MY POLISH BARBER
“So vot ve goyne be doon todeh?”
Palankwa’s a quick study. You bet she is. Shoves you into the vinyl-cushioned hydraulic swiveler, cracks the bullwhip of an apron, then starts working her magic, utensils gleaming in the dirty fluorescent light. Palankwa, a name I came up with out of thin air, learns on the fly. That’s the way she’s always done it; under the regime, what choice did she have? To avoid re-education, and for the common good, Palankwa was a self-starter. It’s not like they actually had schools over there. The commies, though, would beg to differ. Apprenticeship, they’d say, if they spoke good American, which they don’t. On the job training: that would’ve been their propaganda spiel. But take my word for it. The bona fide truth is my Polish barber’s got talent.
At least she did last time she cut my hair.
First time she cut my hair was on a lark. Me and Maryanne’d brought the kids into the city. It was an excursion. The better part of the year, the city is strictly off-limits. It’s out-of-bounds, because it’s dirty and dangerous and full of coloreds. That’s common knowledge. The family outings, we hoped, would be educational, like forcing your pre-teen to smoke till she pukes, which works, so they say. Our en masse gallivanting isn’t just for the shopping; we’ve got the same stores out in Terra Village, only bigger, brighter, and newer. A Starseeds on every corner. But, well, there’s also the thrill factor, see. We brave the gauntlet of hoods and pushers and street urchins between Hordestrom and Bloomington’s for the rush.
I crossed the street on a whim.
Moments before we were sipping triple-shot venti caramel soy lattes, extra foam. The boys, harnessed together in their tandem jogging stroller, were chugging de-ionized imported French water: they don’t do caffeine. The piped-in Muzak was really taking the edge off. Maryanne was leafing through the catalogues: there were always so many: K. Krew, Safari Store, Johnston-Mojave. Distracted, I was gazing through the streaked bulletproof glass. We’d sat here a thousand times, and I’d never noticed the ten-foot turquoise neon sign flashing above the drab building across Main: CUTS. The U was flickering. It was annoying, but also hypnotic. I slugged the syrupy dregs of my latte, fingered my bushy locks, and announced: “Think I’ll get a cut, dear.”
Bullets singing, tires squealing, I negotiated crumbling asphalt and potholes.
Inside, the shop was dank and dim. It was empty, too. No customers, and only Palankwa. “So vot,” she queried suspiciously, slinking towards me, “ve goyne be doon todeh?” My whole head was already underwater. Scalp burning, eyes stinging, hair being tugged out by the roots. I was in the hydraulic swiveler, half-blind and teary-eyed, squinting at my reflection in the cracked mirror. A drowned rat. When, after a few minutes of whimpering, my vision began to clear, I noticed Palankwa sneering at me. She held her scissors like a dagger, waiting. I said not a word, so she started to snip away. I held my breath. Palankwa eyed me askance, pursing thin vermilion lips. The high turtleneck and tight black get-up, the ghostly pallor and bizzarro accent, everything about her screamed immigrant.
“So you’re a foreigner,” says I. The hair was coming off in chunks, and I needed a distraction.
The glare she shot me ricocheted off the mirror and slapped me in the face. I swallowed hard; maybe this’d been a mistake. What if she sheared me? I couldn’t exactly show up at the office completely shorn, like a sheep. What would the partners say?
“It’s just that,” I plugged on, “I noticed your funny kinda way of talking and all. People say I’ve got an ear.”
Absorbed in her work, Palankwa was pleading the fifth, and I didn’t blame her one bit. I could tell right then that, when it came to barbering, she was a regular craftsman. Palankwa was a professional, and you’ve got to respect a professional. All the same, what with her hacking away, scraps of hair piling in wet heaps on my lap, I really needed some chatter. I have, as they say, an active imagination.
“Lemme guess: you’re a Ruskie, right?”
“No!” she screamed, the decibels surprising from such a waif. Contempt dripped from the reflection of her scowling face. “Poland.”
“Oh!” says I. “I should’ve known! From your evident malaise, I mean!”
Palankwa may’ve hissed under her breath. I would later learn she’s a great hisser. In the meantime, she kept chopping away at my ’do, clumps of wet hair littering the peeling linoleum. It’s what she gets paid for.
