Saturday, January 29, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Traveling and haircuts


After the haircut was complete, the barber bowed politely. I rubbed my head and gave a broad smile, hoping to convey my appreciation of a job well done. The haircut was tight, precise, and nothing out of place. I smiled again. Another bow… and then a young woman was brought to my chair. I was confused by her presence but again smiled. The barber, seeing my confusion, grinned in a wide pantomime of lewdness and pointed at the young woman. Apparently there were further services included in a haircut and shave in South Korea in 1988. Who knew?joes2

Don’t get me wrong about traveling; I love home. I am a homebody. I love to wake up in my house, make a latte, and stay in my pajamas until noon. Des Moines is a place of comfort and warmth. At any time of day or night, you can find someone in Des Moines who will hold your hand, pour you a drink, rub your back, listen to your story. Then you can politely get up and go home to bed. Your own bed. With your own pillow.

Which is a problem.

Complacency is my go-to spot. I am more than willing to be satisfied with what’s in my hand at any particular moment. Of course, the United States is the best country in the world. Of course, Iowa is the best state in the country. Of course, Des Moines is the best city in the state. But maybe I’m wrong. How can you really judge if you don’t go and see how other people live?

So you have to travel.


And while you’re on this journey, you need to get a haircut. It’s a surefire way to see what’s going on, to connect with a group of people, to expand your horizons. The barbershop is a cultural equalizer. A window to another world. For example, did you know that while traveling in South Korea in 1988 you needed to learn the Korean words for “I am married, and I must politely decline your offer”? Of course you didn’t.

I had walked up and down this street in The Hague, Netherlands, many times. The store was always empty. When I’d peer inside, I could see a single barber chair. Outside, stenciled on the large plate-glass window was a simple sign: “Loek Schmits — herenkapper.” But what really grabbed my attention was the high-end espresso machine resting prominently on the counter. Interesting.joes1

One day a man was inside the shop as I walked past. When I entered, his eyebrows raised. You see, I have nothing on my head for a barber to actually “kapper.” So there I was. Standing stock-still. Unsure why I really entered. As was the barber. He suddenly gave a hearty laugh. Shaking his head at my bald head, he said in hesitant English: “Do you want an espresso or a cappuccino?”

Loek Schmits spent about 15 minutes making me the perfect cappuccino. He gave us each a cup and sat down and told me his story. The preliminaries were succinct: born and raised in The Hague; married to his childhood sweetheart; two kids; five grandkids; 69 years old. He had cut women’s hair for 40 years. He was one of the best and had a large clientele. He raised his family, paid his bills, and was moderately happy.

Then he quit it all.

Loek Schmits stopped talking here. He knew how to tell a story. He slowly walked over to his high-end espresso maker and made us each another shot. Settling back into his barber chair, he reached around for a plate and served us each two small ginger cookies. With a deep breath, he continued.

He decided his life did not match who he wanted to be. He sold his car, paid off his house and built this small, tiny barbershop. One chair. He had two requirements for this new life: First, every day he would drink the best espresso with his customers; and, second, when he cut hair, he would play only the music he loved. That’s it. No other rules. No 10-step program. No “Younger Next Year.”  No “30 Days to Perfect Thighs.” It’s simple. Good espresso with friends and good music. End of story.

Listen, I don’t want to appear all Susie Sunshine about this guy. He talked of some adversity. Spoke of his wife suffering from enough blockages in her heart to require several angioplasties. Difficulties with old cars. Concern about one daughter. But then I asked him whether the last 14 years as a one-chair barber was worth it. Loek Schmits smiled and said, “I have angels over my head.”

See, this is why you travel, and this is why you go to a barber. And, just maybe, when you get home you will wonder whether you have angels over your head. You know, that same head with the nice haircut. CV

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:

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