The barbershop, the wave, and the common good

My family and I had just arrived back home in Indiana this past summer. A relative was getting married the next day and I needed a haircut before the wedding. My dad told me about a barbershop in Roanoke, a small country town a couple of miles down the road from the Avila farmhouse where we were staying.

“You have to get there early,” my dad warned. “The place doesn’t have a phone, and guys start lining up for haircuts beforehand, so you should be outside waiting at least a half-hour before the place opens at 7.” Business is first come, first serve, and after taking in the first three customers, the barber, Rex Ottinger, hands out the numbers four and above with the instruction to come back at a specified time.

I dragged myself out of bed the next morning wondering if I would be early enough, drove into town, and decided to get a paper at the local gas station before taking my place in line. “Oh, you’re getting a haircut at Rex’s? You know, you’re probably too late already. That place is famous around here. People start coming at 5 in the morning,” the attendant said. It was about 25 minutes to 7. I figured my hair would be cut somewhere else.

Nonetheless, deciding to take my chances, I arrived at the front door four minutes later and saw three cars parked, their occupants sleepily waiting. When Rex opened the door at 7, three of us walked in. A fourth followed just behind me. Rex started handing out the numbers, giving me the third one. I turned to the fellow behind me and said “you must have gotten here before I did,” thinking that he had been in one of the cars parked outside when I got there. He disagreed, saying that he had just driven up. Rex said he thought anyone still outside might be waiting for a nearby store to open and told me to keep the number.

So, I made it! Beating the odds, I could stay and wait without having to come back. A few minutes later, a fifth customer walked through the door, quite groggy. The poor guy had been in one of the cars I saw upon my arrival. He had slept through the opening and missed his place in line. Rex told him the rule is that you have to walk through the door to get a ticket. No one said it, but I thought it--“you snooze, you lose.”

The conversation with Rex during my haircut was pleasant, with him commenting about all the changes in the area since he started. He has been barbering there since 1959, cutting the hair of my grandfather, dad, uncles, and many other relatives (and probably my own when I was a kid). I remarked how orderly his business was. Guys would walk in, get their number and assigned time, and leave, all without a fuss. “I have them trained, don’t I?” he chuckled.

A few weeks later, after returning to Massachusetts, a friend called to let my wife Elaine know that she couldn’t make a Red Sox game and wondered if I would like to use her ticket. Great, I haven’t been inside Fenway Park for years, so of course I’d take it.

Midway through the game, a rare late-season breather for the home team, some fellows behind me decided to start “the wave.” The last time I had been in the park was before this crowd phenomenon had become popular. So it was my first time for a “Fenwave.” It took several minutes of false starts before finally, a rolling sea of rising hands gathered strength and longevity, and circled the stadium numerous times.

It struck me. A game was occurring on the field at the same time the crowd was focused on not the game, but the crowd. Commands unwritten had sprung into life--stand, reach for the sky, and shout as loud as you can when the Fenwave reaches you. Cooperation and coordination, spontaneous and engrossing, involving everyone. Then, I thought about the common good.

Yes, it sounds contrived, but it isn’t. It’s probably a malady that affects lobbyists for the Catholic Church, I suppose, though no medical or political journal has yet reported on it. We deal with the common good every day, and I have been mulling over the idea for a while, and so why not--it suddenly pops into my head during a baseball game.

The concept of the common good can be a real snoozer. Maybe that was the problem with the groggy customer outside the barbershop. He was contemplating the meaning of the common good while waiting for the barber to arrive, when nod, droop, and dream, he fell asleep.

There’s a connection, somehow, between Rex’s orderly conduct of his barbering business, the Fenwave, and what goes on at the Statehouse in Boston or the halls of Congress. The saying is old that warns about two things you never want to see being made, sausage and laws. How then can the cooperation and coordination witnessed at the barbershop and in the baseball stadium be comparable to sausage production, and thus to legislating?

That inquiry will be the topic of future columns. I leave you to reflect on Rex’s barbershop and the wave at Fenway as homework for the next time. The common good is a critical element of Catholic social teaching. It is also something worth thinking about. Not just for lobbyists but for everyone. And I promise--no snores induced.

Daniel Avila is the associate director for policy & research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

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