From the waitress Ben orders a cup of coffee, Doug a turkey sandwich. “And two pickles,” he says to her back. “Coffee for lunch?”
“Times are tight buddy.” Ben coughs into his hand. “Looks like I may lose the rental on my chair. A lot of guys I used to see every week. Now they aren’t about to part with thirty-five bucks for a haircut.”
“That’s how you do it? The chairs?”
“Yeah, I pay every month for the right to cut hair. What I make beyond that is my living.”
“Shit, Ben.” Doug shaking his head. “You must be the only fucker I know gives his boss a paycheck. You took a hit?”
“What can I say, plight of the Lower Manhattan barber. When things were rolling, sometimes I’d give the same guy a shave five days a week. Lots of clients like that. But it went south.”
“Well next time one of those Wall Streeters comes in for a shave, cut the fuckhead just a little. For me.”
“Next time?” Ben reaches over the table, accepts a cup of black coffee from the waitress. “Ha. There’s no next time buddy. A few haircuts a day I can pull in but nobody’s buying a shave. Hot lather and a straight razor, easily replaced by a can of foam and a disposable.” And he winces. Maybe the coffee burns his mouth. But probably not. “Fucking economy.”
“Let’s be real man. You lose your job. What then? Work out of your apartment?”
“No, no. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll travel around. Like during the Great Depression. Ride the rails, eat beans from a can, play the harmonica. Didn’t you have a cousin who was a hobo?”
“Not a hobo, a drifter. There’s a difference. And my family doesn’t talk about him much anymore. Got thrown in prison. He was a cat rapist.”
“He would climb through windows and sexually assault woman. Like a cat burglar. But worse. We don’t talk about him anymore.”
“See, I was thinking something different.”
“Huh? Oh, well that’s fucked up too. They’re both fucked up. Either way, this whole idea you have about hitching west with a knapsack of essential tied to a stick, it’s a bit romanticized.”
“True, I’m just thinking out loud.” And snapping his fingers Ben makes the waitress’ eyes, points to his cup. “Maybe I could work with you. Or for you.”
“Don’t think so man. My job, it’s not something you can jump into. And besides, you have a real skill. There’s always been a place for barbers. Really, it’s not something a machine can do.”
“True, I’m just thinking out loud.”
Back against the brick wall and smoking a cigarette, he looked at the skyscrapers. Manmade mountains. Unable to withstand erosion. Filled with used to be clients and sometimes their used to be offices. His whole day had been a cigarette break.
Ten bucks a pack in this city. Ben stepped to the sidewalk’s edge and threw his butt into the street. Can’t pay rent on the chair means can’t pay rent on the apartment means ten bucks for fucking cigarettes. He turned and faced the barbershop window. Five empty chairs and a stack of unread Playboys. The kid who swept hair was fired Tuesday.
“Whoa, Mr. Richmond. How’ve you been?” Ben waved to a man rounding the corner, waved him over. The man, wearing a suit and with a paper under his arm and a briefcase in his hand. A hat. Ben forced a smile. “Mr. Richmond, how’ve you been?”
“Well, you know.” Said the man. He looked from side to side but never into Ben’s eyes. “How has anybody been around here? Around anywhere lately. Bumpy. It’s awful bumpy.” Side to side, then at his watch. “But things will straighten out. I’m sure they will. They always do. Maybe next week I’ll be in for a shave.” And the man moved to step past.
“Sure thing Mr. Richmond. Hey, maybe even a haircut. Hell, you haven’t been around in three weeks.” Ben patted the man’s arm as he shuffles by. “Must be awful shaggy.”
The man stops. Removes his hat, his hair trimmed short. Buzzed close to the scalp. “See, I bought myself a set of clippers. An investment.” And he laughed at his own choice of words. “Cost about the same as a cut. And well, I think I did a decent job.”
“Sure Mr. Richmond. Sure. You’ve got yourself a nice shaped head.”
“Well Ben, I’ll be seeing you.” He set off.
“Sure Mr. Richmond. Sure.” Then to nobody, “Guess I’ll take my lunch break now.”
Ben stares into his third cup. Doug crunches a pickle. “Man, I told her two.” Staring holes in the back of the waitress’ head.
“She probably didn’t hear you.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you got her pissed, snapping for attention. And I suffer. You know that’s really fucking obnoxious right?”
“I guess, but it works. Three cups and I’m feeling a forth can’t do no harm. Got to make a meal out of it.” The cup tilted to the ceiling, drained. Ben raises his hand, about to snap but the waitress is already on her way over. “You can’t argue results.”
