Sunday, August 30, 2009

Barber shop butchering

Sometimes you’ve got to know when to cut your losses.

I needed to get my haircut this weekend so I went to the neighborhood barber shop just down the road. Convenient and judging by the looks of it…cheap. Right up my alley. One of those places that was about the size of a large walk-in closet with old paint chipping off the wall. I took a seat to wait my turn. While I waited I blew some dust off a book of Smithsonian pictures of Native-Americans, which I have always wanted to learn more about. Unfortunately I didn’t get to read much because of the exceptionally short wait (Bad sign #1). I was called over to sit down by an older Native-American gentleman. We exchanged pleasantries and then he said “High and tight?” and began grabbing for the clippers. Now at this point in the story it is important for you to know that I am VERY particular about my hair. My haircut must be perfect. So when this barber just assumed what I wanted and then almost started cutting without me getting in my specific orders, well that was bad sign #2. I informed him that I’d like a number 6 on top with a number 2 on the side, high fade. I mean pretty standard in the barber business. He looks at me and says, “Number 6, where do you get your hair cut? I’ve never even heard of a number 6.” It was like I was asking him for some new Hollywood hairstyle that had just come out last weekend. Bad sign #3! I glanced towards his barber accoutrements…holy crap Mr. Barber doesn’t use clippers with different length adjustments! A flash of panic washed over me. But there was no time he was already running the clippers up my head! At this point I decided to try some cognitive strategies to calm my rising anxiety. “Maybe this guy is a master barber who has been cutting hair since the time of Buffalo Bill. He is so good he can intuitively calculate hair length with just the use of a simple comb.” And this started working. My innate sense of hopefulness was having ameliorative effects on my stress level. I was even able to divert my attention away from the intrusive visions of a botched haircut long enough to start watching some baseball highlights on the tiny flickering TV screen. What felt like 10 seconds later, I was being wrapped on the head like Biff would do to McFly in “Back to Future.” Like a broken record Mr. Barber was saying “Look at it, look at it, look at it.” I don’t think I realized he was talking to me because my brain was saying “Surely, he can’t be done already. Surely.” But no, he was done. At this point another surge of anxiety came over me and I hesitantly raised the mirror to my face. I looked into the mirror and my first thought was “Did he do anything?” So in my most polite manner I asked “Do you think we could go a little bit shorter on top?” At which point he starts acting like I have asked him to perform a face transplant on me. “Oh you want it a little bit shorter! I guess I can do that.” Now as he raised the clippers to my head I am literally biting my lip. Dear God, what have I got myself into! A little zip and zap and 3 seconds later he shoves the mirror into my hand demanding I look again. The hair on top of my head looks like its been cut in perfectly random clumps with only a random number table deciding which sections will remain untouched. And here is where I made my biggest error. If I weren’t so cheap I would have just kindly thanked the man and walked to another barber shop to have them fix this monstrosity. But I demanded of the universe that I only have to pay for 1 haircut. So I meekly asked if he could make sure the front of my hairline was straight. He reaches for the clipper and says “I’m not running a stylist shop here. This is a barber shop and I can’t spend all day on your head.” After that comment I knew I’d made a big mistake. I looked into the mirror and realized that he had shaved my widow’s peak down to the scalp receding my hairline back to balding proportions.

Now given that I am cheap, I am always enduring these heated internal battles about the amount of a tip to give someone. At a restaurant I will suffer 3 minutes of self-flagellation after tipping the waitress. And it goes in both directions “You cheap bastard, you should have left her an additional dollar.” Or “You idiot, you didn’t have to tip her that much.”

This was one time I had complete confidence in my tip calculator. Zero dollars.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mike Tyson's sucker punch

When we left NC we sold Katie’s very old car (200K miles) which had no air conditioning, a windshield wide crack and some screeching rear brakes. Needless to say we were ok selling it instead of breaking down somewhere in the Corn Belt trying to drive across the U.S. Our goal was to try and buy a car within the first week of arriving in Seattle. At first we were considering a SUV mainly because I think it’s so cool to sit in the back with the hatch open. Big selling point for me. However, major disadvantages: 1. insatiable thirst for costly petroleum 2. evil stink eye of environmentally savvy Seattleites. So Katie helped me let go of my fantasies of driving to the mountains for a picnic in the back of our Xterra. And her consolation prize…she said we could get a Nissan Maxima! Now some of you know that I used to own my parent’s old 93 Maxima named Maximus, which I felt strongly about despite the car’s inability to go in reverse (Katie got really good at pushing us out of parking spots).

