Juan Cruz: A Morning in Soda City

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. I have been living in Columbia, South Carolina, since 2010. I currently work at the University of South Carolina, where I am completing a PhD in Comparative Literature. I prefer not to travel North of Virginia, unless it is absolutely necessary.

A Morning in Soda City

I get two or three haircuts a year. Always in the same barber shop. They don’t charge much. That’s what I like the most about the place. Sometimes, when I cannot sleep, I leave the apartment early and I go to Waffle House. I order bacon, toast, hash browns, two eggs (over easy), orange juice, and a cup of black coffee. I always sit at the same table. I always order the same thing. Sometimes the waitress is nice, sometimes she is not. Most people are polite and friendly here in Dixie, but when they are not, I usually don’t give a shit about it. We all do our job in one way or another. That’s what makes the world go around, right? Maybe that’s all that matters.

Some people find small cities boring. They say nothing ever happens there. But strange stuff happens everywhere, all the time. And the wide, quiet streets of Columbia, South Carolina, are no exception to this universal rule.

Six months ago, I was having breakfast in the fine establishment I mentioned above, when I saw my barber sitting at a table 10 meters from me (that’s like 33 feet in “American”). He was an old man with a white bald head and big grey bags under his eyes. I remember thinking that he looked somehow shorter than usual. Also, he was wearing I white baseball cap. I had never seen him wearing a cap before. I didn’t think much of it. However, seeing him there I remembered that I had been thinking about getting a haircut for a few weeks.

I finished my breakfast, left an average tip, and walked to the barber shop located on the Hoodie and the Blowfish Blvd. Yes, this boulevard exists. Hoodie and the Blowfish is arguably the most successful band from Columbia, SC. I tried to open the door, but it was locked from the inside. I was quite puzzled. The front window had a big sign with the word OPEN on it. I knocked on the glass door once or twice. The woman who works there came and opened the door for me. She was with a client, an older white man. Come to think about it, most of the patrons at this particular barbershop were older, or middle aged, white men. Actually, the only woman I ever saw in there was the lady who worked the morning shift. She was a middle aged white woman with a thick southern accent. She was the one who opened the door for me in that Summer morning.

I was somehow puzzled by the fact that she had the door locked during working hours. I decided to ask her about that when it was my turn to sit on the barber seat. She greeted me with a wide, insincere smile and went back to her client: that gray-haired man that, as I soon realized, looked a little bit like Mitt Romney. He also looked a little bit like Ronald Reagan. In short, he looked like a white, tall, middle-aged Republican politician. She finished cutting his hair 15 or 20 minutes after I arrived in the barber shop. The man stood up, thanked the lady, payed for his haircut, and left. The barber invited me to sit in the chair next to the one that her last client had occupied. When she asked me how I wanted my haircut I just answered with the word “short.” When she asked me “how short?” I just placed my index finger on a random spot on my forehead. As you can see, I’m not particularly picky about haircuts. I’ve been gradually losing my hair for the last few years, and I really don’t think there is much that can be done with my thinning and rebellious hair anymore. I’m pleased whenever I find a way of making it look decent. She asked me if I wanted my hair as long as her last client’s, Mr. Matthews. “Yes”, I said “I’ll have the Matthews.” She didn’t find this all that funny. I thought it would be hilarious to name haircuts after random people. Why was this a privilege of celebrities alone? Why couldn’t someone say: “I’ll get the Maggie, please,” or “can I get the Pedro?” I didn’t pursue this discussion any further, and so we didn’t talk much after that.

