The Barber’s Legacy


The Barber’s Legacy[1]


At first, neither of us recognized the other. It had been a long time, something on the order of twenty-five years. Time’s camouflage had hidden the familiar from us, obscured what we had known. I’m pretty much bald on top now and what hair I do have has turned mostly white. Jan has changed too. He still has a full head of hair, but he wears it longer, like an aging rock star. And he’s thicker, even a bit paunchy. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the fleet-of-foot Jan White ran marathons every chance he got—in Victoria, Vancouver, Hawaii, you name it. He was a sleek, perpetual-motion machine. Running was his antidote to the long hours of standing cutting people’s hair.

That Saturday morning was quiet and inauspicious. I made a point of arriving at the barbershop by 9:00. They’d just opened when I got there. Happy Coxford, the owner, already had a customer in his chair.

“Good morning,” I said as I came in.

Happy and another barber, a new guy, returned my greeting. The other customer smiled. There was something about their welcome and that place. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, it froze time and reached beyond itself, opening a portal to the past.

I hung up my jacket then took a seat in the new guy’s chair. After we quickly established what I wanted—“Just a trim, please. Not too short.”—we began to chat. It wasn’t long before the penny dropped. The amiable voice was so familiar.

“You’re Jan White!” I declared.

The barber moved from behind me so he could see my face. “Pat Wolfe,” I added, as if raising a curtain.

“Oh, geez!” Jan exclaimed.

A few feet away Happy was chuckling, shaking his head at yet another unexpected reunion in his shop, another pair of time travellers.

For years, Jan had a barbershop close to my parents’ home. He’d cut my hair when I was in high school and university and for a number of years after that. And he’d cut my father’s and younger brothers’ hair, too. Even my eldest son had gone to him for a few years.

But until that day in Happy’s barbershop, I’d forgotten my first and most important encounter with Jan. It had nothing to do with haircuts. I was ten. He was seventeen or eighteen. He lived on the street I traversed to and from school.

I was a brash and cocky kid, without an older brother to put me in my place. I’m pretty sure I’d been mouthing off, that my big trap had got me into trouble. I’d been on my way home after school. Halfway there I ran into Jan and his much younger siblings. They were on one side of the street, I was on the other. Some words were traded. What they were, I don’t recall, except I’m sure mine were full of bombast.

Hopped-up on adrenalin and swagger, I knew I had to watch my step with the big kid, so I kept walking north, crossed the road to the next block and put another fifty feet between us. Then, emboldened by the distance I’d established, I turned and let fly with some new challenge or insult. If that big kid came after me, I figured, I could high-tail it and get away. But no sooner had the words left my mouth than Jan was after me. He was on me in no time. I was stupefied, my bravado incinerated by his speed. There was no, “Hey, kid, watch your lip”. He just stood there, looking down at me, his speed and his presence being all the voice he needed.

I walked the rest of the way home much chastened. I figured I’d gotten off lucky, really lucky.

A half-century later, I still feel that way. I’d been the fortunate subject of a catch and release program. In a flash, Jan’s powerful, silent statement taught me something about overestimating myself and underestimating others and how my big mouth could get me into trouble. I had a good number of my cocky feathers plucked that day.

Being in Happy’s barbershop gave me back that memory of my first encounter with Jan. It was a gift, another curtain raised. I realized that in responding to my taunting the way he did, Jan was one of my life’s traffic cops… or guides, one of those fortuitous messengers who somehow freeze a few moments, creating a pause, a space for other things to emerge. It was one of several moments that, taken together, served to rein me in. And in the end, taught me to rein in myself.

Jan didn’t remember our first meeting. He even pooh-poohed his speed. But whether he was ray-gun fast or not, I know the deeper truth of it. I know what my ten-year-old self experienced and the indelible impression it made on me. And now, with this recounting, I can thank Jan. His contribution to my life has been more—way more—than the regular shearing of my locks.

An author and historian, Patrick S. Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. See “The Case of the Stolen Chimney” for another “Jan, the barber” story.

  1. A slightly different version of this essay was broadcast August 9, 2015, on CBC Radio One’s “The Sunday Edition” and, in the United States, on SiriusXM. It can be found here:
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