal Jeffery Dahmer was one work, for example. An entitlement, "A Day Called 9/11" contrasted a man who worked at the Twin Towers with a terrorist. "High School" led us through the sometimes silliness of the topic (bullying, gym class) then took a sudden turn to shootings. Perhaps most poignant was "The Abortion". In it, the worries of woman are exhibited emotionally so sincerely as to make you feel her pain.

Enabling the audience in identifying with the artist and what he wants to express are the real accomplishment of Billy's endeavor. He takes you through a story, drawing you into his world and helping you to feel what his characters do. It is an amazing feat to bring this about through only physical movement and sometimes minor assistance of props.

Wearing white shirt, black pants, and red shoes with occasional accents as an addition, Billy performs in traditional white face. The classical miming technique employed is impeccable and drawn upon in upbuilding a larger thematic storytelling, or occasionally just for comedic effect. His solo miming is generally accompanied by music which sets the right mood for the movement. This proves to be important in helping the piece along. It adds something. Though it is, perhaps not essential, it is valuable. That is not to say that the work would be better off without it (rather the opposite is true), but only that the message likely would still come through were sound absent. However, the soundscape's presence does serve to highlight those moments when silence breaks through. For it is, then, not quietude for it's own sake or because nothing better is available. Instead, this silence also proves a purpose in communicating something of the moment.

Billy remains speechless throughout the night's show of about 75 minutes or so. His works are introduced by poster board cards he holds up at the beginning of each individual presentation. Though the ink on them could be bolder, ideally, in order to read these titles more easily in anyplace beyond a small theater. But if this is the greatest complaint I have to offer, then it illustrates that it is an excellent show, indeed.

The price for this night's entertainment was a mere $15. Well worth every penny, particularly for a touring artist of this calaber. I only found it disappointing that not more of an audience took advantage of a unique offering of such quality in Chicago by attending. Could it have been the nice summer evening with other opportunities? Perhaps publicity was lacking? Or maybe no one likes mime? They shouldn't be scared. Indeed, they would likely be well pleased at what could be witnessed. Still the 40 or so who did show up were raving afterwards in the auditorium and halls. Hopefully next time he hits town word will spread and Chicago will come out to see what they are missing. Or catch him in New York upcoming at the Flea Theater if you can.