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Lives Lived In Small Places


Ben Miller '86


On certain, stray Saturday mornings I’d hang out at Art Kudart’s barbershop on Main Street. Sometimes I got a haircut. Other times I’d simply sit in a corner, enjoying the atmosphere of clean-cut menace, of blades and purpose.

Cornellians frequented Art Kudart's barbershop for nearly six decades.

Art had been barbering for nearly 60 years and the proof was perched on the counter beneath the shop-length mirror: jars of combs and boxes of scissors and the abruptly modern hose of the blow dryer that wormed among the containers, a stray pair of brass tweezers, a mustache brush, the lime glow of aftershave, squeeze bottles of aqua gel, banks of electric razors and, what for me was the highlight, a tarnished spigot protruding from a big tin can where an ancient secret of manliness had once swirled and percolated.

Then there was the chrome and leather intricacy of the barber chair itself. And the mysterious stumplike spot on the floor where a second chair may have once been rooted. What had happened to the partner? Retired to Florida? Or had he fallen from a cliff at Palisades Park, weighed down with picks and shovels, hunting a new source for the magic male potion the spigot had once pumped?

Art tolerated me. He was a serious man but generous too, with laughter and advice. He had been mayor of Mount Vernon years before and right away I noticed how carefully people listened to him, his voice channeling quick and clear through the narrow gap between the teeth clenched tightly to the plastic pipe stem.

His favorite story was the one about the $500 tip.

In the mid-1960s a well-dressed out-of-towner walked into the shop. He quietly paged through magazines until called to the chair.

As the man approached, Art asked: Just a light trim?

Just cut it the way you always did, was the reply.

The two stared at each other for a few moments and then the stranger revealed that he was one of the many financially strapped Cornell students Art had let live in the shop, in a small back room, rent free.

Well, not exactly free. The tenant was required to sweep the floor. And this one, initially, hadn’t done such a good job. The slothfulness had led to a quick eviction, the eviction to a plea for another chance. Art had relented and it was that moment of forgiveness which the man—now a successful Minneapolis wholesaler—had returned to repay, slipping a $500 check under the dollar bill and two quarters that covered the cost of the cut.

After telling me this story, Art walked to the rear of the shop and opened a slender door, revealing a tiny room.

The floor was no wider than the wrought-iron cot that stood on it. Three feet separated the cot from a gnome-like desk equipped with a lamp.

The two of us stepped inside, shoulders hunched, barely fitting. There was a living pulse to the place, even though the sheet on the bed was yellow and the cloth lamp cord had frayed into a thousand little hairs. It wasn’t hard to imagine the echo of a radio broadcast—the eek of Fanny Brice—trapped between the floorboards. Or the wind from turned pages wafting over the rough grain of the desk wood. I felt we might be joined any minute, hear a knock and see a young veteran in the doorway, textbook tucked under one arm.

Lives lived in small places, I thought, when we finally left. Lives lived in small places stay in those places.

Six or so months later, on a frigid February morning, I walked into the shop with a running tape recorder hidden in a duffel bag.

I was in R. P. Dana’s creative writing class at the time and the latest assignment was to gather a page of overheard dialogue. Never having taken dictation before, I wasn’t going to risk missing a word. This way I’d capture every last bit of the talk, raw and unfiltered.

After all, that’s why I kept coming back. It was a relief to spend a little time with people who weren’t my age and didn’t have my problems. Art’s customers struggled with physical infirmities and taxes, the price of corn and the severity of the weather. Dorm discussions could be intelligent and fanciful, but were often merely slippery and uneasy. Here conversations were concrete, moored in a quantitative, if inadequate, reality.

I took a chair near the door, laid the bag between my feet.

Art, who was cutting hair, turned to say hello.

I returned the greeting and he went back to snipping.

It was a beautiful steel sound and I hooked my foot around the duffel and slid it toward the scissors.

Five minutes later the bell on the door frame rang and another customer entered, plaid wool jacket, slushy boots, sun-scarred face.

He settled down next to me and immediately began to banter about the Hawkeye football team.

I slid the duffel left to get Slushy’s dialogue, then forward to get Art’s response.

The old man in the chair, wearing a striped bib, said something softly and I pushed the bag right to catch that, left again to catch Slushy’s retort and then right once more to capture the comment on that comment.

I slid slid slid slid slid slid slid slid slid slid slid and when I got back to the dorm and listened to the tape, that’s all I had recorded, the sound of a canvas bag moving across a floor.

The dialogue, then, had to come from memory. And it did. As this piece has, on a cold winter morning in Brooklyn, the smoke hanging above the chimneys in curls as white as the hair of Art himself.

Ben Miller '86 is a writer living in New York City. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in many publications and new work can be found in recent or upcoming issues of McSweeney's, Other Voices, Chicago Review, New Letters, New York Stories, American Letters & Commentary, and Fence.

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