The Barber and the Doorman
My father, who, in his time, was known to give a lecture or two, also had a showstopper when you were clearly "wrong" but foolishly tried to reason with him. “You talk too much. Try listening.”
I have been writing for Syncopated Politics since September of 2011—over 150 items, nearly 200,000 words. That is the approximate length of two epic novels, or, in the vernacular, an awful lot of talking, epic or not. After all that, and having received an unusually large number of emails since “The Obama Paradox” including a few who questioned why I voted for Mr. Obama in the first place, I thought that perhaps Dad had a point. For a week, I decided to try listening.
Barbershops are a wonderful place to start. Lean me back in the chair, take away my glasses, let me give a couple of instructions (not much will help at this stage) and there is very little I can do beyond open my ears. Let’s begin with the obvious. Floyd, of Mayberry, had to be a fictional character. There are no American-born barbers in my neck of the woods. If your shop is big enough, you are a melting pot. A soccer-loving Argentine, a South Asian, a Russian woman, and even a Norwegian. Mine, for the day, was a quiet, older man with a Romanian accent. And, to my right, a classic of the genre, the Old Italian barber (I wondered if they came pre-made from the factory, having never encountered a young Italian barber.)
A barber is like a favorite bartender. He knows all your secrets, particularly the ones that are no secret at all. Since mine wasn’t the verbose type, I settled on the quiet, reassuring tones of the gentleman from Verona. His customer liked to talk, and he had a big, gravely sound that had a touch of Brooklyn interspersed with an education, both formal and from the street. Gravely-man jumped from topic to topic; the long curly hair of his youth, his kids, work, vacations (a good place for the barber to join in “you’ve been to the Amalfi coast?”) and finally, to politics.
Now, we are talking (actually, now we are listening.) I wanted to hear what this blowhard had to say. What follows below is a reasonably close transcription:
“DeBlasio—a complete waste. What an idiot. He can’t even show up on time for his own press conferences. Did (the barber) know only about 70,000 picked this guy in the primary? That’s no way to choose the Mayor of the greatest city in the world. He’ll never win a second term. A bum. Too bad that guy who ran against him wasn’t better.”
Then, on to Obama. After all the comments had I received recently, I was particularly interested in this one. “Not good enough. Came into a mess, but not good enough. Not enough experience.” He ticked off a few policy points, most of them, in his opinion, mistakes in either concept or execution. And then, he did something interesting. He paused for a moment and I thought he would launch into some new round of denunciations, but he didn’t. “The Republicans…they didn’t help. They didn’t meet him half way—they didn’t do the right thing.”
At this point, my tonsorial experience was coming to a close, and my chair needed a new (perhaps apolitical) occupant, so I got up, tipped the barber, paid, and left. But I could still hear the man’s voice in my head, and it rattled around for the rest of the day. In a few short sentences, he had summed up almost the entire Obama Presidency and, to an extent, politics itself. And the barber, a born diplomat, smoothly followed his customer’s lead with a few non-committal but oddly reassuring phrases. Gravel-man had a point, and he made it far better than the usual ranters.
Later that afternoon, I said goodbye to the longest-tenured doorman in our building. In all the years I’ve lived here, he was mostly a silent sentinel—unfailingly courteous, occasionally showing a glint of humor, but dignified in an old fashioned way. He didn’t chitchat or banter. Sometimes you wonder what the inner life of a doorman is like. It’s not a great job—you are on your feet all day, you have to take angry calls from people who think the radiator is either too hot or too cold, and you have to be discrete and composed even when you would like exercise your vocabulary. Doormen see everything—the misbehaving kids, the teens (or grownups) who have had one or two too many, the boyfriend being snuck upstairs after school but before the parents are home. If they are there as long a time as ours was, they see life and death as well, the joy of newborns being brought home from the hospital and the sorrow of personal loss.
It wasn’t until his last day that this private man and I actually had a conversation that went beyond pleasantries. He’d come to America more than four decades ago. Had a wife, one child and two grandchildren. Was not only leaving the building, but also the city. Moving upstate, to a community near where he had had a little summer place. Bought a new house up there, a new car, now had to sell his place in the city. No mortgages and no car loans. In his years as a doorman he had managed to pay everything off and saved enough for the new. I realize there had to be much more to the man, and I’m sure he had his share of difficulties, but he seemed to have done so many things right, and now, health intact, was moving to a quieter and less stressful life. A life that he and his wife had earned, through hard work, goals, and frugality. In just a few short sentences, he, too, had summed up a way of living, a success that had seemed more enduring than just the collection of an infinite number of expensive toys. And one that stood as quiet rebuke to anyone ready to stereotype a person because of where he came from or the accent with which he spoke.
New ideas and challenged preconceptions can come from odd places. There is an opinion piece by E.J. Dionne in Monday’s Washington Post, “Where Goes the Neighborhood” that is worth reading. Dionne points out that, as we spend less time with our actual neighbors, and more with like-minded groups (usually political) we are effectively engaging in self-limiting behavior. “It’s easier and less challenging, for example, to engage with those who share our attitudes than to lend an ear to a neighbor who might be skeptical of our views on politics or religion.” I would go further than that—your neighbor who just spent the entire Saturday with you, dawn to dusk, dragging ice and water and coffee urns and donuts to some school function has just earned some credibility, regardless of whether you agree with his position on the 2nd Amendment.
And, it’s possible he might even have a point, because the world is nuanced, even if we refuse to be, and reality more complex than we are willing to acknowledge. Picking a side and closing your mind doesn’t get you there. Just listen to the blowhard in the next barber chair, or the quiet man who opened up your cab door. All kinds of surprises out there if you are willing to hear them.
Talk less, listen more?
August 12, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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