Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hair and Boxing

I went to get my hair cut today, down near 30th Avenue in Astoria. That long walk, through Little Egypt, always featuring the clumps of sullen Middle Eastern guys in front of the hookah cafes, some international soccer channel playing inside, a night game in Tunisia, that strong, sweet hookah tobacco smell all over the block.

The barbershop is run by an older Russian guy and his son, friendly people, I’ve gone there about six times now. The price is right, the cut is usually good enough. I always expect my back and sides to get buzzed or be shorter, because they grow in so fast. But I’ve gathered I’m never happy with the length and let it go. The older guy must be around 60, his son late 30s. His son has a big, wavy hair-metal mullet, a real head of hair, the kind of thing I expect to see on a non-balding Russian barber in the 718s. (I prefer getting him as he gives a better buzz cut on the back and sides. The last time, he had his eight-year-old son with him, and the kid kept grilling me on professional wrestling, which I knew nothing about.)

As I was sitting there getting my hair cut by the old man, I heard the son mutter, “Oh, shit, here comes the cry baby.” I couldn’t look out the window, but I could see in the mirror, a man and woman dragging a small boy down the sidewalk. Looked to be of same vague Eastern European descent, maybe Armenian – not dark enough to be Middle Eastern, but clearly somewhere in that hazy meeting ground between western and arabic cultures.

They burst through the door, and, christ, the kid was pitching a fit. The scene in The Omen where they try to take Damien to church? This was the same freak out. The kid was wailing like he was about to be circumcised with a butter knife. His hair wasn’t that long, straight and black, probably about halfway over his ear and down his neck. Tears, screaming, desperate pleading in whatever their native language is. Hippies getting forced crew cuts in some redneck jail circa 1968 after a routine traffic stop were probably less emphatic.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been around anyone that emotional. I mean, this kid was laying it all out there, no bullshit, a truly naked display of full-on emotion. Whether it was rage, fear, whatever, I don’t know. But the father stayed outside while the mother dragged him into the chair. Because the chair was next to mine, I was worried that this wired little prick would bump the old man while he was straight-blade razoring the back of my neck. They had another guy working there (which was unusual), and it was his job to corral the kid, get him to sit still and shear him. The younger son kept offering the kid a lollipop, which seemed like offering a cigarette to a prisoner about to be shot by a firing squad.

The mother picked out the cut: “Give-ah him, Number 3 onna the sides, and Number 2 on top. Short. Real short.” She started jabbering at the kid in their language, which only made him howl louder. Seeing this kid go apeshit brought back to me the one or two times I pulled the same stunt, a faraway memory, but I do recall cutting loose like that at least once.

The difference is, I had real reason to be scared. Leo the barber back home in Pennsylvania would buzz me so that all I’d have left on the top of my head would be a patch of stubble and burred sides. I don’t think he even bothered with scissors – just used that large buzz clipper and ran it up and down the sides of my skull, clipping off whatever overhang there was on top. Took about five minutes. (Later, as I mentioned in a previous post, he once shaved spots into the side of my head just like punk rockers at the time were getting, save Leo knew nothing about punk and was just giving me a deeply strange haircut.) I think I cried earlier because of two things: the sense of a change about to occur, and the act of something, even if it was only hair, being cut off my body. It scared me in some very real sense, enough to make me cry, hard.

Of course, the same thing would happen with me as did with this kid. Once the haircut got underway, I was reduced to sniffles and those odd crying hiccups, but I’d calm down so that when the barber was done, I’d be totally rational and ready for my lollipop. As with this kid, too, I remember my mom being there to calm me down. It made sense that the kid’s father waited outside – he needed his mother to soothe him in this troubled time. By the time I left, the kid was totally under control, and seemed to be reasonably happy with his cut. His mother made a motion to step outside, and the kid turned, cried mommy, but not as urgent. She said something in their language, probably to the effect of “I’m only going outside to talk to your father,” and he turned around, like a big boy, and gazed at himself in the mirror. It’s interesting to note that he never said a word to any of the barbers, who were constantly trying to talk to him, reassuring things like “that’s a good boy” and “there, now, you’re acting like a fine young man, good, good.”

The weird thing? Tie this in with my previous experience shopping at the supermarket – these guys were playing some crazy shit on their sound system. While I was there, I heard “Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat (a great 60s instrumental), “Bip Bop” by Wings (off the Wild Life album, a song I’ve never before heard played publicly), “Sound and Vision” by David Bowie, “Killer Queen” by Queen (the old barber knew the words … imagine some 60ish dude singing “Drop of a hat/she’s as willing as/playful as a pussycat” in heavily-accented Russian while he shaves your neck) and two euro-disco type songs in Russian I didn’t know, which sounded like “Johnny and Mary” by Robert Palmer. This is some seriously freaky shit for me to be hearing in a barbershop. Why am I hearing really cool music every time I step inside traditionally non-cool places like supermarkets and barbershops?

Apropos of nothing really, but I also wanted to note something that’s been happening in my boxing class lately, the one on Tuesday. Understand that with these classes, there’s a core group of regulars, of which I’m one. Some classes, like the one on Sunday, there’s a floating group of 10 or so people who show up on a regular basis, although rarely at the same time. The only constants are me and the instructor’s girlfriend, an Indian girl in top shape who really kicks ass. (She attends all of his classes, about six a week.) The Monday class, the regulars are about five or six of us. Tuesday, the same.

