Vladimir the Barber-Philosopher

I have now mentioned a few times on this blog how I slipped the name “Jayber Crow” into the acknowledgments of both The Way of Improvement Leads Home and an earlier Journal of American History essay by the same title. (By the way, if you want some insight into how to teach the article or the book, the Journal of American History has featured it in their pedagogical series, “Teaching the JAH.”)

As some of you know, Jayber Crow is not a real person. He is the barber in Wendell Berry‘s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky and the title character in Berry’s greatest novel to date, Jayber Crow. Jayber’s barbershop on the main street of Port William is one of the places where the local farmers go to hang out and solve all the problems of the world.

Something about me is deeply drawn to the way Jayber’s shop is a place where community and place are cultivated among the men of Port William. Perhaps it reminds me of Carlos’s Barbershop on the corner of Main Street and Boonton Avenue in the town of Boonton, New Jersey where I grew up. Carlos and his brother Frank, both Italian immigrants (or perhaps sons of immigrants), would hold court in their shop as the Boonton locals wandered in and waited for the next chair to open up. As a young lad I would sit there quietly and listen, usually with my Dad and my two brothers by my side. I never thought I made any impression on Carlos or Frank until I walked in about six or seven years after I graduated from college and both of them recognized me and asked me about what I was doing with my life. Shortly thereafter, Carlos died unexpectedly.

I thought about Jayber, Carlos, and Frank today as I sat down to get my hair cut by my current barber–Vladimir. Vladimir is a Russian immigrant. He grew up in Moscow, but he has lived in the United States for about thirty years. Vladimir is smart, or at least he thinks he is. When I sit in his chair I need to be prepared to talk about anything from Russian history to how one balances their loyalty to family with their loyalty to their country. In other words, don’t talk about sports or movies.

Today, as might be expected, the topic turned to Haiti. Vladimir argued that the people of Haiti should have never tried to revolt against French colonization in the 18th century. Imperialism could be a good thing, he argued. Once the French left Haiti everything went down hill. He also pointed to the way the Soviets modernized eastern Russia in the early 20th century.

One of the things I like about Vladimir is that if you challenge his beliefs he is at least willing to listen. Actually, he is quite polite. I asked if he would be willing to trade his liberty if it meant having the modern improvements that imperialism or colonization might provide. I always hesitate bringing up these kinds of moral quandaries with Vladimir because it normally means that I end up sitting in his chair talking long after the actual haircut is finished. In today’s debate Vladimir was particularly passionate. I could tell he was enjoying this immensely. So was I. And, by the way, Joy liked the haircut.

I like writing posts for “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” and having a small space here in the blogosphere, but I am not sure what I would do if I could not chat with Vladimir and the other people I encounter by living my life here in this place. For me, the “way of improvement” must, in some way, lead me “home.”