The owner is a woman from Georgia, the former Soviet satellite. She’s all personality — she likes to do the tango on cruise ships. She says she doesn’t like America that much, though. She’d go back in a second if Georgia was still Communist.
“That was a good life,” she told me once. But she met and married an American, and now she is running her own business, the American dream, which she says she doesn’t like, though I think she really does.
Another barber is from Iran. One day I asked him if he wanted to go back. No, he answered. Why not? He said: “Is better here.”
He didn’t want to talk about it. Now we kid around about the owner and her tango dancing.
The Iranian waved hello when I walked in last time, but he had somebody in his chair.
The new guy was sitting behind the cash box, a short, wide man with the small gestures of someone who might just have wanted to be invisible.
He said: “You want a haircut?” He spoke not as though he wanted to give me a haircut but as though he had no choice but to ask.
I sat down in his chair. He combed my hair over the bald spot. I hate the comb-over look. I showed him how I wanted it.
After a while I asked where he was from.
“Iraq,” he said.
Did he plan on going back?
It was like the Iranian saying that it was better in America, a conversation stopper. Everything was a conversation stopper with the new guy from Iraq.
Maybe he’d once been a talker but he wasn’t one anymore. I said it was hard to get into this country now. He said nothing.
I asked how long he’d been here.
“Year,” he said. “Took two years.”
“So you were there for all the bad stuff.”
“Very bad,” he said.
“Is Iraq now going to get as bad as I think?”
“Much worse,” he said. He offered no explanation, no geopolitical analysis like people on television. Maybe he thought that no matter how bad I thought it would get, I couldn’t understand how bad. If so, I’m sure he was right.
I tried to get him talking.
“You’re a tough guy, I can see you’re tough.”
“Thank you,” he said.
His fingers flew around with the scissors, very fast, as though he thought that if he stood too long by that barber chair someone would zero in on him.
As I sat there, I recalled old staff sergeants I knew, good Marines who’d been in Korea and had come back different in a way that stays different, men who thought a good time on Saturday night was buying a case of beer and drinking every can while sitting alone on their bunks.
Had he been in the military?
“The Iraqi army?”
“Your Army,” he said. “Translator.”
I tried to imagine it, the lying, betraying, shouting and begging on both sides, and he had to translate all of it, and then spend all night worrying about being the messenger that everybody wanted to kill and, of course, the shooting and explosions and people screaming. That was the best I could do, but I knew I had it wrong. You can’t imagine somebody else’s war.
“Army or Marines?”
“Which was better?”
“I was in the Marines in Vietnam,” I said.
“I don’t know about that,” he said.
They’d taken care of him and given him U.S. residence after making him wait two years. He lives here by himself. I wondered what he does on Saturday night, but I didn’t ask.
I said that we didn’t take care of everybody we should have taken care of, we never do. He had nothing to say about that.
I thanked him for his service to our military, even if it was like my service in Vietnam, the hardest work of my life, and it meant nothing.
“Thank you,” he said. I wondered if anyone had thanked him before. Nobody thanked Vietnam veterans until Ronald Reagan when he got into the White House. So refreshing — I liked Ron for that.
“You Sunni or Shia?” I asked.
“Muslim,” he said, looking to see if I understood.
“Good,” I said. He seemed to think I understood. He even gave me a small smile.
I didn’t ask if he had family in Iraq. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear about what had happened to them.
He wanted me out of the chair, I could see that. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked so many questions.
I overtipped. It seemed the least I could do, and probably the most, too.