Monday 14 October 2013

Brainboxer : The Pumpkin Pie Barber

Dear Brainboxer,

When I was about five or six, I had never tried pumpkin pie before.  I was living with my aunt, uncle and their family in Ottawa.  One Thanksgiving my aunt decided she was going to not only have pumpkin pie for the traditional dessert, but to make it herself.  She probably cooked it in her mind for days beforehand, and then on Thanksgiving morning she laboured for hours to get it just right.  For whatever reason it was just me and her at home, and in the late afternoon she had to run out for something.  She pulled the fresh and ready pumpkin pie from the oven, hot and brown and steaming, and told me not to touch it while she was gone.

Having never tried pumpkin pie, I was very curious.  Also, my uncle was the kind of head-of-table patriarch whose dinner-time refrain went something like, “How do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it,” (which, to me, sounded like, “YOU WILL TRY OR YOU WILL DIE,” from the fire-breathing jaws of a dragon) and who insisted that if you’ve got it on your plate, you will put it in your gate.  So what if I didn’t like pumpkin pie after all?  Besides, it looked kind of ugly: brown goo in a boring crust, and pumpkins  Who eats the stuff you scoop out of a jack o’ lantern?  So, combine curiosity, the fire-breathing dragon, and the additional fact that I was a pain-in-the-ass brat – and you understand how I ruined Thanksgiving.

I started at the very corner of the circular pie, with a finger dipped into the goo.  Just a tiny bit.  I ran away from the oven and stuck it into my mouth.  Not bad.  I listened for my aunt coming home…  Nothing.  I went back to the pie, and there it was, undeniable: my fingerprint!  I tried to move more goo from the corner over the fingerprint and to smooth it over, licking my hands of course, but after I was done it looked even worse.  A whole side of the pie had been tampered with!  Okay, okay, think  One corner is clear evidence of human disturbance, but what if that was spread out around the whole pie?  Carefully, very carefully, I made a line with my finger around the pie, between the goo and the crust.  I had to eat as I went, for where else would the goo go;and I thought, it doesn’t taste not too bad at all.  When the line was done I listened for the door again…  Still nothing.  But the circle was uneven – it was worse!  All I could do was thicken it to the thickest point, because no oven would make a circle like that – but a non-human symmetrical effect from the grill?  Why not.

When I was finished with my masterwork of subterfuge I truly believed that anyone who looked upon the pie wouldn’t see my strokes of genius or any change at all, and if they did, they’d put it down to the witchery of the kitchen.  So I walked away happy (and satisfied), just minutes before my aunt returned.

Well, she noticed.  I pretended not to know what she was talking about.  In the same motion as she tossed her experimental pie into the trash she turned on me and gave me a mouthful of something other than pumpkin.  And then we went together to the grocery store to buy a new one, probably made in some factory where cameras watch the every move of the baker.  Needless to say, I don’t think I was allowed any for Thanksgiving dessert.


It was time for the Kilindoni full circle.  On my first day on Mafia Island, I found a barber just past the main intersection and asked to get my beard trimmed.  A group of men and boys were on the couch playing cards, and it seemed like quite a sight for a mzungu like me to just barge in and ask for the price of a haircut.  Didn’t I get my hair cut in my home country, where people knew how to deal with brown curls and a daily bush of prickles on the cheek?  The barber obliquely refused to help; he threw up his shoulders and indicated that he’d help me if he could, but in my case he was impotent.  I stepped further in, picked up a razor, turned it on and pointed it at my beard.  Ndiyo?” I said.  All of the barber’s friends were teasing him now, poking and high-fiving, and he blushed.  I knew the price would be fair.  Ndiyo,” he said, and then he trimmed my beard.  Afterwards I taught the whole gang to play Hearts.

So, in my last week in Kilindoni before the move (after two months of hoops) to Utende, I decided to come back.  I had passed nearly every day and waved to the barber who was usually listening to music or sleeping on his couch.  I had tried another barber for the monthly beard trimming, and it was fine – I had to haggle the price a little, and he never smiled.  When I returned to my original hairdresser, he was alone but happy to see me.  He circled his face with his finger and said what must have been “beard trim” in Swahili.  Hapana,” I said, and lifted up my long hair to flop it back down.  His eyes went wide.  I asked him how much, he gave a high price; we haggled, and then made the deal.