Off we go to the used Nissan dealership to look at a car we’d seen online. A 2000 pearl white Maxima- pretty sharp looking. Immediately they offer a test drive so we take it for a spin and after 5 minutes Katie is sold. She loves it but she’s learned a few things about negotiating so she manages to keep a lid on her enthusiasm. The car is starting at $8K and as we walk inside I transformed into “Negotiator Dave”. The salesman is a real slick Willy with a shaved head, goatee, and a lip full of chewing tobacco (although I never saw him spit so it may have just been that he had a large pouch-mouth for storage purposes). I sit down and do my best to try and slouch lower than him to overemphasize my “I don’t really care about this car” attitude. I even fold my hands on my lap which obviously says “I’ve bought hundreds of cars before…I know exactly how this is gonna go down.” Meanwhile a game of internal pinball is occurring with my stomach rocketing back and forth off my pancreas and gallbladder. He leads off with “What do I have to do to get your business?” Classic. I start rattling things off that I don’t like about the car… “Well we were really hoping for a sunroof, and I don’t know about white, it’s just so hard to keep clean. And I wasn’t planning on a car with that many miles already on it.” And with each criticism of the car he drops the price another 500 bucks! I’m realizing “This is working.” But I’m worried my anxiety is starting to show since I’ve completely sweated through my shirt in his air conditioned office. I create a diversion saying I really need to get some lunch and we high tail it out of there.

At lunch I replenish my fluids. Then I look up and see Katie’s pleading face and her not so subliminal message of “Why are you doing this? Just buy the car.” I quickly realize that my strategic approach with Katie needs to be the total opposite of my tactics with Willy the salesman. With her I enthusiastically exclaim “Sick spoiler and fly chrome rims!” and with Willy I screw up my face in consternation and say “I don’t know…I heard that these flashy cars have high insurance premiums.”

I take the car for another test ride and manage to hear some slight ticking noise when I accelerate at around 85 mph. Perfect! Another criticism I can use to drive the price down. He drops the price and of course tries to close the deal but I tell him we aren’t doing anything until my mechanic does a full inspection. The next morning we come to pick up the car and take it to a mechanic. But Willy is late so I leave him a message subtly expressing my disappointment that he made us stand out in the cold. I’ll use that later to knock another 50 bucks off the price! Our mechanic inspects it and gives it a clean bill of health. So now the drive back to the dealership I’m envisioning the greatest heavyweight battle of all time. Dave “The Negotiator” Johnson versus Willy “The Slick” Salesman. I’m picturing body blows to the ribs and swollen eyes. And baby am I nervous. So I go to my corner of the ring and get a few words of wisdom from my coach (my Dad…a class act old school negotiator). And he gives me some good stuff. So I go into the ring and the bell sounds “Round 1.” I start off “Look, I’m no business man. I know how this usually works. I say one number then you say another number and we do a little dance back and forth. I don’t want to do that. I’m gonna say a number and then I want to hear a Yes or No from you. I don’t want to hear another number or a this or a that. I want to hear a Yes or a No.” But oh crap…my voice had cracked at the very end of my spiel! A sign of weakness he would surely notice. My mouth was so dry it felt like I’d swallowed a spoonful of attic insulation. And then I did it…I said a number. It was a solid right hook to the face. And he leaned back in his office chair…I’d stunned him momentarily. So he starts hemming and hawing and “Well I don’t know...” I realized this is it. I need to go in for the uppercut. And then I mustered the courage to look him straight in the eye, steady my faltering voice and say “Yes or No, Willy?” And he replied “I’ll do it but I can’t include the floor mats for that price.” I had him! He was on the ropes and this was his feeble attempt to bite my ear Mike Tyson style. I scoffed and made to get up from my chair and before my left gluteal muscle had left the cushion, he had said “Ok, I’ll do it.” I’d knocked him out! I couldn’t believe it. He barely even put up a fight. I hadn’t even sweated through my first shirt (I wore two this day).