“Know what?” I ask, fondling my platinum watch bracelet beneath the heavy apron. Not a flinch; not a wince; no flicker of interest whatsoever. “I’ve never had a haircut from a Polack!”
That’s when Palankwa, whose Christian name I later learned from the credit agencies was Kachnaya Ewa Natasha Korzeniowski, rounded on me.
“I am not Polack!” she shrieked, clutching her scissors like a stiletto. Her breath was rank with garlic, or maybe goulash. “People come out Poland Poles.”
Beg your pardon, I wanted to plead. This haircut may not have been such a great idea. Just take it easy, lady. It was an honest mistake. Only Palankwa never paused for a breath.
“What I am,” she declared, flailing her professional instruments dangerously close to my jugular, “is hundred percent American, born and raised on greatest country of earth and proud to hell with it.”
Highly unlikely, I thought, with her exuding that Eastern Bloc angst and all. Right now, though, was no time for cultural niceties; it was my neck on the line.
“Do never call me Polack!” Palankwa concluded, a glimmer in her eye, and also on the stainless steel blades of her scissors. She held them splayed, ready for cutting. Ripping the apron from my neck, she shrieked: “Now get you outside!”
Skirting bullets, dodging muggers, I caught a glance of my bloodless, panicked pallor in the shop window of Stacy’s where my family waited. I now saw Palankwa’d only cut half my head. She’d given me half a haircut. I had to skulk into SuperStyles the next day, incognito, to get the job finished.
Being that I’m an adrenaline junkie and all, after the first cut I was destined to become a CUTS regular. I went once a month, just like clockwork. The subsequent rushes were never quite like that first cut, but, then again, how could that horrifying experience ever really be replicated? Maryanne thought I’d gone totally loco: “Are you insane, Ted? After what that psycho put you through?” But that was just her sister Sassy talking. Sassy was a hair stylist and had been cutting my hair for years. She was bitter about losing my fifty bucks a pop. “You’re betraying the family, Ted,” Sassy would say, and, Maryanne would repeat. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
Both Maryanne and Sassy were dead wrong. What I was was proud. I was proud to have been born and bred in the greatest country on earth. Proud to have the opportunity to brave the uninsured winos and vagrants and murderers on skid row anytime I wanted, day or night. I was proud to live in this Land of the Free, where, in the eyes of the law, we’re all equal and honest and innocent until proven guilty. Proud to make, if I so desired, a foray into the city for the express purpose of fending off falsely-convicted pederasts and hobos and gangstas, all of them black and nameless and armed to the teeth. I was proud to contribute to a free-market economy, which is egalitarian and non-discriminatory. Proud to have the freedom to plunk down my fifty smackers anywhere I damn well pleased.
It’s my money; it’s my hair; it’s my choice.
So, along with the adrenaline thing, that’s why I went to CUTS. Who’d want to pad their bitchy sister-in-law’s corporate franchise coffers, which already runnethed over, when they could patronize an independent foreigner’s burgeoning enterprise? So what if she had no visa or green card, and was a squatter in a ramshackle hovel on the edge of the most dangerous hood in the city? All of us were immigrants at some point. Maybe Palankwa teetered a little too close to emotional instability, but she was a barbering professional and an entrepreneur. What did it matter if she were certified or not? She had a service to provide, and everybody likes a good haircut. Unlike most of the coloreds and foreigners loafing around the city these days, she was no welfare parasite or homicidal criminal. Palankwa was a go-getter who believed in the inalienable right of every illegal alien to the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream. With liberty and justice for all, is what I’m saying.
One afternoon, in the middle of a cut, Palankwa turns her wan face to me and says:
“USA has not democracy.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. It was a shock to hear her utter such defamatory words. This unpatriotic slander wasn’t exactly the norm; our conversation was usually just lighthearted jabber. I’d tell Palankwa stories about my clients at Marwick, Anderson, & Young, where, before I made the life-altering decisions of late, my job was to navigate loopholes in the tax code for hard-working Americans in the highest income bracket. “Bend the law, but never break it,” I’d explain, flashing my pearly whites at her in the mirror. “Milk of system,” Palankwa’d respond, her vermilion lip curling. She was almost smiling. “That’s right,” I’d chuckle, “milking the system.”
