The Usual

There is this idea: the human body does a complete overhaul every seven years. Cells masticate, metabolize, and regenerate at a pace where every seven years you are essentially a brand new person. Same old habits, same crap attitude, and maybe you pick your nose when no one is looking, but at least the paint looks new? In the midst of a recent overhaul, I had approached the age where haircuts started happening every three weeks to appear clean enough to engage with the quasi-professional circles and present at a periodic client meeting. No longer could I live the days of a year between haircuts, or updating my wardrobe, or collecting my receipts for my quarterly filings. I still never wore a tie, but I did need to cut my hair.

Behind the counter of The Usual was a man with a face I had never seen before. New employees were not uncommon. A busload of new people arrived daily to this town; every face looks new; every face looks the same. This guy, with his hat and thick-framed glasses, says to me: “You’re David, right? Let’s check you in.” A beat, “I totally went to high school with you, man.”

It isn’t every day a total stranger says they went to high school with you. Maybe some humans out there would be delighted at this idea. I filled with dread. Before I can say anything the phone rings and he picks it up. “The Usual,” he says.

He doesn’t offer his name to the person on the other end of the line. I hang my baseball cap on the hook and sit down on the couch in the reception area and pick up the same indie-surfer magazine I always flip through whenever I come in. The magazine is surprisingly well made for its limited circulation, and it is anyone’s guess how it wound up in this shop. There are three centerfolds – all thin, evenly tanned by the sun, appearing disinterested and not much thinking given to the location of their bikini tops. Also, a comic strip about a man having an existential crisis with a bear, the joke is how he can hardly stand it.

Today, though, the magazine doesn’t do anything for me. I wasn’t actually looking at the pages or centerfolds or realizing that the joke is about how he can’t bear it anymore. One of the most uncomfortable sensations of our modern times is when someone says they know you, and you cannot reciprocate. This is the era of casual celebrity, tagging friends in photos, hashtags, and geotagged locations. We are begging for attention that no one actually wants to acknowledge when it happens. I imagine this is why celebrities shave their heads or delete their accounts or have fantastic overdose deaths. It has been nearly 15 years since high school. 60 or 70 haircuts and somehow this guy still remembers me.

He wore a baseball cap, torn up jeans, a ratty t-shirt that showed off his full sleeves of tattoos (all the way to the fingers) looking like something from the discarded liner notes of a vintage Descendant’s album. He resembled nothing of a Colorado Suburban high school kid with his prescription lenses set in comically thick frames and a two-day beard. Had I known this person then, would I have guessed he would one day aspire to operate a chair at the neighborhood barbershop?

But he’s so damn friendly on the phone; my own clients would be so lucky.

Finally, he hangs up, comes around the counter and extends a tattooed hand. “Kirk L” he says to me.

It all comes back, instantly. Neurons caked in a decade and a half of residue from questionable diets, frequent beer, and a variety of drugs (mostly prescribed by professionals) dusted off and lit themselves up like an old hard drive forgotten in an attic. Of course, Kirk. He was still the same person in the eyes – now magnified, framed, and partially hidden his frames – but the guy was still back there

“I even have our Senior Yearbook here today,” he is beaming at this.

Of course he does. Kirk.

“All these guys here didn’t believe that I used to be fat, so I had to show them. Then I found the yearbook by chance last night, and then I saw your name on the appointment sheet. Such a unique name.”

There are about 8,500 other David Pennington’s in circulation. Some of them might go by “Dave.”

Sure enough, there I was. My amateur mug on the glossy pages among the dozens of other professional photos. “There I am,” I say, not entirely sure what needs to happen next.

“Yeah, isn’t that weird? But whatever.” Kirk snaps the book shut and gives a glowy smile to no one in particular. While it would have made this story even more perfect, I don’t sit in Kirk’s chair. Instead, Danny is cutting my hair today. He is another face that I had seen a thousand times before, new to town, probably cut out of the same liner notes from the same album that every other barber in Denver had played on.

The phenomenon of memory – trying to recall if events or details are real truths or just something that I really wanted to be the truth. The gestalt of human recollection – do I remember things the same way as another person? If not, who is right?
We – Kirk and I- weren’t friends in high school. But maybe we were friendly. I recall we shared 7th period English one year – whichever one had the unit on Of Mice and Men – with Ms. Lucas. He was a theater kid and always sat next to a girl I crushed on who might have been named Katie (working under the general assumption that most high school female populations are named Katie). He was larger back then, as the yearbook photo showed, but he was also the guy who was friendly enough to everyone until you gave him a reason not to be.

Then again, I could be remembering all of this wrong. I don’t remember much from those years because I don’t think it was worth remembering fondly. I was the bitter guy. The one who didn’t care for much of the work, the people, the social clubs. Maybe I tried a little in the later years, but a mediocre academic scorecard makes it difficult to engage with pretty much anything else. My yearbooks were lost in one of my eight apartment moves between 2006 and 2010. The last chance I had to see most of these people after a cryptic Evite arrived at my inbox announcing the unofficial 10-year reunion. Given how unfamiliar the RSVP list looked (a majority of the names changed with various weddings) I had to decline with the claim I couldn’t find a sitter for that night – which seemed to be a safe and common excuse for that crowd – even though I have no children.

The question that bugs me the most: why Kirk? And why did this happenstance at my usual barbershop? It isn’t so much that I’m surprised to see on the streets of Denver. So many of us made the post-grad jump from suburban to an urban center and stuck there – hell it is what I ended up doing. A city population of 700,000 would surely be enough to dilute down a graduating class of 200 to the point none of us could very well never run into each other again.

With the appointment list and the sudden finding of the senior yearbook, perhaps the cosmos is playing a joke. Maybe something happened recently that I just can’t remember. Maybe two people who first met 15 years and two cellular cycles ago are destined to meet again. Here in a barber shop – he friendlier than ever and I in a high state of social standoff?

Danny finished cutting back the last three weeks of hair and the 15 years of age the mass of my hair typically added. Trimmed up, I grabbed my hat back off the rack and looked back at Kirk as he was deep in a jovial conversation as he trimmed the sideburns of his 2:30 appointment.

Or it’s all just coincidence. Perhaps we are due to shed another round of cells, ink another layer of tattoos, grow another inch of hair and try to meet again in another place, another time, or as another person.

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