But the classes are rarely just the regulars – they’re the regulars, plus people who show up, either once and never again, or sporadically. Maybe attending for a few months straight and disappearing, or showing up as their schedule allows, here and there. By far, the bulk of attendees are in the “once and never again” camp. As stated earlier, you will be physically challenged in these classes, however tough or in-shape you are, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that shit on a regular basis. And that’s fair enough – it’s not for everybody, and there’s certainly no shame in this. I’ve taken classes in the gym where I thought, “No. I’m never doing this again.”

Then there are the weirdoes. Every now and then, some person shows up who becomes semi-legendary to the regulars because he (always a he) is so strange that his presence stands out. On Sunday, there’s a guy I call Lee Harvey (as in Oswald) who’s become a regular. Lee Harvey’s a strange guy – looks to be of some military background and is in stupendous physical condition – probably as good as the instructor and his girlfriend. Thing is, he has that off-kilter, quiet military intensity about him, and he likes to kick-box every chance he gets. Thus, if you get placed on a heavy bag with him, you know at some point he’s going to start dropping very hard side and head kicks into the bag, which can be a little disorienting and frightening if you don’t know it’s coming. We’ve all come to accept Lee Harvey for who he is – it’s clear that he’s basically a good guy – but nobody wants to get on a bag with him because they know how weird he’s going to get.

On Tuesday, a guy I’ll call Julio has started showing up. Not his real name, but Julio is a Latino who could pass for white – I thought he was a Hasidic Jew the first time I saw him. Just has that look about him – dark brown, longish hair, pale skin, full beard, long straight nose, gangly demeanor. He’s got a weird body, too – very out of shape. Skinny, but with big love handles, a pot belly and puckish little man tits. No muscle at all in his legs. He also smokes, which he proudly admitted to the instructor the first class – he’s got yellow teeth. Throws off the vibe of somebody who’s either been homeless or in prison. A mildly unsettling presence about him, a sort of negative charisma.

To put it kindly, the guy has the attention span of a five-year-old on crack. Thus, he finds it impossible to follow along in the class. While the rest of us are doing those soul-sucking drop-down/push-up/jumping jack routines (20 of those will get anyone winded, assuming you can do 20 in a row), Julio will calmly retreat to the back of the class, or leave the gym, and pace around, returning when he can see that we’ve moved onto something else. When we’re doing combinations, he’ll be doing something else, usually just punching straight ahead, while we all do synchronized moves. The worst is running. The instructor has us running all the time now, sprints up and down the gym that remind me of high-school basketball practice, and Julio will just stand there pretending that he’s invisible when this is happening.

The instructor can’t fucking stand him – understandably so. As with any class, somebody doesn’t follow along, it disrupts the flow. I’m surprised he hasn’t demanded that Julio leave. I understand that Julio showed up at another of his classes, and the instructor demanded that he follow along. Julio went nuts, yelling about how much he’s paying to be in the gym, he doesn’t deserve this shit, why are you singling me out, etc. The guy’s clearly a bit nuts. And he physically threatened the instructor. Please understand, I outweigh the instructor by about 60 pounds. If he ever challenged me to a fight, I’d start running. The guy’s been a professional boxer, he can hit as hard as I can despite being much smaller, and he can hit much faster. He’s probably the best physically-conditioned person I’ve ever met – strong as an ox, compact, incredible endurance. You don’t threaten a guy like this, unless you have a death wish.

I think the instructor’s response was to give him a calm “you’re about to lose consciousness” stare, and state: “Don’t do it. Leave. Now.” Which Julio did. I think that showdown knocked a little sense into him, but the guy’s still wacked out and showing up to class, still blowing off the harder physical routines, still unable to execute even the most basic combinations because he’s just not paying attention. What he’s still doing there, I don’t fucking know. The other week, I got him on a heavy bag, the instructor thought pairing him with me would enlighten the guy a little as to how to act in a boxing class (i.e., pay attention and do everything you're asked to the best of your abilities). And Julio had a blast holding onto the bag while I destroyed it – I made it a point to really cut loose with him on it, and he was impressed. When it came his turn, he flailed on the bag like a high-school girl in a cat fight, started panting after 15 seconds, went out and got some water.

I could see he was basically a nice guy, despite his strangeness. Very friendly, talkative. The thing is, I’m not there to be talkative. Before and after class, sure, a lot of us will stand around and banter. But not during. There’s a girl who shows up sometimes on Tuesdays, too, actually her and a friend (they never show up alone). She has a lot of tattoos and a lip ring, real bad-girl material, but she knows she in a class with people who are physically tougher than she is. You can tell she’s a little intimidated, but holds her ground. Once, we were both paired on the same heavy bag, and the instructor was getting ready to start us on 30-second rounds, holding or hitting, trading places every 30 seconds. I’d never said anything to her, but as I was getting ready to unload on the bag, my right hand cocked back to land that first overhand hook, her eyes met mine, she could see I wasn’t fucking around, and that look we exchanged, a shared, knowing grin, I could tell she “got it” at that moment, why she was there. Have hardly said two words to each other, but I feel like I understand her in some quiet way, and I suspect the feeling’s mutual.

But Julio fucks around, to the extent that I can’t sand the sight of him, even though I know he’s not a truly bad person. People that weird generally don’t last more than a few classes, but he’s been hitting that Tuesday class every time the past month, and doing the same in each: not paying attention, blowing off conditioning, and not learning a damn thing about boxing. The instructor can’t wait for him to disappear. Both of us know he will. We’ve seen many freaks and weirdoes in his classes over the past decade, but Julio may take the cake in terms of lasting the longest.

Not sure what the connection is between Julio and that wailing Armenian kid. But for some reason, I felt like writing about both.

No comments: