More than twenty years ago, opposite the main entrance to West Liberty State College, a place called JB’s offered beer, cigarettes, and a small but delicious menu of better-than-bar-food options. It was a convenience store roughly the size of a standalone two-car garage. You didn’t need to drive to get there, and almost everyone who lived on campus walked across the street at least a couple of times while they were Hilltoppers. It wasn’t my first job, but it was one of the best experiences in my life. I made four dollars an hour.
“JB” was a retired trucker who owned the place. He was Smart Country and had a strange lens through which he viewed the world. Even though his long-haul days were far behind him by the time he hired me, it was obvious that the lifestyle agreed with him. He wore mesh-backed trucker hats in an attentive fashion; they were more perched than worn. A this-might-come-in-handy vest draped over flannel shirts suggested a laid-back outdoorsman. JB was every bit the wily uncle you didn’t know you had, and his stories rivaled Mark Twain’s most days. There was a mason jar full of white lightning stationed on an out-of-normal reach shelf in the back of the store. Real moonshine from downstate West Virginia. With a beer, JB’s stories and life wisdom was good medicine. With moonshine, JB’s half-missing index finger on his gesturing hand became a celestial wand, and his word became cosmic law. JB was alright, man.
We had a small crew of college students who ran the night shift. All of us were in the first years of our undergraduate degrees, but Brother Fell was nearing the end of his time on campus. He was set to graduate after completing his student-teaching internship. He was “Brother” Fell because his high school football coach called everyone “Brother” as a title of respect. I pictured Macho Man Randy Savage as a Friar. It worked.
On slow nights in JBs, it was storytime. Nobody sauntering across the street from the college and no phone orders meant that the night shift might drag. We depended on each other to pass the time, as we sure as shit weren’t going to do any homework. Get outta here. I had a few good stories, but Brother Fell’s were those of Anytown, USA, and as such, they couldn’t be beaten. Plus, he was probably the most agreeable and likeable fellow with whom you’d strike up a conversation. Top Ten story material, without a doubt. Honest folks always are.
There was the time Brother Fell accidentally turned from a side street and found himself and his old Civic in the middle of a Main Street parade. Instead of attempting to drive back out, he tapped the Happy Honda horn and waved as though the act were planned. Meep Meep! Onlookers waved back. Stories of football and general shenanigans were on par with the classic rites of passage from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sometimes Porky’s. If you worked with Brother Fell, it didn’t matter what night it was. You were guaranteed to pass the time excellently.
Sometimes in the spring semesters of college life, classwork starts to pile up, or some damn fool makes the mistake of taking several more classes than is generally advisable when attempting to balance good times. The looming end to a degree program accelerates the threat of the Outside World encroaching on the otherwise more perfect years of your life. Meeting new people, learning new things, expanding your horizons. Questioning who you are, and what “it” is all about. I was lost in thought, leaning on my elbows next to the cash register one day when Brother Fell walked in with a sigh, grinning and shaking his head. “New hat?” I asked, nodding toward a sharpish fitted baseball cap. Brother Fell nodded and stopped. He took off the hat, held it in one hand while smoothing it appreciatively and said, “Loooong day. No worries, though. They couldn’t get me down. I got my haircut.” He ran his hat-smoothing hand over his short hair and snapped his fingers. His eyebrows raised, he nodded his vigorously once as if in agreement with himself. “Nobody can mess with you when you have a fresh haircut.”
The phones hadn’t rung, and the only customers popped in for a pack of smokes or a tall boy, mostly Budweiser. Pounders were less than a buck then. Glorious. Brother Fell sat down his bag in the back of the store, took a look around to see if there was anything we needed to do after day shift’s exit. There wasn’t. “Tell me about this hair cut deal,” I said. I had kept my hair short for years at that point. I wasn’t aware of any benefits–I just didn’t want to do anything with mine. Brother Fell walked back up to the counter from the back, put one knee up on the lower shelf and squinted at my hairline. “You don’t know about how nobody can mess with you when you’ve gotten a haircut?”
I shook my head. He took a five-finger dip of long-cut wintergreen and grabbed a foam cup as his spitter, then glanced out across the empty street toward the college. “Here it is,” he said, moving the tobacco around to situate it to the right of his lower lip.
“When you get a fresh haircut–and it doesn’t matter who you are–your whole perspective changes. Don’t know why, don’t know how. It’s just the way it is. Now, take my haircut. You’d think it doesn’t even matter, since I have it hidden under this ball cap. But my ears hear more. I’m more aware. With this cut, it’s one less thing to think about,” he said, eyes twinkling. He spat a little juice in the foam cup.
“Everyone’s got it all wrong,” he continued, explaining, gesturing with casual sweeps of his right hand. “Take a look at certain majors over there across the street. Some frats, some sororities wearing their Greek letters all over everything. Some kids walking around worried about repping their teams all day, every day. Pro teams they don’t play for. It’s weird. College athletes here, they don’t seem to worry about that. Our colors are nice, and they have plenty of gear comes their way. Black and gold West Lib gear. Nice stuff.” Fell nodded, spat again.
“It’s a zen thing, having a fresh haircut. You oughta celebrate it by just taking time to make sure it’s a focus,” Brother Fell nodded.
“You mean like with product? Gel?” I grimaced. I didn’t want to do anything. That was high school shit. Kid stuff.
“Nawww, man,” Fell laughed. “Not unless you’re trying to get the job. Start the ol’ career. Think about it like this–how fast is a shower now? Ten minutes maximum? That’s even faster with the fresh haircut, right?” I nodded. “Right. That’s a focus. That’s what I mean. No extra time making yourself pretty, because the haircut’s fresh.”
Pause. Another spit. We watched a car full of girls in Greek letters pull into the parking lot, converse animatedly with their hands, and then pull back out. “Forgot their IDs, I’ll bet,” said Fell. “Can’t sell them Zima without their IDs,” he reminded me. Brother Fell stood up straight and stretched away the earlier part of the day, and adjusted his hat. “I saw a guy get his ass kicked outside of Bubba’s last year, but it didn’t matter to him none,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Cause even though he was beaten and a little bloody, and a pretty good black eye, his haircut was fresh,” he laughed. “People weren’t sure he actually lost the fight.”
I was beginning to see.
“So, even on a long day, when you’re working on finishing a degree and you’re about to apply for jobs you aren’t even sure you can do,” Fell put extra emphasis on the do to make his point. “That fresh haircut is one less thing to worry about.”
I got my haircut today. It’s fresh. Tomorrow morning I’ll move a little faster, and the commute will end a little sooner, and I’ll have a few more minutes of quiet time before the work day begins and we try to move heaven and earth with our wills. But I”ll have one less thing to worry about.