Weekend Edition: Waiting for Victor

James Bornemeier

James Bornemeier

Back when I was working as a consultant at the Ford Foundation, I had an easy four-stop subway commute down the 6 train to Grand Central Station.

Perhaps too fastidiously, I would position myself on the platform so that, upon arriving at my destination, I would be at the proper up-stairway leading to the shortest route to the foundation. Yes, too fastidious.

The route led me to the main Grand Central floor and then to a short set of steps down to the lower lobby of the Chrysler Building, still many New Yorkers’ favorite skyscraper. It led me by a dry cleaner, a Duane Reade drug store (of which Manhattan has seeming thousands) and a barber shop, before taking me upstairs to the street outside. That’s how I met Victor.

Victor managed the shop and became my barber for the next 15 years. He had three fellow barbers snipping away and they looked like archetypes of Russian assassins. Victor and I would lightly chat — about sports (the inevitable Yankee/Red Sox conversation), blues guitarists (Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Kings, B.B, Freddie and Albert, among many others) and have occasional discussions on particularly weird or heinous news events. It was always a pleasure to visit Victor’s shop.

For reasons that elude me, I had never before had a hot towel shave and it seemed totally appropriate that Victor would give me my first. It’s difficult not to exaggerate how enjoyable these shaves are. You emerge a better, smarter, more kindly man, at least for a half hour or so.

Six months ago I was informed by one of the assassins that Victor had an unspecified hand injury and would be out for an unknown period of time. This was a heavy blow. Typically, I wait too long to get a haircut and, though bald on the top, I still have working follicles banding my lower skull.

If I wait long enough, they produce curly hair. I was at that point and decided rather than offer myself to one of the assassins, I would bide my time, awaiting Victor’s return. I waited a month or so and inquired about Victor.

“Vik-tor not here,” an assassin said. When will he be back? “Don’t know,” he said, a hint of exasperation in his cold voice at having to field these calls.

In these years of stay-at-home freelancing and consulting, to say I’m loosey-goosey in my attire would be a gross understatement. There were phases of my working life where I dressed up pretty good and, on the sly, enjoyed it.

I am at the polar end of the attire spectrum nowadays. Slightly rowdy side hair was not a problem.
Another month or so went by. An assassin gave me an identical Victor report. I decided to continue to wait for Victor.

Unlike some other members of the marriage, I am not drawn to mirrors. But I began to furtively check out the hair in glass storefronts and there was no way I could avoid a big mirror that confronts me when I get off the elevator. During certain weather conditions, wind and humidity, the hair would basically freak out.

But, let’s face it, once you pass a certain point on something as mundane as too-long hair, it’s easy to accept, even rationalize, your behavior. I was particularly vulnerable to this after a shower, when the hair was plastered down and drying, even though I knew it was only a matter of time before the hair would reassert itself.

Another month or so went by and, well, you know.
My wife had been letting me have it, hair-wise, for some time but these remarks were effortlessly repelled. I had secretly been using one of her advanced hair brushes since my old hair brush was proving inferior to the task.

You must be willing to adapt in these situations.

But I was beginning to crack. I wondered if the doormen had noticed and were joking about it behind my back. “Mr. Bornemeier looks like he escaped from the circus,” I imagined them chortling. And in the mirror across from the elevator, dad-blame-it, there were times when it looked as though I had a clown wig beneath my ever-present ball cap.

The plan was simple: Call the assassins one final time. If no Victor, action would be taken. There was no Victor.
I had come back from a routine doctor’s appointment and recognized an infinitesimal willingness to take action and was amazed to find myself heading to the barber shop across the street. I got Eddie. As I approached the chair, I felt I needed to explain the state of my hair and told him about Victor, his hand problem and the shop in the Chrysler Building. “Hey, I know that shop. My friend Dave cuts there,” Eddie said.

As always happens when you’re forced to go to a new barber, they cut it too short. I think in my case Eddie believed he was doing a corrective tonsorial duty of civic importance. Back home, I reluctantly took a peek in the elevator mirror and saw a freshly shorn sheep.

Baa-aa, I said.

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