I started going back to the barber. Guess I got tired of cutting my own hair – what there is of it. I could whip out the electric clippers and be done in five minutes. In nice weather I used to do it on our deck. A “hillbilly haircut,” I called it.
I found a barber shop about a four-iron from our apartment, on Wilshire, and walked in one day. I didn’t know what to expect. After all, it had been several years since I’d darkened the door of Sport Clips.
The place had changed hands. The awning says Pacific Barber Shop but the guy told me it’s now Wilshire Barbers or something like that. Got a clean buzz cut for 20 bucks.
On my second visit, I was seen by a black woman with a long dreads, cool energy and big smile. I slid into her chair. Told me her name is Frankie.
The Lakers were on TV and the other barbers were chattering. Frankie was pretty quiet, saving her verbal salvos for just the right moment. Lots of friendly banter and she could hold her own with these guys.
We got to talking about sports – the state of the Lakers and Clippers, the NFL playoffs, why LA doesn’t have a team and when will it get one. A couple of guys were pulling for the Niners and there was the defiant Raiders fan which you’ll find in every crowd. Frankie was pretty quiet during the NFL discussion so I asked her, “What’s your team?”
“Mine is Kansas City,” she replied.
“Really? Me, too,” I said. “Are you from there?”
“Yep,” she answered. And then, “I need to get back home soon and see my dad.” Her voice modulated ever so slightly, like that catch you get in your throat when something pierces the heart.
About that time I noticed the boom box, pumping out Motown and soul.
“That song always reminds me of my dad,” she said, referring to a number by Teddy Pendergrass. “We talk all the time, like when I hear a song that he always liked I’ll give him a call and we’ll talk about it.”
I liked her description of this precious father-daughter relationship.
My haircut complete, I dismounted the chair and Frankie opened her arms wide and said “Come here, we gotta stick together. We’re cousins.” And so, we hugged out the troubles of the world – two Kansas City Chiefs fans in a foreign land, in a city without a team. Something about the Chiefs rotten season lent a poignancy to that moment. The team that broke records for incompetence. The team with the player who killed his girlfriend, then turned a gun on himself in front of his head coach and general manager. A season to forget.
A couple of weeks later on my next visit, I asked Frankie if she’d had any time off lately. Just making small talk.
“I was off last week,” she announced, almost proudly.
“Vacation? You take a trip?” I asked.
“Really?” I replied. “Oh.” I was taken aback. Didn’t know exactly how to respond to this woman I don’t know very well who just told me she has cancer.
“Are you … ok? How you doing?” I asked, with some trepidation. I didn’t exactly want to open up a sensitive subject, especially if the prognosis wasn’t good.
“I’m doing great!” she chirped. “The chemo went fine. I went every day for a week.”
“That’s terrific,” I said.
When you haven’t had cancer, it’s tougher to relate. This is a serious thing, I thought, and here I am – the worst thing I had is the mumps as a kid. I was feeling humbled in the face of this very resolute person.
“Where do you go for chemo?” I asked, just trying to keep the conversation going, partly trying to avoid awkward silence as she deftly guided the clippers over my head.
“Kaiser, in Woodland Hills.”
“Ah. Is that far for you? Where do you live?”
“I live in Carson. Just moved there. It’s not a bad drive. I’ve traveled farther for less.”
Carson to Woodland Hills is a trek. It could be 45 minutes in good traffic, two hours or more in bad. But Frankie preferred to think of it as a breeze. Probably is – compared to battling cancer.
I usually walk by Wilshire Barbers on my way home from the gym. Today, it was Friday afterhours, the golden light glinting off the ocean and painting the palm-graced streetscape. People were rushing to the 720 bus, gathering on the 3rd Street Promenade for drinks or a little shopping. I glanced in the window of the barber shop and saw Frankie at her post. The shop was bustling, patrons wanting to look their best for the weekend.
I walked on, several steps past the front door, then suddenly planted my feet and did an about-face. I went back and looked in again. Yep, that’s what I thought I saw. There was Frankie, wearing a cap over her bald head!
A bald head is a shock to those of us who don’t have cancer. We don’t expect to see it. I associate it with the ravages of the chemo and try to imagine the pain, fear and discomfort. Still, I was happy to see Frankie working, living her life.
I walked into the barber shop, pulled off my headphones and gave Frankie a thumbs up.
“How ya doin’?” I called out over the sound of the clippers and the TV.
“Great. Good to see you,” Frankie answered with her beaming smile.
“What happened here?” I asked, pointing to her head. “Who cut your hair?” I have a tendency to ask two-part questions.
“They did it,” she said, pointing to her fellow barbers.
“Bet they had a good time,” I said, with a chuckle. “Where is it?”
“I put it in a box, at home.”
And then it hit me. Cancer patients cut off their hair because they refuse to suffer the indignity of having it come out in bunches during chemo. Frankie was beating chemo to the punch.
What’s a little hair lost when you’re fighting the battle of your life? Maybe I’ll ask Frankie to shave my head next time in a display of solidarity.