Barbers and Bumblebees

I got a haircut the other day. The barber, a young guy named Sava from Montenegro (not on the French Riviera), smiled, cleaned the seat of the barber chair for me with a snap of his towel, and said, “So, how are you, mister? Very busy, right?”

He has been living in New York only a few years and his English is labored, although better than my Montenegrin, Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, and Croatian, which are non-existent. But that’s enough time for him to have picked up the iconic American cultural idiom of being busy.

“Yah, yah, everybody busy,” he declares as he trims my hair. “But when you are busy is better than when you are not busy.” He waits for me to agree, which I do with a nod, and then snips on.

Sava is bemused by this cultural phenomenon, although he, too, participates in it. He is now as busy as the rest of us. Of course, he has to be, what with the neighborhood filled with more barbers and hair salons than fire hydrants. He explained to me once how the trade is very competitive and that it is better to go to European barbers, because they use shears more than electric trimmers. My experience tells me that he is right.

A tenet of capitalism is that competition is the lifeblood of the economy, spurring the production of  goods and services, Sava’s barbershop being one of them. But competition isn’t just part of an economy’s circulatory system. It also affects the nervous system. If overdone, it leads to busyness. If busyness is overdone, it leads to breakdown, which is when you see people clobbering each other on Black Friday and running each other down to get a parking space at the mall for Christmas shopping. Here’s your peace on earth, thank  you very much!

A couple of years ago I had an opportunity to work briefly at Macy’s, which is something I think everyone should try (retail, that is). One day, I neglected to include a third discount card on a pile of reduced summer dresses a customer had hauled to the counter. What I did not understand at the time–and this is crucial–was that the point of the transaction was not the dresses but the discount. That’s where the value was for this poor woman. Her look of disbelief at my error turned to horror when I simply shrugged it off and rang up the total anyway.

So, the marketing gurus are actually onto something when they talk about the shopping “experience.” And all this time, I thought they were being ridiculously narrow-minded and trendy. Not at all. They are extremely clever. They are masters of manipulation, and they have every right to be proud considering their pedigree (see History Is A Weapon).

Marketing feeds busyness, because it creates a sense of being left out. This sense is unconscious and pervasive. You could be left out of an event, a piece of information, a news item, a discount, a team, a college, a job. Marketing, therefore, does not manipulate wants and needs as much as the illusion of light and darkness, being and non-being.

We look to busyness as the thing that will bring us back into the light, make us feel wanted and no longer confined to the nerd table in the high school cafeteria. But, of course, it is a lie. It does no such thing. Rather, it moves us further from ourselves until we are paralyzed, which is when the pharmaceutical industry steps in to tell us how to recharge our lithium batteries as if we were cell phones. Actually, we are turning into cell phones. I am waiting for the new Netflix series, iHuman.

Sava, continuing to recount tales of busyness of his other customers, asks me how busy I have been. Not to be outdone, I say, “As a bee, Sava. Busy as a bee.” It is true, which is why I have felt burnt-out lately.

“Well, even bees have to rest,” he tells me, smiling.

The man is wiser than he knows. Turns out his English ain’t so bad, either.

You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: When the French want to imitate Americans, they say, “Go-go-go!” which reminds me of my favorite childhood book, P. D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go! For the barber pole photo, go to Dan Gold

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