But when things are getting awkward, you can always talk about the weather. And that’s exactly what I did. I mentioned the storm we had experienced recently. We both agreed that it could have been much worse, like the terrible flood of 2015. That was a mess. People actually died in South Carolina. Others were left homeless. It was a very sad situation. So don’t tell me nothing ever happens in South Carolina. When we were done talking about the weather, I decided to ask her why did she lock the door of the barber shop if the place was, in theory, still “open.” She was spreading warm foam on the back of my neck, ready to use her old fashioned straight razor on me. She said that some streets in Columbia are almost empty in the early morning. And sometimes, suspicious men can be seen walking aimlessly up and down the street, like if they had nothing better to do. She mentioned that once, a man entered the barber shop and tried to attack her. I didn’t want to ask if he was trying to rape her, but I think it was somehow understood that that was the case. I felt awful bad about it. I was actually very angry and surprised while she was telling her story. I had always thought of Columbia as a fairly safe town. Sure, bad things happen everywhere. There is crime everywhere. Even my former classmate, Tim, was shot dead in the streets of this town a few years ago. But to think that a woman had been attacked in her working space, in the morning, in the downtown area, was just shocking. I experienced a deep hatred for this stranger who tried to hurt her, I felt terrible, but I didn’t know what to say. According to the kind lady, eventually someone heard her calling for help, and assisted her. I don’t remember the end of the story; perhaps they called the police, maybe they just kicked the guy out, or maybe he ran away when he was caught red-handed trying to sexually assault a woman. Hopefully he’s behind bars now; if she knew he was, perhaps she wouldn’t feel compelled to locking the door during the morning.

I saw her again a month ago, when I went back for my haircut. I wanted to ask her about her story, get some details that she did not provide the first time. Perhaps I was already considering writing this short story. But I changed my mind. I decided that asking her about these things would be somehow insensitive on my part.

The fact that I forgot the end of her story is rather strange. I usually have very good memory with stories in general. But I believe that the reason why I forgot the end of her story is because of what happened next. We had a brief and strange conversation that left a strong impression on me. After she was done telling me about her traumatic experience with this infamous man, and in order to change the tone of our grim interchange, I mentioned that I had seen her coworker earlier that morning. “You didn’t see him, baby.” She answered with a stern expression on her face. “Whoever you saw on that restaurant, I can sure tell you that it wasn’t him.” I hate when people contradict me for no reason, with no evidence what so ever to back their statements. “Sure I saw him.” I insisted. “He was having breakfast in Waffle House. He was with some folks. They were sitting two or three tables away from me.” She stopped cutting my hair for a second, and answered in a very calm voice: “That wasn’t him, sweetheart. He died eight days ago.” I felt a cold breeze climbing up my spine. Well, “there has to be a rational explanation for this,” I though. The guy did look somehow shorter that morning, perhaps it wasn’t the same man at all. But the resemblance was shocking. You could argue that that was his twin brother. A goddamn doppelganger. It was all very strange. And things were just getting weirder and weirder. I didn’t know what to say. I said I was sorry. I said that he was a very nice man. She agreed with me on that. I mentioned that he was always very kind to me whenever I visited the barber shop; but the truth is that we barely talked whenever I went there. Memories of my first year in Soda City started to come back to me in flashes. I remembered that the dead barber used to have a little sculpture in his working area. It looked like if it had been made by a child, and I believe that it was supposed to be the barber himself. I imagined that maybe one of his grandchildren had done this as a gift for him. I felt a little bit sorry for his family, but I felt sorrier for the man. “It’s all over for him,” I though. “All the joy and all the suffering; all the sadness and all the hope. It’s all over for him now.” Flannery O’Connor’s words came to me as a revelation: “You cannot be any poorer than dead.” Even if there is no struggle in death, even if there is some sort of peace in it, I’d choose life over peace any day. Even a bad life is better than no life at all; and better than a good death too. But all, deaths, I suppose, are the same. I looked around me, there were framed newspapers hanging from a wall. The dead man was staring at us from some of the pictures on these pages. I experienced something that could be called nostalgia. “He gave me my first haircut here in Columbia.” She smiled at me. I smiled too. We were running out of words. She finished what she was doing. I stood up, grabbed my jacket, and payed for the haircut. I left a decent tip and left the barber shop. While I walked away, I felt extremely tired and slightly nervous. Perhaps, I was afraid of running into a man with my own face in a random corner of this small Southern city. As I said before, you can never know what is going to happen in a place like this—or in any place, for that matter. This life can be quite strange; even in Small Town USA.