Saturday, October 9, 2004

The old barber

by Gideon Lasco

Sunday afternoon is the lull in my weekly routine. It is when I arrive in Manila after a weekend in my hometown, Los BaƱos. It is the time to relax, to read a novel, to buy my favorite things in the supermarket, and to explore the steets of the city by myself. The pressures of med school will be felt in the evening, when my classmates start to text me about groupworks and assignments. But Sunday afternoon is a blessed, peaceful moment.

One such afternoon, I decided to have a haircut. My barber in Laguna wasn’t around, and I wanted to discover a new barber in Manila. Year after year Med school gets busier, and sooner or later, I would have to find one. Having grown up in the province, I am more comfortable with the barber shop than the popular hair salons.

I walked my way to Apacible Street, and entered one of the barber shops I saw. It is named after a state in America – I remember my history teacher saying that the streets of Manila used to be named after states: Dakota, Washigton, Nevada... The barber shop looked as if it dated back to those days.

The lady asked me: do you have a barber of choice? I shrugged, but when I saw an old man looking at me, I pointed to him. He seemed to be pleading with his cataractic eyes for me to choose him, but that’s not the only reason why I did. In med school, aged physicians are revered for their skill; why not barbers? For sure this old guy must’ve cut thousands, if not millions, of men’s hair.

I sat on the chair, and as he wrapped a cloth around me, I saw a sticker in the mirror in front of me that read: Mang Angel. So his name is Angel. The weight of old age hung on his shoulders, hunching his back. His eyes were opaque, casting a doubt on his precision. But I had a hypothesis that he is the haircutter emeritus, and I clung to it.

“What kind of hair do you want?”

“Some of my clients were doctors too. Do you Dr. Delfin? He teaches in your College…He went here since he was a student!” he said in discontinuous phrases. I didn’t know Dr. Delfin, but I nodded nonetheless. That client of his must’ve been very old, way ahead of my generation, or even that of our very senior teachers. I asked when he became a barber.

“After the war, I came here. I was 19 back then!” I saw his face brighten up. “Since then, I knew nothing but cut hair. When Magysaysay was president…”

“Lolo, cut the conversation, you might annoy piss him off!” another barber, who had no customer, interjected.

Mang Angel meekly obeyed, and devoted himself to my hair. He did not use much of the electric shavers, but seemed more comfortable using different pairs of scissors. Ocassionally he would cough, not bothering to cover his mouth. As a medical student, I knew how many microbes I would be inhaling from such a ‘direct blow’, but his cough was an old man’s cough – mostly likely from emphysema. After all, he too, like the barbers of today, must’ve had a barkada in his younger days, smoked cigerattes, and went to beerhouses. As he coughed, I observed the men in the shop, and their eyes seemed show derision for the old man.

When I looked at the mirror and saw my skin against his, I realize how much difference there is between the young and old, even though the only difference between us is time. In the twilight of his years, this old fossil of a man struggles to earn a living while I haven’t even begun.

 “Be a good doctor!” he suddenly tells me, interrupting my thoughts. Then, he continued cutting hair, this time in trace amounts, moving left and right, as though my hair were his masterpiece. I could see him trying to make my hair as symmetric, as cleanly cut as possible, even though all I wanted was a trim. He went on for twenty more minutes, even though I didn’t notice any change in the mirror. Then I realized that he seemed to hope the haircut will never end. And when he finally said “Finished!” with an old American tone, I stood up and paid to the lady near the door. I saw the logbook – I was Mang Angel’s first customer of the day. And it was dusk.

Before I left the shop, I handed Mang Angel a twenty peso bill as tip: A small amount for an old man, who lived his whole life cutting hair, making people look good, and feel good. After a month, I would have to have my hair cut again, and when the lady asks who my barber is, I will ask for Mang Angel.

I glanced at my watch. It was time to have dinner. Then I will prepare for the week ahead. “It feels so good to be young!” I mumbled to myself as I breathed the cool evening air outside.

PYF Building, Apacible St.
Malate, Manila

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