I sat back down. Partly because I was so dizzy from my anxiety and I didn’t want to collapse and knock myself out on his desk. I’d done it. My first successful car negotiation. I’m an adult now!

Final steps. Sign this. Copy that. Print this. Yada Yada. And then he comes back in and says “The dealership doesn’t make the floor mats anymore for the 2000 Maxima so I’ll just go ahead and knock 20 or 40 bucks off the price we agreed on.” What! The fight isn’t over? I thought the score cards were in. The “Ladies and Gentleman…Your new heavy-weight champion of the world…” I muster up the energy to say “Make it 40.” I can’t let slick Willy get the last sucker punch on me. He smiles and agrees.

40 minutes later I’m in a totally different building being shown the final paper work. Willy is nowhere to be seen. But as I look at the final sale price I realize Willy did get a little nibble out of my ear. He only took $20 off the price, not the agreed upon $40.

I lose sleep because of that $20.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Urban berries

It’s the juxtapositions that brighten life.

Shortly after arriving in Seattle Katie and I were out exploring Pike Place Market where we found the most delightful delicacy- blackberries. However, this tasty treat comes with a hefty price tag- $4 dollars for a tiny little box (a lot for an intern). So imagine our delight when we were climbing the steep stairs out back of the market and discovered a blackberry patch under the highway overpass! Needless to say I’ve been going back on a daily basis for a fresh bumper crop of succulent berries for my morning cereal. The only downside to blackberry patches are the lethal vines literally covered in razor sharp double-edged thorns. One afternoon I made my way to the blackberry patch (with my reusable bag…very eco-friendly) and on this day I really tried getting deep into the patch, which is tricky because it’s on the side of a steep hill. Unfortunately I had opted for the ever-inviting open toed option of the Rainbows (best flip flop on the market). You can picture it: leaning into the innermost sanctum of the bush for the ripest fruit only to come sliding out of my Rainbows and take a bigfoot sized step into a carpet of flesh penetrating thorns. Now each step trying to excavate myself becomes an exercise in pressing thorns deeper into the sole of my foot.

So I came limping out of the bush and tried steadying myself while I gingerly removed each micro-thorn. But I was startled when a voice from nowhere called out “You ok there buddy?” I looked up and a guy was kneeling on the ground behind me with a needle sticking out of his forearm. Here I was below a highway overpass with a blackberry patch and a guy shooting up. And right before he got his fix he had the compassion to ask if I was ok. I’m not sure why this was so profound to me…but it really was. I was so happy to be sharing that moment with this stranger. Obviously not happy that he relied on this substance to get through life but so touched that he delayed his addiction a slight moment for me. And for some reason I just felt like “I’m really living life now.” The juxtaposition- sweet wholesome innocent blackberries and the chains of drug addiction. It’s the same way I felt when I was solicited for sex by a prostitute on the streets of Vancouver. Stunning beauty of a city of glass and the utter destitution of selling one’s body for income.

I’ve been observing a lot of people these first 3 weeks here in Seattle. It’s fantastic…there is every kind of person you can imagine in the city. The diversity is truly remarkable. I’ve seen a family of little people, a man with gigantism, a man with a hunchback, a transvestite dressed just like the female mannequin upper torso he was carrying like his Siamese twin, a group of naked bicycle riders dressed only in ridiculous hats, and a tiny Chihuahua wearing a pink sweater with dollar bills sticking out the neck arranged like a lion’s mane. With the exception of that last one, these are all people. Members of the human race. We come in all shapes and sizes and accessories. What unites us? What do we share that makes us all human beings? I believe it’s the capacity for goodness and kindness to each other. It’s easy to fall into seeing our uniting characteristic as inherent evil, the capacity for harm, or addiction. But if we look closely in the midst of the urban chaos, there are berries. God-breathed berries and they will force you to stop and savor their goodness.