Things I’ve been doing differently these days:
More nose hair monitoring.
Not drinking enough water.
Way more open discourse with animals on the street than their owners would prefer.
And while I’m not exactly proud of this, I’ve been getting my hair cut at a place called SportClips.
A place for people that love sports so much they’re here to cut their hair off just to prove it.
Two words and ideas that aren’t necessarily made to be combined. This naming device might not achieve the same success as something like RockConcertBodywax.
I wound up at SportClips after a failed circuit of getting my ears lowered. I’ve been in Chicago for over half a decade now, and after visiting many, I’ve yet to find my hair cut spot. When I first moved to town I went to the Hair Cuttery, because I was real broke. But I missed the hot lather shave I used to get at barbershops.
So I tried a few.
Belmont. Sal’s. State Street. Floyd’s. A place run by a man who insisted on calling himself a Reverend.
Barbers, though, don’t tend to listen to how you’d exactly want your hair “cut”. They’ve got a standard cut, and you’ll receive that or you will be bald.
My last barber cut looked like a comb-over. I was worried he was sending me a message, so I never returned.
I tried SportClips on the recommendation of my old roommate. He swears by it. He really hyped up the fact that your hair cut information was saved for later visits.
The waiting area of SportClips is lined with chairs. They are hard-backed plastic, the kind you find in a stadium. The staff wear referee pinstriped jerseys. There are roughly 300 televisions hung from every open expanse of ceiling and non-mirrored wall. These televisions all play the same thing, and that thing is sports, dear readers. I’m talking SPORTS.
It’s like a combination Applebee’s and Foot Locker that doesn’t serve food and has stopped giving a shit about cleaning up the floor.
I first went there during the World Cup because, you know, sports. The games were live and felt important. SportClips!
But now I just get my beard trimmed during highlights from division-three college football.
But it’s okay.
Because at SportClips, there is a lovely woman named Edna, and I get to hear about her 22 nieces and nephews. Or Amber, who talks about wanting to move back to California to pursue music.
It’s okay because I go to SportClips, I think, because of my Aunt Linda Hall.
Aunt Linda wasn’t my real aunt, nor was she the aunt of the dozens of other high schoolers that called her that, but that doesn’t matter.
Linda Hall was my friend Porter’s mom, and my second mom. Our birthdays were a day apart. She lived down the street, and I was there most days of my childhood. Our families were both very loving and supportive, but were different in certain ways.
The Halls, for example, didn’t attend church. That was something I really could get behind. Now I’m not a bitter atheist, mind you, but I once took the mattress off my bed and pushed it against my bedroom door to try and avoid Sunday school. I mean, they called it SUNDAY SCHOOL, who wants to go to that?!
But Porter’s family introduced me to much more, like the latest in video gaming technology, popsicle eating contests with Uncle Larry, and a love of classic rock.
To this day, I still think of Linda Hall whenever I’ve had a few too many cocktails and demand “Walking on Broken Glass” be played on the dance floor of a bar in the year 2015.
I was at the Hall’s so much I truly was family, so I don’t really remember the first time I met Aunt Linda. She was one of those humans that was just “there”.
With her strawberry blonde hair and distinct energy, she always reminded me of Goldie Hawn. When I was 11, you could’ve convinced me the feature film Overboard was a documentary account of Linda’s life.
My fake aunt, real second mom, had a studio downtown for a while. Linda Hall Designs. She did hair and makeup for a clientele mostly made up of very nice old ladies, and our town’s more fashion-forward middle-aged gay men.
Linda would dye the thin, wispy locks of ladies probably named Gertrude, and talk at length about any and everything. Seriously.
She had an infectious laugh and an unrelenting smile. She could crack her gum with a fierceness I’ve never seen matched. She would take a straight razor and a comb and just go to town on your hair, paring it down with quick strokes.
I’ve never had a person cut hair the same.
I like to think that Aunt Linda’s style resembled some surgeon who’d received credentials in the glory days, using only a scalpel and their wits to dive into a body to see what’s going on.
The last time I saw Aunt Linda, I was headed to the restaurant within walking distance of her house.
My Dad and I were cutting through her yard, and he figured we’d stop to say hello.
As we opened the door, we let their pair of golden retrievers out, leaving them free to sprint through their yard.
As we did our best to wrangle the dogs, I gave Linda a hug as she hobbled through her kitchen, the energy gone from her face.
I’m sure after years of cutting hair any professional can make conversation, but Linda had a knack. She was the kind of person that devoted their full attention to you, and made you feel important.
She would take extra care in crafting the eyebrows and drawing the lips of her clients with cancer. She cared. Really. About everybody.
With her comb tugging through your hair and a plastic cape draped over you as you perched on a stool, you were necessary.
