I get up early Saturday and am at Fred’s by 7:00 when he opens. By 8:00 his waiting room is already overflowing, and who wants to spend two hours flipping through old hunting and fishing magazines. I always enjoy my time in the chair with Fred, but waiting my turn is something I don’t enjoy. I’ve got week-end chores on my mind. Seems like I’m always a couple of chores behind.

It’s the last Saturday in August. Long ago I figured out that if I show up at the end of the month, before the welfare checks are issued, I cut the waiting time in half. Most welfare recipients are pretty much penniless by then. Indeed, it’s a hard go for everybody not in the top ten percent nowadays. That’s one of Fred’s and my talking points: how many people are living paycheck to paycheck, and each month falling a little bit more behind. “I’d hate to be a young guy starting out today,” he often says.

Take barbering. His is one of the two longstanding barber shops left in Cumberland, Maryland, and when he and this one other guy go, this kind of shop will be a thing of the past in this town. How much would it cost nowadays to buy this building, which he has owned and barbered in for fifty years? Chairs aren’t cheap either, he points out. “For an up and coming young man to make a living here, he would have to charge five times what I charge, and who’s going to pay it?”

Fred charges seven dollars a haircut. That’s unheard of cheap anymore. Actually he charges nothing. He has a sign on his mirror: “Haircuts: Free. Advice: $7:00.” I generally tell him to go ahead and skip the advice for today. He always laughs, no matter how many times he’s heard it.

Always laughed, I’ll have to say henceforth. When I pull up into a metered parking space beside his shop, I notice his barber pole isn’t turning. And beside the door sits a big urn of flowers. I cautiously approach to read the sign above the slightly wilting blossoms: “Rest in Peace, Fred, the Barber.”

I’ll be damned. Fred died. Fred’s number came up. Fred went to that country from within whose boundaries no traveler returns, to paraphrase Prince Hamlet. (Sorry. I’m an incorrigible English teacher.) No matter how you say it, the big change happened to Fred since the last time I stood at this door. Like a thief in the night, he was here in this world and now he’s gone.

I’m not prepared for this at all. I’m gliding along, getting things done, getting life done, about to cross “haircut” off of my “to do” list, and now this knock up the side of the head. Twice I numbly return to my car, then walk back to the “Rest in Peace” sign, as I labor to take these words in — this dark shadow suddenly cast upon what was minutes before a sunny summer morning.

Dear, dear Fred. I doubt he was prepared for this either. He seemed to so enjoy being alive.

It’s not like Fred and I were great friends. In the twenty or so years that I was his customer, I never saw him one time outside of his shop. Nonetheless, nearly every month for twenty years (that would be in the area of 240 haircuts), I climbed into that chair (I’m looking at it right now through the window), he wrapped the barber cloth around me and went to work “lowering my ears,” as the local expression goes.

During which, of course, we talked. I’m no big talker, but Fred has that barber’s knack … excuse me, Fred had that barber’s knack of making easy conversation between him and his customers. And slowly, over the years, the range of our subject matter enlarged beyond the initial sports/weather stuff. Of late, we were even dipping the big toe into politics and religion where there’s likely to be some differences of opinion.

Not one time, though, did anything get heated up between Fred and me. Or between Fred and anybody — not that I witnessed. Fred liked to inquire, but it wasn’t in his nature to argue. There’s enough trouble in the world without making more, Fred confided in me once. I saw the wisdom behind that thought. Know people, but let them be.

When he culled out of me that I was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, that piqued his interest right away. Western Maryland is politically backward, still Ronald Reagan country, now Reagan/Trump country. At most he might say, “I don’t know quite what to think of our current president.” Or, “It’s all about money anymore. Or, “Democrat or Republican don’t seem to matter all that much.”

No argument from me there. Now and then, when I was in the chair, he would slightly lower his voice to say that Cumberland’s city officials are always spouting big ideas for the city’s future, but it will never in a million years return to anything like its former prosperity, back when it was Maryland’s second biggest city, after Baltimore. Where’s prosperity going to come from if all the good jobs leave town.

What have we got now? Prisons and one giant casino. That not the same thing as Kelly Tires. Pittsburgh Plate and Glass. Celanese. Places that actually made something. And paid a living wage.

A person’s got to make a decent living doing something productive if he’s going to feel good about life, Fred liked to say. Not truck loads of money, but a living. Here I might throw in that maybe people are waiting for heaven to feel good. Just to egg him on a bit. He’d check out my expression in the big mirror in front of us, on which the Free Haircut sign is taped, to see if I was serious. He knew nothing about any other world than here, he admitted…. And neither did anybody else, if they were honest.

Such would be a typical conversational between us on my haircut days. Little hints of depth, that we left unpursued. And ever so slowly, like we had all the time in the world, and no one was ever going anywhere, we learned a few details about each other’s lives. It was only in the last year or so that I learned that he preferred books to TV. In the evenings, his wife would watch TV in one room and he would read in another. I could read volumes into that simple detail.

After he found out that I taught at a community college in Martinsburg, WV, he was always interested to know what I thought about the young people coming up. Can they write? Can they read? Can they think?

Driving home, I’m already wondering where I’m going to get my haircut now, ashamed that such a self-centered thought pops up that quickly. But it does. I’m looking terribly shaggy, and in my mind I’m settling on a shop in Martinsburg where I’ve gotten a couple of emergency trims over the years. The haircuts were okay, no better or worse than Fred’s. Cost 20 bucks, but once a month, what will be a measly extra thirteen extra dollars. No big deal.

In that shop, after the haircut, the barber (I can’t remember his name) pressed this electric vibrating pad all over my back and shoulders for a minute or two, the latest in barbering technology, I suppose. I pretended to like it, but to me it was all wrong, this mechanical massage compared to how Fred would simply rest his hand on my shoulder for a few seconds now and then, as part of the haircut. I didn’t think about it all that much at the time, but now, driving home, knowing I’ll never sit in that chair again, I do think about it.

It comes home to me with a new force. Men barbers can touch other men in a gentle way. Fred smoothing his hand over my shoulders was something that on one level I barely recognized, while on a more subtle level I knew I was being lovingly touched. Fred was a master at it, knew the right pressure, the right length of time to give to it. Not just to me. To all of his customers.

Where else does touching, between relatively strangers, so unselfconsciously happen in this crazy cold world? And now probably already becoming a lost art.

I think I’m about to find out. Very few places. Fewer and fewer. It’s another one of life’s great ironies. Seems like a person has to be gone, before you can really see their special gifts. And who they were to you.

Rest in peace, Fred. You’re going to be missed by a lot of people.