Sunday, October 05, 2014

`If Our Astonished Eyes Had Time'

My barber’s shop is the front room of the house he bought four years ago and he lives in. The floor is smooth concrete painted dark green, not hardwood or linoleum. As you enter, there’s a couch to the right and a coffee table with current magazines neatly fanned out on top – the shop’s only vaguely domestic touches, though it’s just a waiting room. There are two barber chairs, a counter and cash register, mirrors on the walls, two deep sinks and a cabinet on wheels like an auto mechanic’s tool chest. It holds scissors, clippers, razors, combs and bottles of unidentified liquid. The room, though designed for business, is comfortable, without ostentation, unlike some barber shops and beauty salons decorated like casinos.
My barber was born in Akron, Ohio, about a decade after I was born just to the north in Cleveland. Like me, he has lived in five states and also like me he’s on his second tenure in Houston. Unmarried and childless, he says his house gives him, for the first time in his life, a sense of rootedness. “I’m at home here, and that kind of surprises me,” he said. He finds he even enjoys mowing the lawn and rewiring the lights in the front window.
On Friday, the house next to his was torn down. By Saturday morning it was a heap of wood and plaster with a backhoe planted on top. Near the street was a soiled box-spring mattress, a roll of carpeting and a splintered kitchen chair. From what he’s hinted, his childhood was not happy – fighting, drinking, hollering, the mundane family miseries. His house and his business are a sanctuary, less from the world than from his early years. He has often complained about the neighboring house – the loud music and cars when it was occupied, the unkempt grass and rats more recently. Yet he was surprised to feel sadness as he and his neighbors watched the bungalow, built in 1920, come down. House razing, I know from experience, can be an exciting spectator sport, like dog fighting. In my barber’s case, I think he was feeling, in an almost literal sense, “the sharp blade of the axe of time.” Eric Ormsby writes in “Childhood House” (Coastlines, 1992):
“Somehow I had assumed
That the past stood still, in perfected effigies of itself,
And that what we had once possessed remained our possession
Forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
Hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
Did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
Aging mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
Our remembrance. I see that this isn't so, that
Memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
Flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
All recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
Unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember but,
Instead, speeds away from us backward terrifically
Until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
Wall the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
And we could cry at the fierceness of that velocity
If our astonished eyes had time.”

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