A&E Columns

This must be the place: There’s no simple explanation, for anything important any of us do

Bill’s Barber Shop in Johnson City. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Bill’s Barber Shop in Johnson City. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

With the Mason-Dixon Line in the rearview mirror, I pushed the accelerator down and proceeded to make my way up Interstate 81 North towards the Pennsylvania/New York border. 

Thursday evening and it was still about two hours or so until I crossed into the city limits of Binghamton, New York. Find a cheap motel for $59 just off the highway in nearby Johnson City. Grab the toiletry bag, acoustic guitar, small cooler of cold beers and a half-eaten sandwich. Toss everything on the desk in the room and lay out on the bed.

Earlier in the day, I found myself walking into the ICU on the fifth-floor of the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville. A longtime, dear friend had been in a tragic car accident and wasn’t expected to survive. By chance, I was passing through the area en route to my native Upstate New York (aka: the North Country). 

I held her hand, retold some tall tales from our high school days back in the Adirondack Mountains of our youth, told her I loved her, and said goodbye. By the time I hit the Mason-Dixon Line, the process had begun to harvest her organs for donation and take her off of life support. 

And there I was, in this musty motel room with harsh hand soap and an A/C unit in the corner that hummed in an odd tone, more annoying than actually cooling. But, no matter. Turn on the TV atop the dresser. Pop the top of the Budweiser tallboy. Take note of the face in the mirror across the room. 

Nod to yourself. Salute yourself with the drink held high. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions today — she was “one of the good ones,” and now she’s gone. Send another text message of solidarity, hope and compassion to her husband. Type away wildly on the laptop about the nothing and everything of what transpired this afternoon, the sentiment of “why do bad things happen to good people” as one subconsciously takes inventory of their own lot in life. 

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Sip the Budweiser and flip the channels until “Star Wars: A New Hope” appears on the screen. Tuck another pillow behind your head and straight your back up against the headboard. Watch and observe Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Hans Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca and R2D2. 

The mind keeps drifting to earlier today, where I can’t seem — or won’t ever be able to — shake what was seen, felt, heard and experienced in that ICU room. Toss and turn in a jumbled kind of sleep, in and out of a dreamlike state and moments of concentration on the glowing TV still left on in the midnight hour. 

Soon, the morning sun emerges and creeps through the slight opening in the curtains just above the A/C unit in the corner. Another day upon us, onward into the impending knowns and unknowns of Friday, and with gusto. Grab the toiletry bag, acoustic guitar, cooler of cold beers and a half-eaten sandwich. 

Toss everything back into the truck and adjust the rearview mirror. Crank over the engine and pull into the nearby coffee shop drive-thru. Back to the North Country once again, just about five hours left in the 16-hour one-way drive from Waynesville to Plattsburgh.

Before merging back onto the highway, a small building is noticed to the left. Bill’s Barber Shop. With a friend’s wedding tomorrow afternoon and my niece’s birthday party on Sunday, why not grab a quick trim and clean up the neck line? Best to look presentable upon rolling back into your hometown amid familiar faces from your past, from the starting line of where it all began.

Grabbing a chair against the wall, I was third in line for a haircut. At the front of the priority list was a young guy, early 20s, who needed a “high and tight” buzz, seeing as he’ll “be shipping out soon for Army training.” His eyes are bright and focused, but also with a hint of nervousness and cautious optimism for what may or may not lie around the corner once he gets deployed.

The “high and tight” dude gets up, pays, tips and leaves, the old bell ringing above the door for the coming and going of the day’s customers. The gentleman ahead of me jumps into the chair. “It’s been a while since I’ve gotten a haircut, so just keep it short on the sides and trim down the top a little bit,” the elderly voice chirps, his eyes looking into the mirror and up at the barber behind him.

“It’s my birthday this week. I’ll be 81,” the gentleman says to make small talk. I put down the magazine I’m browsing through and wish him a happy birthday from my chair against the wall. 

The gentleman makes more small talk, about his simple life and the daily routine he has found himself in for decades since he retired. He’s alone now, but his head is still held high, for nothing is guaranteed in life, especially time and one’s amount allotted in our respective existence.

About a half-hour later, I emerged from the barber shop with a fresh haircut, arguably the finest trim I’ve ever received. I think about the events of the last few days. I think of the 16-hour drive of endless thoughts, the musty motel room and restless sleep. I think of the “high and tight” kid and what the future holds for him, and the 81-year-old gentleman and his trusty, daily routine.

There’s a kick in my step with the fresh trim. The Friday morning sunshine cascades down upon my current location. Head around the corner and hop back into the truck. Crank the engine and put the truck in drive, but not before taking a deep breath and exhaling it with genuine sense of gratitude for the knowns and unknowns in this universe.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

Leave a comment

4 comments

  • Well written thoughts. Thanks.

    posted by Linda

    Sunday, 06/26/2022

  • Best thing I've read all week...

    posted by Steve Steinbrueck

    Sunday, 06/26/2022

  • Very nice. Thanks for the fine writing.

    posted by Robin Smith

    Sunday, 06/26/2022

  • Lovely writing. Thank you.

    posted by Wesley Satterwhite

    Saturday, 06/25/2022

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