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Joe's Neighborhood

Sam the Barber

11/3/2021

“Aging is a journey that many don’t experience. They were born old, and they die old.” 

The parking lot is full. Men in dress pants and jackets. Women in dresses and skirts. Many my age, but I recognize only a few souls. In hushed voices, we enter the church. It’s a weekday afternoon.

The obit read: “Yes, that’s a Monday, Sam’s day off. We knew he would not want to miss any work.”

More than 35 years ago, I walk into the shop on 42nd Street without an appointment. A man with a kind smile is cutting hair. He tells me to sit and that he’ll be right with me. He goes back to his conversation with the guy in the barber chair. 

I pick up a newspaper. 

Now you may be wondering what I’m doing in a barbershop. Believe it or not, there was a time I had some hair. Not much. But some. And my wife directed me to get the few hairs I had cut. This was all part of my wife’s ongoing program to make me presentable to the public. A thankless task. So here I was at Uptown Barber Stylist trying to get some style.

Prep Iowa

I found something else.

The barber, Sam Reese, is talking. But not just passing-the-time talking. He talks of life, women, marriage, kids. He talks about manhood and its real meaning. He talks about compassion and understanding. He talks about truth.

All before I even get in the chair!

I am smitten.

It dawns on me that this is a sacred place, and this job of getting a haircut is a sacred event.

And I become a fan, even though I have no hair to cut.

“Aging is a journey that many don’t experience. They were born old, and they die old.” 

Sam told me this last winter. He was always a philosopher, but he carried the mantle more openly as the years passed. 

“Unfortunately, living a specific number of years is not the real gauge of ‘old.’ You are not old because you are not as handsome, or because your step is challenged, or because you have a different body ache daily,” said the handsome Sam the Barber.

Really? Old is all in your head? 

“It’s kind of crazy! I don’t see ME in the mirror. When I see a photo, I just say I’m not photogenic anymore.”

Then what is old, Sam?

“You are old when you can’t physically and mentally enjoy how wonderful life was when you fell in LOVE!”

A romantic down to the marrow. Sam then always made fun of his “foolish” self. But then he would make the same romantic observation again — just in case you missed it. 

And time passed. Sam married and cut hair. He had children and cut hair. He married again and cut hair. He had another child and cut hair. He had nine grandchildren and cut hair. 

Several years ago, he talked about retirement.

“When I retire, I’ll probably go to work for Trader Joe’s. Cause I like that store. And, you  know, I have enough personal skills I could get hired out there. In fact, everybody out there ought to be my age. Cause we go to work. We don’t get sick. We just die. If he didn’t show up, well he’s dead.”

This honesty is unnerving in a guy with a scissors so close to your ears.

A guy who says things like: “There is really only one attribute you’re looking for in a woman . . . it’s that she likes you for you. And then you can look for something else you like about her. If you don’t have that one, you have nothing.”

“Amen,” the barbershop chorus says.

Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church is full. The family greets each person at the door. I sit uncomfortably in the back of the church where I imagine the unbelievers should sit. The priest, Father PJ McManus, talks about the emergency haircut he got from Sam when he was just a little boy, and this story leads to the return of Lazarus. Colin Reese, Sam’s son, talks emotionally about the lessons his father gave him growing up and as a grown man. The chorus sings beautiful haunting hymns.

I wipe my eyes.

Sam’s mantra rings in my ears: “Cause we go to work. We don’t get sick. We just die.” 

And he did go to work.

And he didn’t get sick.

And he did just die.

But didn’t he have a hell of a lot to say to the rest of us in the in-betweens?

May Sam rest in peace. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www. joesneighborhood.com.

3 Comments

  1. Norma lane says:

    What a nice tribute about my nephew Sammy,,he was like my little brother,,I am 3 years older then he was and we grew up together. loved him very much, I loved him and misshim

  2. Barbara Cort says:

    Hi Joe, what a beautiful article. Sam was my cousin. I have many fond memories growing up with Sam.
    Sam’s aunt Norma, cousin Dorothy and I had lunch with Sam on the Wednexday before he passed. We were all so shocked when we found out. THANK YOU for this lovely article. You nailed Sam perfectly.

  3. Loretta McCabe says:

    I met Sam Reese probably 75 yrs ago. He was a handsome young man . His parents, my parents, my dads twin sister and husband would play cards and all the kids hung out..
    Over the yrs I lost track of him, but thought of him often. RIP SAM.
    At almost 80 I still remember with fondness that cute, dark wavy haired young boy with a smile that never ended.

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