The Old Italian Barber

By David Michael Newstead.

The Italian barber isn’t much of a talker. He’s a short man in his seventies with slicked back silver hair who works diligently on one customer after another in the District of Columbia. I went there for a haircut once and immediately started getting compliments from people. After that, I kept going back to his barbershop every few weeks for a trim: on the sides and the back and a little off the top. As months passed, I didn’t really talk to him and he didn’t really talk to me. And that pattern of stoic professionalism would have continued if not for one afternoon when the news was on during my haircut.

The old man shook his head as the TV anchor recounted details about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the damning revelations about CIA torture. Of course, older people tend to be nostalgic in general, often lamenting seemingly benign things. But the barber’s opinions were far from idle complaints about kids today… For a man who immigrated to the United States decades ago, he had a seasoned sense of perspective and some pointed observations – about the economic outlook, about history, and the direction of the country.

The past was the “Real America”, he told me. It was a place of promise and opportunity where he chose to make a life for himself and his family. Contemporary America, you could tell, was some kind of distortion of that dream to him, punctuated by events from the last decade. He wasn’t angry, just reflective, which made a bigger impression on me than any bitter outburst ever could. So, I listened. I asked him questions. I got my haircut and I left.

That was in December.

In January, I stopped by to get my hair cut and the normal pattern of things had returned. I got a trim on the sides and the back with a little off the top. I didn’t have much to say to him and the barber didn’t have much to say to me.

But now, there was plenty to think about in the silence.