I don’t keep very well-groomed.  I let the beard and the hair grow until one of the two gets in my way, and then get it cut for as low a price as I can find (I don’t fret about packing razors when I travel, or here in Tanzania, but yes, I do know how to shave and will if it’s cheaper…).  My hair before my Kilindoni cut was the longest it has ever been.  I could pull it down over my face and hold it there with my teeth.  It curled into an impossible ball at my neck.  It flapped out into embarrassing wings that I could feel bounce when running, until the sweat brought them back down.  It swirled in such loops that people asked if I had my hair “done”, which was exacerbated here by being bleached by the sun, which made it look artificially dyed.  It had been due for a cut for a long time, but Al insisted that she’d ditch me if I did.  Finally she said it was getting a little too long – too “heavy” was her word – in that the hair no longer curled but just came down.  She gave permission to cut a little off.

So there I sat as my friend the red-shirted barber threw the plastic cloak over my and the busted chair.  Moja, mbili, tatu, nne?” he asked.  One, two, three or four?  He was referring to razor sizes.  No, no, I told him, and made a click-click sound while miming a pair of hand-scissors.  He was bewildered.  He picked up the scissors.  I showed him the length I wanted cut (about a thumb) and he cut it off.  He understood and smiled.  Then he put the scissors down and pulled out a razor, placing the number four clip on top.  Oh shit, I thought, he doesn’t know how to use the scissors.  And then he proceeded to razor my head.

It wasn’t so bad, not too short – and it’ll grow back soon.  But my friend the red-shirted barber was getting excited.  When I told him that I wanted the sides and back a little shorter, he flipped between numbers 3 and 4 on the plastic scale about a dozen times, tossing his tools back and forth like a juvenile basketball player.  He took the plastic off altogether, and sheared my sideburns – why bother asking me?  But in doing that, another piece was exposed: the beard was cut into.  I’d specifically said to leave the beard.  Okay, he thought, just some cosmetics.  He slowly, painstakingly converted the surrounding areas to layered in bits of facial hair.  And to balance it, he kept razoring my forehead, pushing my hairline a millimeter back with each little adjustment.  But the layering had to be even, not just confined to the sides.  He buzzed my cheeks, just a little here, then above my mustache, just a little there.  I was becoming his masterpiece, and I didn’t even notice!

Truth be told, I’d given up.  My few words in Swahili went nowhere, and he wouldn’t have cared if I was fluent anyways; I was in the artist’s chair now.  So I listened to the music, which was pumped loud enough for the whole street and would be welcome in those awfully silent barber shops and hairdresser’s where conversation is a way to survive the silence, and when the weather comes up and you feel like you’re back in safe territory from politics and poor jokes, you still think that this guy who has scissors around your ears thinks that you are his most boring client of all time.  Not here, though.  My barber might have thought my conversation was boring, but my hair was absolutely enthralling.  So I let him have his cake, and wandered in my mind or around the room.  His music-playing computer from 1998 had a screen background of a man who is crying out, “Plz give me my hart back,” as a fur-coated femme fatale on high heels walks away with what looks like a butchered chicken throbbing in hair hand.  There were fake flowers above the door, thin floor-covering for the table-top, a cut-up couch and regular wafts of barber-odour and disinfectant.  The odd person walked outside, saw me and stopped, and then went off to tell his friends: the long-haired hippie mzungu is getting his hair cut!  

There was indeed enough time for some of the people I know to find me and take a look, because my red-shirted friend the barber kept getting himself stuck fixing what he’d done.  Just have to shorten this corner at the back…now the other side…better do the middle…wait, what about the top…now that first corner has to be shorter, too…alright, let’s even out the whole head, and don’t leave the face…in fact, forget it, let’s just make the bastard bald.  In the end, size 4 became a 3, size 3 became a 2, my hairline was sent back the way it came, and the beard came off altogether.  It was a kick to look down and see my pile of hair.  Everyone else laughed too.  My red-shirted friend the barber was in terrific spirits, and I couldn’t help but think of him smiling the same way in front of a pumpkin pie he’d never tried before.  I paid up and walked out minus some weight off my head.

And then I remembered, what will Al say?