“You’re gonna be buzzing out of your mind man.” Then to the waitress, “Dear, do you think I could get another pickle? Thank you.”
“There you go, show a little initiative.” Ben stops a beat, sighs. “Election’s in three weeks. Who’s your man?”
“You know me, raised by my grandma, a total FDR Democrat. So that’s where I’m at. Plus the guy wants to set a date to end the war. Man, eight years ago we were peaceful and prosperous. Look at our sorry asses now.”
“Where you’re coming from I can appreciate. But for me, there’s a moral code above regular black and white, right and wrong. For me, nothing’s more important than loyalty. Like if you, my buddy, like if you got in a brawl. Called some dude’s girl a whore. I’d have your back. Even though you were in the wrong, it’s the right thing to do. That’s where I stand on the war. We may be wrong. But my loyalty lies with my people. And we fight to win.”
“Goddamnit Ben, that’s the most ridiculous shit I’ve heard all day.”
“I mean, what you said about being a hobo was pretty bad. But this, you topped yourself man.”
“But,” Ben holds up a hand. Stop. “The situation I’m in now, I have to vote with my pocketbook. And your guy’s offering the tax cut. Long as you’re pulling in under two fifty. I don’t know if that applies to a big shot like you.”
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t pay taxes.”
“You don’t pay taxes? Kind of nullifies your stance as a Democrat.”
“It is what it is man. But drug dealers don’t get W2 forms.”
“So how do you handle your money?”
“Some is in the bank. But I’m careful, a deposit around my birthday, a deposit around Christmas. Keeps things looking legit. The rest, it’s hidden. None of your business.”
Laughing, Ben rolls his eyes. “Come on buddy, just a hint. Please.”
“A lot of gold. Been valuable in all sorts of civilizations for thousands and thousands of years. I figure if shit goes down, if the dollar isn’t even worth its paper or if zombies rampage. No matter what, gold is fucking golden.”
“How’s business been lately?”
“Surprisingly man, never better.”
Walking up the stairs from the 79th Street station, he saw the van right away. With curtains along the side windows and the color of split pea soup and totally the most conspicuous place to transact. Like everyone’s mental image of a stoner-mobile.
All day long going uptown then downtown then midtown then cross-town. He was winded from so many jogs over the subway stairs. And now this prick might as well have a sign suction cupped to the window, Pothead on Board. Doug popped the passenger door, hopped in. And staring straight said, “Around the block, my man. Drive.” Because like they say about moving targets.
Inside, the van smelled of cigarettes, the guy dressed in mesh shorts and a Knicks T-shirt. “Christ,” Doug said, hiked his thumb toward the van’s rear. “You got Shaggy and Scooby back there?” The guy grinned, looking far prouder than the situation warranted.
“So what’s up,” Doug, the paranoia evaporating. “No work toady?”
“Called out dude. Not about to be canned with a month and a half of sick time in the bank. I earned those days.” The guy made a left onto 76th.
“The normal?” Doug said. Then, “Worried about your job?”
The guy, he nodded and reached into his shorts. “Nobody’s said anything. But you know. We’re in New York, the total epicenter of this shit.” And he pulled out a wad of bills, sorted them with both hands, using his knees to steer.
“I’m not looking to talk myself out of business. But if you’re so concerned, maybe you shouldn’t blow cash on a sack.”
“Dude,” said the guy, arched his eyebrows and tucked his chin. “Dude, I’ve had tuna sandwiches for dinner all week. I make my sacrifices. But peace of mind is a fucking blue-chip.” And he laughed a little.
Doug opened his book bag and felt inside. Quick eye contact between the two and they shook hands. Slowly, clumsily. The guy, all that time driving with his knees. “Can I take you anywhere?”
“Actually I’m trying to get downtown. Wall Street.”
“Whoa dude. I was thinking more like the subway station.”
An empty coffee cup and a plate of crumbs. And a pickle. “All that bitching and you didn’t even eat the thing,” Ben says this.
“How’s she going to bring it after I finish my sandwich. That’s way past pickle time. Go ahead man.” Doug points to the slimy thing with his chin. “Get a little food in that stomach.”
Thinking for a good moment but then Ben grabs the pickle and eats it in three bites. The brine dripping from his moustache. “Thanks.”
“Back to the barber shop?”
“Suppose so. See if I can wrangle up some business.”
“Well, there’s always next week.”
“There’s always next week. What about you?”
“Me, shit I’ve had five pages since we sat down. I’ll be traversing this island till midnight.” Doug pulls some bills from his pocket, smoothes them on the tabletop. “Don’t worry man, coffee’s on me.”
“Same time next week?”
“Always. Next week.”