Then she’d reel off these hilarious tongue-in-cheek stories about folks she used to know back in the Old Country. Like there was this guy Freddy Kneecheeseski, who dropped stone-cold dead one day in the middle of a busy street. Or Fido Dosski-somebody, who used to write books in an underground storm cellar or train terminal. There were possibly lots of onions down there. This other pal of hers, Joe Konradski, exploited magazine women at the market, whatever that means. Probably just goosing the tomato girl. With the pallor and the scowl, though, Palankwa had a pretty good poker face. And, unaccustomed to Eastern Bloc humor, I never quite caught the punch line. But, over time, I learned to read her delivery, and I laughed when it was time to laugh. Palankwa’d snicker, too, which I took as a good sign.
So I was floored when she started spewing commie propaganda so unexpectedly. I soon started going to CUTS once a week to figure out why. I was knocking off early from work, neglecting lucrative contracts and billable hours to do so. And I was sacrificing quality time—soccer games, pizza parties, backyard cookouts—with the boys, as Maryanne never failed to remind me. “What do you see in that Polack?” Maryanne wondered. “If that’s where you really go.” God love her, Maryanne always was a pawn to the green-eyed monster. “She’s not a Polack,” I could hear myself clarifying as I fastened my bulletproof vest and made for the door. “People from Poland are called Poles. Anyway, Palankwa’s as American as Franky T’s and The Crack, as Starseeds and DataDeliver and LackLuster’s. Don’t you see? She’s American as you and me!”
What I was making was a good investment of both time and money. I’m no broker, but I knew this was one investment that would really pay off—unlike my chunk of change that got swallowed up in the dotcom fallout. This situation was about defending the promise somebody, probably a dirty Frenchman, made on our behalf umpteen years back: Give us your worn-out, impoverished, wretched refuse. It’s a tall order to fill, and we’ve got to stay committed. Among other grunt work, such as road construction, garbage collection, and fruit picking in the California sunshine, filling orders is what the huddled masses spend their time doing once they make landfall. And you know something? We’re all better off for it, even if their accents are hard to understand, and even if nine times out of ten they bring us the veal parmesano when we ordered the chicken Caesar salad, no cheese, dressing on the side. Hey, it’s not like we’ve got slaves to count on anymore. The migrants and the immigrants, that’s what makes this country the Land of Plenty. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” is how I’d start quoting Martin Luther King, or the great Johnny Unitas. It’s what I’d tell Maryanne almost daily, until I stopped seeing her daily. Dedication, determination, self-sacrifice: it’s what, among other things, things such as greed and pro sports, this great nation is founded upon. “Ask what you can do for your country.”
By now, see, I’m going in for a trim every other day and paying full price for it. I’m not skimping on the tip either, because I put myself through law school waiting tables so I know what it feels like to be stiffed. A little padding for Palankwa wasn’t going to put a dent in my funds: Maryanne and me have our nest egg locked away in solid, long-term investments, and it’s pretty obvious I’m about to make partner at the firm. So I could afford it is what I’m saying. For one, it still looks like I’m Palankwa’s only customer. Somehow, I feel responsible for her. For another, after that crack she made, it was my duty to show her the real America, the one dedicated to the proposition, as Gerald, or Henry, Ford once pronounced, that all men are created equal. That goes for women, too, and even foreigners.
All we had to do was get her out of that hellhole.
So there Palankwa was, clipping my locks one afternoon, dripping ennui all over the black-and-white checkered floor, when, gazing at her in the cracked mirror, I asked:
“This the end of the line, Palankwa? Or do you have your eyes on something more?”
Her glare was enigmatically Eastern Bloc. That’s what it was. I never could get a good read on the Polack: too American for her, I guess. Palankwa started to giggle. Then, like a shy little schoolgirl, she covered those vermilion lips with her off-hand. Still, despite the dim lighting and fragmented reflection, I could see the shine in her eyes.
“Is the anachronism,” she mumbled.
I knew, in spite of her non sequitur, that I’d hit a soft spot, or pay dirt. When I asked questions like the question I’d asked, Palankwa often grazed my ear cartilage with her scissors, drawing blood. “Is danger of business,” she’d mutter, avoiding eye contact. Or she’d hold her scissor-tips too long at my temple, forever reminding me of my first visit. (Those were the same scissors I would later, in an effort to pacify the creditors, learn to manipulate.) Nevertheless, I plunged ahead, undaunted. It meant too much to both of us.
