Commoners (Part 2): Barber Bruce

by Edward Traub
“Commoner” isn’t a dirty word here; it is a thing to be proud of. It means you have rights to something of value, that you contribute to the management of the fells, and that you take part in our way of life as an equal with the other farmers. If you farm Herdwick or Swaledale sheep and they are hefted to the common grazing land on the fells, then you, by definition, often belong to an association of commoners. (1)”
— James Rebanks

The following is a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote for my hometown newspaper, The Piatt County Journal-Republican, in Monticello, Illinois.  It's actually part two of my "Commoners" series.

 Bruce Jordan (photo courtesy of the  Champaign-Urbana News Gazette ) (2)

Bruce Jordan (photo courtesy of the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette) (2)

But it’s a fact that knowledge comes to barbers, just as stray cats come to milking barns (3).
— Jayber Crow

I don’t have much hair to cut.  I used to wonder why a bald man like my own dad would pay money to have a barber trim what little was left.  Seemed like there should have been a “bald-guy” discount.  That’s another topic for another time, and all economics aside, it was just a few years ago when I was home visiting my parents in Monticello, building a deck on the front of the house, when I decided to be that bald guy who goes in for that haircut.  It was so hot that week in July that it made sense as well to seek a respite from the midday heat and stop in to see Barber Bruce.

My haircut is pretty simple.  I have even taken on the duties to cut my hair all by myself, and with the exception of asking one of my daughters to “check the back” of my head for anyplace I missed, have been using that old Wahl razor to trim to near shaved status.  I guess I’m grateful that being bald, and shaving most of one’s hair off is sort of on-trend.  Many a balding male has now sought to alleviate the torture of the hair-on-the-sides look by simply going with a more bad-ass shaved head look.  Most of us have done so all the while allowing facial hair to grow in the form of a beard or goatee; there aren’t many heads completely void of hair somewhere.

That day in July, though, I went to see Barber Bruce Jordan.  The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette published in 2014 an article about “Hair Jordan” and memories rushed into my mind, and a life that seemed so far gone for me all of a sudden became vivid again.  I knew Bruce had been at it a long time, but fifty years?  He still remembered who I was that day in July (and I hadn’t been in his shop for almost twenty years) in part because I look a lot like my dad and my dad knows Bruce pretty well and will occasionally stop in too.  It’s as if the only way he doesn’t know your name or who you belong to is if he had never met you.  That’s a wordy way of saying the Barber of Monticello has a long memory in the best possible way.  

Bruce's work and life are an authentic example of what a true "commoner" is. As I mentioned in my previous commoners post a few weeks ago, it is my intention to help us become more common, not less.  In the spirit of James Rebanks' book The Shepherd's Life.

I would go to his shop regularly as a high school student.  Our coaches wouldn’t allow us to have long hair, so it was important to keep it clean. Bruce would ask about how things were going in whatever sport I was playing at the time and I could tell him.  Our family also attended the same church as the Jordan’s, which gave us some other topics.  He seemed genuinely interested in my story and he had a presence that made me want to make him proud of whatever it was that I did in life.  I kept my hair short.

But one day I was waiting for my haircut and one man ahead of me got up for his turn in the chair.  I don’t think Bruce knew him, but he could tell (as I could, too) that the guy was in the military.  Anyone who knows him, knows that Bruce’s stories are 100 to 1 when it comes to his two years in the army compared to anything else (except maybe his wife, Linda).  It was at that moment that I learned the phrase “high-and-tight.”  Bruce simply said right away, “High and tight?”  And the man said, “Yep!”  Anyone in the Army knew what that meant.  For men, it’s the only option while in active service.  Some call it a “crew cut” but I don’t think that quite fits the billing, it’s a tad too civilian.  And so in that moment it became clear that Bruce and this gentleman had a connection.  It was as if Bruce had just saluted the guy and they were instantly conversant, with Bruce showing a unique empathy and care for what his customer was about to embark upon (active service, not the haircut).  I didn’t have words for it then, but in retrospect I was watching the art of connection lived out in the most glorious and unpretentious ways.

Bruce’s shop window is adorned primarily with a manually set dial, reminiscent of Wrigley Field’s manually run scoreboard (a comparison I’m pretty sure Bruce will appreciate as a die-hard fan of the Chicago Cubs), announcing to those who walk or drive by how many customers are waiting for a haircut.  There are no appointments which, I’ll admit, could make it difficult if you’re on a tight schedule.  But maybe that’s the larger point to my essay.  What Jordan’s Barber Shop is is a vital connection to, and functioning reminder of, the most important things: and it has little to do with aesthetics.

Or maybe it does have something to do with aesthetics.  Businesses and the commoners who “run” them in this way epitomize the aesthetics of community.  Bruce does this through the art of storytelling.  That summer visit reminded me again about the reality of Bruce’s craft.  There is never a topic or story he cannot converse about.  Some people are incapable of doing this in a way that doesn’t become a competition of “one-upmanship.”  Thankfully, Bruce is not in that category.  His stories are inclusive and playful, even if the topic is difficult.  And although “politics” may not be discussed much, if at all according to the News-Gazette article, Bruce will not hold back if there’s an issue he’s convicted about.

