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Southern Comfort

by Nancy Clark
"Oh, look, it's closed for vacation," I said to my husband as we pulled up to the barbershop. We had recently solved one of those new-to-the-community problems--finding a barber. This shop had been recommended and had been fine on first visit. Now, in part irritated by the "closed" sign, Dick felt compelled to get a haircut--anyway--somewhere. I recalled a detail I'd stashed in my mind. Maybe the spinning barber pole made me notice it.

"You could try Harold's," I offered.

"Where's that?"

"Back in Chocowinity," I replied. At the crossroads in Chocowinity, North Carolina, sits a little collection of weary roadside stores. Among those huddled together, some with nighttime doors with bars, are the El Cheapo Flea Market (sometimes open); a beauty shop; a home-made gift place; another frame-n'-gift shop, seriously working at respectability; and a dark, cold, little video store that could pass for a tomb. Across the street is a gas station without an air hose or a restroom. And tucked next door in a brick-front building is Harold's Barbershop, closed Tuesdays.

So, it was not choice but momentary urgency that brought us to Harold's. I followed Dick inside and sought the corner chair. Three fellows ahead of him were caught up in lively conversation, which competed with a tennis tournament on a dusty TV that no one was watching.

A red Coca-Cola dial thermometer pointed to 80 degrees. The ceiling fan whirred hard overhead, and an old-motel variety air conditioner rattled in its labor in the back wall.

To look like the inconspicuous woman, I searched stacks of tossed and wrinkled sports magazines for anything recent and settled to browse articles about Kobe Bryant and M.J., but the immediate local color soon upstaged my basketball stars.

Harold's was a Southern comfort zone. If comfort suggests "undisturbed," then Harold's fit perfectly. Not much had been disturbed for a very long time. Piles of magazines stood in honorable disarray and in the kind of dust that borders on dirt. More stood upright in the black metal stand across the room. And maybe for historical reference, four more plump stacks were stuffed in a deep window ledge.

Folks stepped in the door on a doormat that covered up an older doormat. An army-green raincoat hung molded in place on a tilted homemade coat stand. In the corner, leaning bristles-up, were two brooms. One was worn to a nubbins, almost ready to pass authority to the other one, new and still store packaged. Under the TV stand lay several dusty phone books in disarray, along with one dustpan.

One large sign--HAIRCUTS $9.00--was posted near the big mirror. Years of business cards were tucked like a ruffle all around the mirror, and displayed nearby were Harold's yellowing certificates of validity. A framed embroidery proclaimed Harold Bright, Barber, 1961.

One poster, partly obscuring a photo of smiling grandchildren, declared "Mercer for Congress." Another offered "Alan Jordan for Sheriff," although there was some discussion that a black candidate would beat Jordan, even though the latter had been served three times just recently for not paying his bills. Three North Carolina license plates marked STATE HOUSE 50 above the mirror completed all political references.

Time was kept by four calendars and three clocks. The calendars were courtesy of Paul Funeral Home, Wachovia Bank, Farm Bureau, and someone who liked classic cars. Indeed, listening in to conversations would soon let me know that Harold was a veritable encyclopedia of local classic carshow and when one was acquired, by whom, how it was restored, and who had made offers on it and for how much. The most prominent clock was hand-crafted, with a glossy color photo of a race car driver set on black velvet--the kind of clock which always has a sweeping gold second hand.

In the center of it all, facing his audience, who were seated in the row of worn vinyl chairs, stood Harold, the master of ceremonies and lead performer. A well-fed fellow, with wire-rimmed glasses, silver mustache and swept-back silver hair, he spoke softly, easily, as he moved deftly with scissors and comb. In his plaid shirt and silver jeans buckle, he bent in working rhythms around each man, in a familiar choreography with the swivel of his chair. Each tool was conveniently at hand: the razors, the clippers, the foam, the brush. And his personal tools of support stood in a second line of defense: a huge double-antenna radio (equipped to hear police scan), his coffee thermos, an aspirin bottle, and a sprayer of glasses cleaner.

As he worked, he dispensed what one had to believe was the best local inside information to be had. This day it was his explanation of what was going to delay the opening of the new Food Lion grocery, the biggest store to hit Chocowinity in its entire history.

"It's the state, ya see, holdin' up makin' the turn lane. Because you have to have that turn lane there before the store can open. Be a lotta' slowin' up there on a busy stretch. Now you just think how fast those loggin' trucks roll through.

"But the state's slow to get that built. That's typical how the state highway does. Haven't seen no signs of work on it yet. Store was supposed to be open October, now they say Dec. 15, but the mayor believes it'll be a good month after that or more." He spoke quietly to the man in the chair, bending close to his ear now and then in finishing a sentence, as though what he was saying was something secret meant just for him.

Once a customer was finished and mirror-checked, Harold swept his cover apron off with a flourish, matador-like. A huge pile of the day's hair on the floor, much too large for one dustpan by now, attested to this day's constant flow of customers.

Along with Harold's performances flowed the old boys' Southern cadence of conversation, rhythm slow, and intonations unfamiliar to our Northern ears. The skinny fellow in worn coveralls had obviously dropped in just to be among them. He just stood in one place, uttering an occasional "Yep" or "Don't say!" and stroked his several days' growth of beard. In a while he strolled on out, still looking rather without purpose.

Ray, however, was clearly there for his haircut and his dose of reminiscence. His memory was clear, even if his speech, from loss of teeth, wasn't.

"Ya see, it was hard work clearin' land then. Now, my Daddy was born 1918, and I knew this was the truth 'cause my Daddy told me. He got one penny per stump for clearin' woods. And we used to do that; we smoothed it all just as pretty, my gracious, without no bulldozers. Yep, in them days if you had a thousand dollars, that's what it took to own a five-horse farm."

And Ray, with some vacancy about his eyes and sporting a fresh "butch," ambled out with the ceremonial, "Y'all take care!" And the next man, tummy punching out his t-shirt, moved to claim his place in Harold's chair and his choice of topic. And so it went.

Clearly, Harold's shop in Chocowinity reached far beyond the service of a good haircut. Indeed, like the Irish pub or the old roadside inn, locals and travelers come, seeking an easy welcome. It is an excuse to sit together, remember when, share the news, air an opinion. It is a time to feel comfort among one's fellows. Harold knows.

Masterfully seeking to include the new man into the flow of his turn, Harold put a hand on Dick's shoulder as he sat down. "Now I've seen a lot of T-shirts, but never one quite like this," he chuckled. Dick's shirt sported bicycle propaganda, especially a big yellow road sign on the back with an appeal: "Share the road!" And off they drifted with bicycles, graying hair, physical fitness, and Jesse Helms.

All of that--and the best haircut in town. Next time, Harold's would be the choice, and we hoped nothing would change until then.

Selection 7 of

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