The cleaning lady chased me out of my office today, beyond the reach of e-mail and phone calls and the Web, so I fled the apartment and ventured out into the cool blue sunshine. The sidewalks of my Upper West Side neighborhood were thick with strollers, all of them headed toward Central Park. I walked in the other direction, and before I knew it I was walking through the front door of Antonio’s Barber Shop, Get haircut having figured prominently on my yellow desktop stickie for the past couple of weeks.
I like Antonio’s, mostly because it reminds me of all the other barber shops I’ve visited regularly. Not the mall-type franchise stores that I patronized in college–I never liked those–but the ones in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I got my hair trimmed in the company of older men who chatted pleasantly about matters of no interest as the radio purred softly in the background. I found a place like that when I first moved to New York twenty years ago, and last year I found another one in my own neighborhood. You don’t hear much English at Antonio’s, just the soothing murmur of Spanish-language conversations whose subject matter is scarcely less intelligible to me than the talk of business and sports that I recall from my Smalltown days. This afternoon the TV was tuned to a baseball game–the Yankees versus the Red Sox, I think–and I liked that, too. I closed my eyes, listened to the click and hum of the barber’s tools, moved my head on command, and imagined myself when young.
Alas, imagination gave way to harsh reality when I opened my eyes and saw the salt-and-pepper locks that littered the floor around my chair. Perhaps I’m not quite being fair to myself, since most of my hair is still a comfortably mousy shade of brown, and from a distance it’s almost possible to overlook the fact that much of it has turned steely gray. Today, though, no pretending was possible: I’m all grown up.
Do I feel grown up? Who does? Sometimes I feel sixteen, sometimes sixty, usually somewhere in between, but never, ever forty-nine. Nor can I decide what effect my young friends have on my sense of self. Do they make me feel younger–or older? I honestly can’t say, though one thing I know, or think I know, is that my barber makes me look younger. So my friends tell me, at any rate, and I’ve chosen to believe them. Ever since I started going to Antonio’s, which is close enough to my front door to make casual visits practical, my hair has been both a good deal shorter and considerably more kempt. Add to that the fancy new rimless eyeglasses the Mutant picked out for me last month, and you get…what? A middle-aged writer with graying hair and hip-looking bifocals, that’s what.
My progressive bifocals (the telltale line that separates the two parts of the lens is invisible) are the only deliberate attempt I’ve ever made to conceal an outward sign of advancing age. It’s never occurred to me, for instance, to color my hair, nor do I ask my barber to make me look younger. “Not too short,” I say, and he takes it from there. As he fulfilled my gnomic request this afternoon, I sat passively in the chair and found myself recalling, somewhat to my surprise, a stanza by a poet for whom I’ve never much cared:
Youth ended, I shall try
My gain or loss thereby;
Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.
And shall I? Shall any of us? I was talking the other evening to a fellow critic seated behind me on the aisle of a Broadway theater. He’s eighty, and doesn’t look it, nor does he feel it. “I don’t feel a day over sixty-five,” he told me. “I keep waiting for all that wisdom that’s supposed to come with old age–but it hasn’t come yet.”
As for me, all I know is that nothing I imagined for myself when young has come to pass: everything is different, utterly so. I’m not a schoolteacher, not a jazz musician, not the chief music critic of a major metropolitan newspaper, not a syndicated columnist, not settled and secure. Nor am I the person I expected to be, calm and detached and philosophical: I still cry without warning, laugh too loud, lose my head and heart too easily, the same way I did a quarter-century ago. The person I was is the person I am, only older. Might that be wisdom of a sort?
I came home from Antonio’s to find my apartment slightly askew, the way it always is after my cleaning lady comes to call. The prints on the walls are slightly crooked, the furniture not quite in the right place. A stranger’s hand has passed over the neatly squared-off surface of my life and mussed it up. Usually I spend five or ten minutes setting everything to rights, but today I decided to leave it as is. All I did was throw the windows open, hopefully.