The beauty of community and the art of storytelling is what is vital to the commoner life.

After I re-read the article recently, I was immediately reminded of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow.  Jayber, a commoner as well, is a barber in the tiny fictional community known as Port William.  I will not belittle Berry’s work or Barber Bruce’s life by making it seem as if Jayber Crow’s story matches Bruce’s in every and exactly the same way, but the fact that Crow is a barber certainly helps.  More to the point is that barbers, and others whose work is “small,” are actually the heroes in any community.  Today, to say something is “small” is considered “less than” those things that are “big.”  While I (and many others I grew up with) moved on to become somehow great, to exceed the small expectations of our communities, many others have stayed.  To stay or leave one’s home place is neither good or bad, and depends on the individual’s life circumstances and talents, but Bruce is one who has stayed and been a grounded archivist of the Monticello community.  The “bigger is better” mindset is a myth.

Earlier in his life, Jayber Crow had goals of being a pastor which would have set him up as a “big” person in places like Port William.  In the end he remained “small” in Port William, observing the town change over decades and thus taking on a “priestly” role in spite of himself.  Jayber says:

I don’t mean for you to believe that even barbers ever know the whole story.  But it’s a fact that knowledge comes to barbers, just as stray cats come to milking barns.  If you are a barber and you stay in one place long enough, eventually you will know the outlines of a lot of stories, and you will see how the bits and pieces of knowledge fit in.  Anything you know about, there is a fair chance you will sooner or later know more about.  You will never get the outlines filled in completely, but as I say, knowledge will come.  You don’t have to ask.  In fact, I have been pretty scrupulous about not asking.  If a matter is none of my business, I ask nothing and tell nothing.  And yet I am amazed at what I have come to know, and how much. (4)

It seems to me that this is an accurate account of the true role Bruce lives in my hometown.  He’s a mediator.  Better yet, he’s an advocate.  He’s someone who listens and speaks in ways that have brought life to the community simply by being present and doing good work.


 

  1. Rebanks, James.  The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.  New York: Flatiron Books, 2015.  p. 23.  Rebanks regular uses the word "fell" or "fells" as a noun referring to what is known in Northern England as a "hill or stretch of high moorland" (Google search).
  2. Photo from http://static.news-gazette.com/sites/all/files/imagecache/300_width_scale/images/2014/06/05/Barber.jpeg
  3. Berry, Wendell.  Jayber Crow: A Novel.  Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.  p. 94.
  4. Ibid.

Commoners (Part 1)

by Edward Traub
“Commoner” isn’t a dirty word here; it is a thing to be proud of. It means you have rights to something of value, that you contribute to the management of the fells, and that you take part in our way of life as an equal with the other farmers. If you farm Herdwick or Swaledale sheep and they are hefted to the common grazing land on the fells, then you, by definition, often belong to an association of commoners. (1)
 James Rebanks (center)

James Rebanks (center)

I know little to nothing about sheep or the work of a shepherd.  In fact, I've heard more jokes about the lifestyle than I know the truth.  However, it is one type of agriculture, and my interest in all-things-agricultural compelled me to pick up this incredible book by James Rebanks titled The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.  Rebanks book is both a detailed peek into the sheep and shepherd culture of what is called the "Lake District" of England as well as the author's memoir of growing up in the ancient lineage of shepherds.  What intrigued me about the book before reading it, was the dust jacket describing Rebanks' story of what it means to be from a particular place and choosing to remain in the place.  It is a story of his ongoing journey to stay.

My interest in the effects, and particularly the benefits, of livestock grazing on our land(s) drives me in many ways to learn from every source at my disposal.  I was looking through the "biography" section at our local independent bookstore, The Bookman, when I found it.  I hadn't heard of Rebanks or his book.  I was looking to purchase one of Michael Perry's books.  If you've not read Perry, you're missing out.  The man's stories make me laugh out loud, a much needed remedy in the face of my seemingly incessant melancholy (if you shuffled through the music on my iPhone you would understand what I mean). Yet, Perry's humor brings with it a dose of grace in truth-telling as the following excerpt demonstrates:

In the world of the certifiable stoic, the repression of emotion is just the more obvious half of the battle. The rest of your time is consumed with masking even the appearance of the existence of desire. Anyone can hold back a tear or dodge a hug - it takes a real hardcore Norwegian bachelor to pretend you don’t want a cookie. If I were commissioned to design the official crest for the descendants of emotionally muzzled Vikings everywhere, it would begin by looking up the Latin phrase for “No thanks, I’m fine.”

