Friday, December 21, 2007


The shop was located at a busy Asian strip mall, between an ethnic deli and a herbal medicine practice. A glass door opened into a cheap glittering interior created by the mirror-lined walls, glass counters, and neon tubes.

The barbers plying their trade inside were far from glittering, except the chubby lady who wore various twinkling jewelry all over her neck and other customary body parts. The rest were three men whose blooming youth had long departed into many sunsets, including a thin one whose rough skin looked like tanned hide and who always wore a black turtleneck with black pants to match; a short and bulky one whose eyes and complexion oddly reminded me of a fish; and a tall, slim, sallow-looking fellow whose top priority in life seemed to be his clothes. The sallow dandy was from Indonesia and did not understand Vietnamese, which was spoken by the other three.

The lady was the chatterbox of the lot. She had cut my hair the first time, but she had made me so uncomfortable with her incessant jabbering that I had switched to the short guy for my regular barber. She still talked, of course, but at least it was more bearable not having her right behind my ears.

Her match, if any, would be the man in black. He was not as talkative, but always ready with a rejoinder which could be quite biting sometimes. My barber was the quiet type, usually called on to take sides in an argument by the other two but always managed to emerge neutral. The dandy, due to the language barrier, did not participate in any conversation around him unless it was in English, but if he thought he was out of it then oh dear he was sadly mistaken.

I thought it was not bad a setup with two vivacious characters to keep the scene lively and one subdued personality as a shock absorber. However the scene must have become too lively at some point, because one day I noticed the absence of the man in black and was told he had quit after a big row. The chubby lady seemed still upset and her voice rang with indignation.

"He called me a busybody. He dared to tell me to mind my own business. I was just wondering why on earth that guy would want plastic surgery for his nose, he's not a woman for heaven's sake, and it's not like his nose was broken or anything."

It turned out the guy who had had a nose job done was the Indonesian dandy.

"He said I was so meddlesome I couldn't get a husband, and he called me fat, which I'm not! Is he any better? He's so rude, so wicked that his wife has left him, the old jerk!"

It seemed the word volleys had spinned so out of control that the shop owner had had to intervene, with the result of the man in black collecting his stuffs and storming out of the door.

The barbershop became much quieter. Business continued as usual, but a certain awkwardness appeared to hang over the atmosphere.

One day I came and saw the man in black again. The owner had cajoled him into coming back, and even the chubby lady seemed happy about it. The scene became lively again, but with less contention and more good nature.

Then another day I showed up for my usual biweekly haircut and did not see the man in black. Immediately I noticed that the lady was very, very upset. "Oh no, not again!" I thought. But it was not like I thought at all.

The lady had just come back from a hospital to visit the man in black, who was suffering from a kidney problem. Since he had no family, she had been taking care of him as much as her time allowed.

"He isn't getting any better," she said in distress. "He was never good-looking to start with, and now he looks terrible. But he's sweet, a lot sweeter than he was before."

But the man in black did get better and returned to work. A couple of months later I left the area. I came back on a business trip after about a year and stopped by the old barbershop. My guy and the dandy were still there, but the chubby lady and the man in black were not. They had got married, pooled their resources, and opened their own barbershop somewhere else.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

One in Six and a Half Billion

It came to my attention today that the world population was currently at more than six and a half billion. That is not just a sea, but an entire ocean of humanity.

Six and a half billion people, either corpulent or malnourished, exquisitely attired or destitutely ragged, all drawing life from the same earthly resources, carrying the same flesh on the same bones. I wonder how utterly trivial each of us would look in the eyes of some transcendent being whose view encompasses the billions of light years across the cosmos.

Even from a human perspective, the significance of an individual miserably shrinks in a crowd. A person receives far more attention in a village than in a big city. Hercule Poirot, my favorite fictional detective, once looked at a sunbathing crowd on a beach and remarked that they were nothing but meat. There is indeed something demeaning about a crowd, not to mention the phenomenon contemptuously termed "mass psychology" by social scientists, which sounds like it is sheep or cattle they are talking about.

One in six and a half billion, there is nothing like that to make one feel depressingly cheap.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Two Calvins

Our eyes had met a few times, and this time I nodded a greeting to the quiet black man sitting at one of the leg extension machines at the gym. He was small and frail, the type who came to exercise on a doctor's recommendation and not from a desire to get some brawn.

His name was Calvin, a computer engineer of the foot soldier category who had been kicked around during the stormy post-bubble years. He was now settled at a small firm surviving on subcontracts and got the jitters at every cough from their main client. His worn face looked kind but tired, and his manner was self-effacing. We chatted about work, family, and what's happening in the wicked wide world.

Another day I came to the gym and saw a new face, white, doing a chest fly. He seemed likeable, I thought. A few minutes later, looking up from my own exercise I saw the new guy standing near me with an engaging smile. He was a bit taller than me and as fit as a fiddle. His name incidentally was also Calvin.

The white Calvin had a boyish, intelligent face, and his bearing was more assertive than his black namesake. He worked at a national institute just outside Washington. We talked a bit about how life was treating each of us while exchanging brief comments on the news flashing on TV.

I found both Calvins similar in many ways, including a ready sense of humor. Yet I noticed the two men never came into contact. When I mentioned one to the other, like "See that guy over there? His name is Calvin too." I got a vapid "Oh yeah" in one instance and a cold "I don't know him" in another. So I continued to talk to the white Calvin at one corner of the weight room then move to another corner to shake hands with the black one.

A few months later I left town, leaving my two friends behind at that club. They were still toting that painful historical baggage which a newcomer like me couldn't even aspire to understand.

Two Sexes of Rain

The sky outside my window turned gray, then it started drizzling.

My mind drifted to the mystery novels by Tony Hillerman, which had acquainted me with the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico. The mysteries themselves were quite enjoyable fiction, but the Navajo culture was a uniquely fascinating reality.

To the Navajos, there were two sexes of rain. The male rain was intense with thunder and lightning, but it was also short-lived. The female rain was softer, but it was also a cold, nagging drizzle that could last days.

I had no idea how the Navajos had come up with their crazy rain sexes. But from now on if I ever encountered a man who looked like a wet rat, I'd know that he had been soaked by a female rain somewhere.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Every Drunk Must Have His Drink

Sometimes I feel bothered by my own sensitiveness. My senses seem to pick up more than those of the average guy. A little wild flower hiding in the grass by a roadside delights me with its unassuming beauty, the rustle of leaves in the wind talks to me of ephemeral lushness and the ensuing cold deprival. When I lie on a hilltop staring into an immense blue sky, the fear of loneliness is so overwhelming I have to clutch at the earth around me the way a shipwrecked sailor would clutch at a piece of flotsam.

Then there are snippets of forgotten days, which emerge from some dark recesses in my memory when least expected. Just trivial impressions from the past, but somehow they manage to retain the vividness that makes me feel with them and laugh or groan accordingly. Like the time I won all the marbles of a neighborhood kid and he came to the back door of my house crying until I put the whole loot in an old sock and returned it to him, or the moment a lovely girl smiled radiantly at me and I was so dumbstruck I just stood there staring at her like a bonehead.

I feel old each time I catch myself dwelling on memories as if I had no life in the present, and sometimes I feel embarrassed for possessing a sensitivity which is almost feminine in its delicateness. Surely an average guy should be planning for his next exploit and not supposed to notice a maple leaf in autumn or to reminisce of a childhood game. But then I don't go bawling in a bar nor exchange dirty jokes with my buddies over a beer either. As Billy Joel put it in one of his songs, every drunk must have his drink. Maybe I'm a drunk in my own way, so I might as well have my drink when it comes and be happy about it.