By Stefanie Freele
A place is cleared for the barber, moving aside boxes of donated diapers, baby food, bibs, tampons. The tarp he stretches over the well-stomped dirt is the green color of a bountiful spring, in direct contrast to the cold rain pouring beyond the awning.
Unshaven men amble about, reading the backs of toothpaste boxes, picking up deodorant, studying the clothing spread on tables, all the while glancing frequently at the barber as he neatly sets out the electric razor, combs, a row of bottles.
His sign reads Free Haircuts & Shaves, Get on over!. Without appraising the group or meeting eyes with any of the men who have lost their homes, their pickups, their cats, who haven’t showered in days, he arranges his table, adjusts the swivel chair. Ready.
To begin he doesn’t ask Does anyone want a haircut? Which would put these men in a yes or no position, a place of need or want and they are already deeply in both. Instead, he unfolds his black cape with the slightest flourish and announces All righty then, who is next? As if he just finished a trim and the following beard will be one of many.
There is that pause where no one jumps in, until a man that just arrived to the donation area wearing a wet denim jacket chuckles and says It might as well be me, not realizing he is the first of many grateful men who are about to receive their first shave in almost a week.
The barber doesn’t ask about the fire. He gives them the treatment: the neck paper, the electric trimmers, the how short today? The men bring up the disaster, how they don’t know when they can get through and go home, how they drove through flames hoping their tires wouldn’t melt, how they had no time to get the photo albums but at least they got their rifle, how they overheard an officer say the bloated body of a dead horse blocked the road.
The barber listens and says things like; hopefully you’ll feel a bit fresher after this, referring of course to the haircut not the tragedy. When he whisks away the cape, the men stand up with unused smiles, noticeably appreciative, each one reaching up to feel their clipped hair and smooth face.
The man with the wet denim jacket has already walked away toward a crate of shoes, hoping to find a decent pair of boots with at least a little tread on them, size 11. His shoes are soaked and even someone else’s used dry boots sound welcoming.
Tonight inside their tents after a day of answering frantic well-meaning questions from fellow evacuees – did yours burn too? who is missing?, waiting in lines for chicken and pasta cooked by local good-hearted volunteers, meeting with FEMA to vaguely understand options for financial help –the men will finally lay their exhausted heads on pillows, rubbing them a few times thankfully with a clean cheek. From inside their tents, they’ll listen to the rambling conversations outside as people share their fire escapes, stories they all need to tell. Someone loudly asks if anyone has extra batteries for their flashlight. From a few tents away, a strong voice shouts, I have double-A’s and a weaker calls I got two C’s.
Later, when the campground quiets, a guitarist wearing size 11.5 dry boots stays up too late, playing one melancholy tune after another until someone shouts, enough already go to sleep. There are a few loud laughs and a single snort when the music stops mid-song with an off-key twang and a thud.
Copyright Freele 2016