“You ever been to a football game?” says I. “Professional, I mean? The NFL?”
“Any vonce in vile,” she replied, which I took for a no.
So I got us two tickets for the home game on Sunday. Company skybox right on the fifty. Maryanne and the boys were going to the in-laws after church for supper, so it worked out perfect. I picked Palankwa up about eleven. The rattle of sub-machine guns welcomed me, ricocheting between condemned buildings down desolate streets. Alone in the dirty light of the shop, Palankwa was sitting in the vinyl-cushioned hydraulic swiveler, scowling. We didn’t linger. “Is Beemer,” she blurted, her eyes beaming. She really liked the 735i. “Ever ridden in one?” says I, making conversation. “Every now-again,” she lied, eyes twinkling.
The skybox, though, that’s what really turned her tap. I doubt she’d ever witnessed such opulence. We gorged ourselves on the gratis buffet: baby back ribs, fajita tacos, queso and chips, hot wings, assorted canapés, chicken cordon bleu, tropical fruit salad, French silk pie. Washed it all down with draught pints of cold microbrew. We even braved the sub-arctic open-air temperatures to flag down the hot dog guy, and the cotton candy guy, and the peanut guy. “Frankfurter,” Palankwa said, “with the ketchup.” She almost laughed: we both did. Then I took her hand, and we carried our bounty back inside and watched the game in the comfort of central heating and bulletproof Plexiglas, guts groaning.
Once the game was over, I drove Palankwa back through the war zone to CUTS. Neither of us said a word the whole way; we sat listening to the highlights through the sixteen-speaker sound system. Easing to the curb, I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t even know where you live.” Palankwa didn’t hesitate: “There,” she said, pointing up at a window above the shop. I’d never noticed there was an apartment up there. A candle flame flickered behind the dirty sheet or plastic bag she’d jury-rigged for a curtain. It’s a wonder the whole block hadn’t burned down already. “Anybody up there?” I wondered aloud. Palankwa pursed her lips, dark circles ringing her eyes. She shook her head, almost imperceptibly, then grabbed my hand, which was caressing the gear shift. “Up you come,” she implored, much to my surprise.
After a week or two with Palankwa, I really started to feel like I was doing my part. Together, we made changes. Not so much to the squalid décor; that would’ve proven nigh impossible. After all, the building had been condemned for more than just the kickbacks from demolition services and developers, it was largely unlivable. No, the changes we made when I moved in were to Palankwa’s hara, or aura, changes which were fundamental to her future success.
Palankwa went to a day spa out in Terra Village one afternoon for a mud-mask makeover. I let her take the Beemer, while I manned the fort. There were no customers; I took up smoking. While she was out in the burbs, Palankwa also had a coloring and styling done at Sassy’s. Luckily, Maryanne wasn’t there that day. Okay, so she acquired fashion necessities and accoutrements at Seiman Marko’s and Zaks and Hale’s, including, though by no means limited to, indigo suede pants, angora sweaters, mink stoles, a diamond-faced Tok-Jär. But these changes—and they were both numerous and expensive—were more than mere unrestrained binges, a Polack adult kid with a huge credit limit alone in a high-end department candy store. These changes were more about cultural cachet than cold cash: Palankwa was learning the language.
When she came home she always modeled her new attire. It was part of the routine. She’d go out and practice her American, which was quickly becoming fluent, then she’d return to our humble hovel laden with bags and boxes and crates. Palankwa would don latex skirts and crimson blouses of Chinese silk, feathered boas and patent leather spike heels. She’d parade around the tiny room, treading lightly to avoid displacing the loose footboards. She was as sleazy and elegant as any runway model. After the show, I’d strip it all off her, and we’d go at it for a while on the uncovered mattress ticking.
Of course, in this day and age, cash is important, too. That’s why we took the Beemer, which, by now, had already lost its cell antenna, rear windshield, and sixteen-speaker sound system, to the First National and opened her up a savings account, and a checking account, and a mutual fund. I made healthy deposits in all three, because it was my honor-bound duty and the right thing to do. “High roller,” she spluttered to the bank teller, “Fat cat.” It was clearly unclear who she meant. Also, we got Palankwa her very own Visa, though there was some contention over what name to print on the card. “Kachnaya Ewa Natasha Korzeniowski,” she insisted, which made no sense to me. But what did I know? “Have it your way,” I said.