This outgrowth of the neurosis turns the simplest trip to the grocery store into a pulsating gauntlet of dread. Shopping for staples seems benign enough, but when you present your basket a the counter, you are revealing something deeply personal about yourself. Your are approaching a stranger and saying - in public - “this is what I desire.” And not only that, “this is what I desire to put inside me.” If you are buying a battery cable or a snow shovel at Farm & Fleet, there is no shame. These are exogenous needs. Gotta start the car, gotta clear the sidewalk. But with food, there are distressing elements of psychosexuality in play - Appetites! Hungering! Orality! Gimme Twinkies! - coupled with the implication that if you ingest you must surely excrete, and this not a place the stoic wants to, um, go. (3)

However, the irony of my search for a book by Perry, who lives and works in rural Wisconsin, leading me to A Shepherd's Life is, in retrospect, more than coincidental.  You see, both men now live where they grew up.  Both journeyed for a season into other places, but both somehow knew they would end up "home" and finally have.

To say these authors' stories are alike is helpful, but it would be a disservice to imply that they are identical.  The big picture view, however is that they both address the presence and absolute necessity of the "commoner."  Perry delightfully reminds of the significance of place in talking about small-town watertowers:

“Here we are,” say water towers on behalf of a community, “and this says something about us.”

...More than the houses, more than the streets, more than the small green sign at the outskirts, it has always been the sight of the water tower that has told us, “here you are.” (4)

I'm thrilled by Rebanks' quote at the beginning of this essay, defining what a true "commoner" is. I think most, especially here in the US, think of the commoner as some kind of lower-life-form of society.  There is the "ruling class" and then there's the "commoner."  What Rebanks is attempting to do is reclaim the term for what it truly is from within the particular context of his own story.  Its akin to Wendell Berry's words in numerous places affirming the interconnectedness (better still, the interdependence) of all of life. In fact, it is this interdependence that pushes our language further than the commoner being simply utilitarian, and instead breathes life into the reality of mutuality among members of any community.  

We are all commoners.

My friend Makoto Fujimura approaches these themes from the perspective of "culture care." (5) Instead of waging culture "wars," we are called to be a generative presence in our communities. Regardless of whether or not we live where we came from is besides the point.  We are all commoners, and therefore we are part of the ecosystem of the culture in which we live.  Most of us, though, haven't taken the time to listen well to the place we live.  Gone are most, if not all, "native" traditions and practices.  Yet we still remain dependent upon each other for everything, even if we have never met the source of our sustenance.  Rebanks, also now a consultant with UNESCO, writes:

[W]hen local traditional farming systems disappear, communities become more and more reliant upon industrial commodity food products being transported long distances to them, with all the environmental cost (and cultural disconnection from the land) that entails. They begin to lose the traditional skills that made those places habitable in the first place, making them vulnerable in a future that may not be the same as the present. No one who works in this landscape romanticizes it. (6)

Rebanks, then, affirms the necessity of connection.  Unfortunately our culture has sought to grow and "heal" by becoming more autonomous instead of more connected.  Wendell Berry writes:

The fashionable cure [for the disease of disconnection]...is ‘autonomy,’ another illusory condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences...The “cure” thus preserves the disease. (7)

We cannot live as commoners if we seek to live autonomously.  We can pull our selves up by our bootstraps only so far, we still need someone to craft the boots.  Writing from my own mid-west American context I can say that autonomy is the virtue of virtues.  Craftspeople or carpenters, like me, have to continually defend our work and seek to justify our prices in order to make a viable living.  Sometimes it feels as if it is forgotten that those who have "good" jobs working for larger companies still have to make a profit and that is dependent on others who do the work and those who purchase the goods or services with little concern over the markup for profit. Generally speaking, the larger the company the further the distance becomes between the consumer and the producer.

And for some reason we question less the large company because that's just the way it is and they're too big.  The problem, then, is that as soon as we start to say, "Well that's just the way things are," then we've given in to a sense of powerlessness that will hinder real growth and health within our society.  Our imaginations become limited, and we lay down for the empires around us.  True freedom from empires of unending consumption, ironically, is accomplished through the healthy and porous "boundaries" of the commoner's existence.  For Rebanks, his life on the fells of the Lake District, exemplifies just such a freedom:

Ours is a rooted and local kind of freedom tied to working common land, the freedom of the commoner, a community-based relationship with land. By remaining in a place, working on it, and paying my dues, I am entitled to a share in the commonwealth. (8)

And so Mr. Rebanks, along with Michael Perry and others, has propelled me to write about what it means for us to become more "common," not less.  So some of my upcoming posts will deal directly with the ways I see the commoner working itself out today.

I hope you'll check back in and join me.

 
  1. Rebanks, James.  The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.  New York: Flatiron Books, 2015.  p. 23.  Rebanks regular uses the word "fell" or "fells" as a noun referring to what is known in Northern England as a "hill or stretch of high moorland" (Google search).
  2. Perry, Michael.  Truck: A Love Story.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.  p. 159.
  3. Perry, Michael.  Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.  p. 72-73.
  4. Fujimura, Makoto.  Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life.  New York: Fujimura Institute & International Arts Movement, 2015.  Read the whole book, of course, but specifically the chapter titled "Culture Care Defined."  [Kindle Version: location 1422-2146]
  5. Rebanks.  p. 218.
  6. Berry, Wendell.  "The Body and the Earth."  In The Unsettling of America.  Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015 edition.  p. 115-116.
  7. Rebanks.  p. 286.