I could tell this meant everything to Palankwa.
I’d always wanted to work pro bono. It’s what we all talked about in law school. But when you’re a tax attorney, there’s not really much demand. The efforts I was making with Palankwa sure made Marwick, Anderson, & Young look good. And they were grateful, even if they hadn’t ever given their formal consent, predominately because they had no idea what I was up to. The stiff pay cut never bothered me; I knew it was a necessary sacrifice. Even when I learned, via curt cell phone message, I’d been given the axe, I knew it was all for the best. Because there was a lesson to be learned: “Canned, axed, given boot,” Palankwa repeated, smirking. “Now out on keyster.”
Another great teachable moment happened when Maryanne started hanging around the shop, hollering up from the sidewalk. “You filthy bastard!” she’d scream, “I know you’re up there with that Polack slut!” Maryanne was a real trooper, fearless in the face of adversity. There was the danger to consider, what with the vagrants and gangbangers and homicidal maniacs rousing from drugged stupors at the screech of her shrill voice. “How could you do this to me?” Maryanne, God love her, never could see the forest for the trees. I still cared for her, of course, to say nothing of the boys; but Maryanne didn’t realize just how much was at stake. She wouldn’t have listened, even if I had tried to explain.
One day, some weeks or months later, another voice hollered up from the sidewalk. I recognized its gravelly baritone. “Ted, we know you’re in there.” Sporting Palankwa’s dirty blue kimono, I wandered to the window. I tugged back the soiled sheet we used for a curtain and spotted Brett Young, of Marwick, Anderson, & Young. He was the firm’s family practice specialist, one of my former bosses. I don’t think he was wearing a bulletproof vest, which was risky. “Maryanne’s had it, Ted. She’s filing. Buck up for alimony and child support. It’s all in here.” He tossed the bloated dossier onto the stoop. Maryanne and the boys would want their cut, and, truth was, they deserved it. “And Ted,” said Mr. Young, “you know something: you’re a real deadbeat.”
Crouching in her corner, Palankwa began to snicker. “Ted is real deadbeat,” she aped, exhaling blue smoke. “Ha!”
There’s little left to count on these days, save the blasts of Uzis and Glocks, the vulturous greed of the hoods lurking in the shadows. Maybe the foamy froth of a double decaf caramel soy macchiato. But these days, times being what they are, which is rough all over, I can’t really afford such indulgences. Brett Young, who, by now, is probably shacking up with Maryanne, got me disbarred through an insider connection. My lawyering days are through. There’s the alimony to think about, plus, I want to put something away for the boys’ educations. And, to be blunt, I’m no great shakes at this barbering business.
See, eventually, Palankwa cut out on me. Who can blame her? She had gotten her wings, brightly plumed and freshly preened, so who was I to say she couldn’t use them? And use them she did. She might’ve been a flight attendant for all the air travel she started doing. Only Palankwa was no sky-waitress: it was strictly first-class for my Polish barber. You can take that to the bank. Palankwa’d drop me a line, as she’d say, any vonce in vile, via flashy postcards with spare messages. New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Honolulu: Palankwa was really getting around. USA is great big country, she’d write, or Creamsicle taste the better. I wondered how long she’d make a go of it: though I’d given her plenty of padding, and she’d forged my signature a couple-three times, acquiring several other credit cards and a pair of short-term, high-interest loans, eventually the cash would run out.
The cash always runs out.
When it comes down to it, though, I know Palankwa will be all right. She’s a wily one. There’s more to her than anyone hearing her Eastern Bloc accent might come to expect. She’s no Ruskie spy or whatever. I taught her a thing or two about life and language and love. And as we all know, there’s nothing more satisfying than a job well done. I take comfort in knowing that, because of my efforts, she’ll never have to worry about being labeled a foreigner or immigrant or Polack again. She speaks the language now, knows the customs. Because of all my hard work and self-sacrifice, my Polish barber is a bona fide red-blooded American, even if she doesn’t have citizenship or a green card or even an entrance visa. None of that matters. There’s nothing to worry about, because Palankwa’s a quick learner. And as Samuel, or Bryan, Adams always says, education goes on forever!
Click here for J.T. Townley's bio