From ages nine through 17, I would walk across State Route 43 to get my hair cut at Porter’s house.
After she’d given up her studio space downtown, Aunt Linda carried on business from the tan linoleum tile of her kitchen. This allowed guests to choose any programming from her small counter television, and of-age guests were even able to steal a few splashes of Canadian Club from the stylist’s tool supply.
I would usually come over after school to get my hair cut, and would hang out for the final 10 minutes of a cut and color Linda was finishing. There would be small talk, and my second mom would brag about my mediocre middle school exploits.
“Jeff made the school play!” she’d say, or she’d talk about how my golf game had improved.
Porter was a terrific golfer. I tried to join the middle school team with him. I truly sucked at golf, but Linda was always there after practice to take us home. For most of my childhood, Linda drove a huge silver and blue conversion van. The vanity license plate read GUN LAKE, their favorite vacation spot in Michigan. Newer vans would come and go, but the plates remained the same. As I’d throw my cheap golf clubs into the back of Linda’s car, she would start spinning every one of my shanked drives and lost putts into a positive experience. She was all about positivity.
So much so that even though she probably knew what crime against humanity she was committing, she did her best to give me a bowl-cut shave under.
The shave under is that weird, middle-school hair of yesteryear, where you try and thin out the underbrush from your shitty, too-long bowl cut. So things don’t get too voluminous, I guess?
A kid in class, Ben, had the most magnificent shave under I had ever seen. I knew I had to try it. This was mainly due to the fact that, for a while, my ideal hairstyle was Kiefer Sutherland from the major motion picture Three Musketeers. The long hair, the flaxen beard; I needed it all.
Aunt Linda obliged for a few months, until we decided to go back to a regular shaggy do’. She always knew what was best, even if she wasn’t all in your face about it.
My second mom.
I do this thing, these days. I’ll read a text, respond to it in my mind, and never, ever send a response. It infuriates my friends and loved ones, for good reason.
One day, as I sat in an office in River North, waiting to talk to angry senior citizens about their coupon problems, I got a text.
I just thought you should know, the text from Porter read. You were like another son to her.
She’d been struggling with health issues for months. Years.
I texted Porter back, but never called. I’m not sure why.
I tried to make it home, but writing deadlines and inescapable poverty kept me tethered to Chicago.
So I played “Walking on Broken Glass.”
And I played it again.
And I played it again.
“We only do one house, only toilet paper, and I’m driving,” said Aunt Linda.
Me, Porter, and a few other friends, most of them named Zach, nodded. We weren’t in a position to disagree.
Before leaving, we stood in front of the Hall’s garage door, posing for a picture beside a stack of 300 toilet paper rolls.
The girls had gotten us the weekend before, and retaliation was necessary.
However, no parent would sign off on the toilet paper hijinks. Except Aunt Linda.
After taking a photo of us disguised in ski masks, we huddled into her van and headed to our friend Erin’s. She had been the mastermind of the previous attack, so we made her the prime target- plus she had really big trees, so TPing her house was pretty awesome.
Like a Bond wheelman, Aunt Linda coasted in front of Erin’s house, stopping at the next door down.
Four boys dressed like they were robbing a bank hopped out, carrying armfuls of fluffy white toilet paper. After shutting the doors, the conversion van headed down the street and disappeared in a bend in the road.
The TPing was a standard affair, really. We aimed for the high branches, made sure not to neglect the bushes. But as we felt the time on our heist running out, lights began to flash.
We ran, flinging rolls of toilet paper into the yard and driveway, our shoes eventually slapping the wet pavement of Erin’s street. With no getaway car, we were terrified.
Last September I was in Iowa, specifically the northwestern corner. Way up there, baby. It was an unseasonably bitter cold day – I’m no scientist, but I’d guess like 40 below. Porter and a lovely woman named Lauren were getting married. I had never met her, but I knew I had to be there.
It was an amazing ceremony held on Lauren’s family’s property. We danced into the cold night and took a double-decker bus back to hotels. We coasted through the Iowa countryside, like that Harry Potter bus just full of inebriated people.
Weddings these days are always interesting.
I’m at the age of becoming a parent – which is to say, I’m at the age where everyone else is becoming parents. I have plenty of friends already on their second baby, and I’m still working on the second season of Bob’s Burgers.
But at Porter’s wedding, I couldn’t help but feel like family.
It was different.
And though I was worried about her absence, Aunt Linda was there. I could see her in Porter’s smile, and hear her in his sister Lindsay’s laugh. Lindsay commented how I sounded way too much like my father, which I kind of agreed with.
As we all caught up, I signed a book for Lindsay’s daughters. We hugged, and shed tears for Linda. And laughed.
I’m not sure how to explain it, but sometimes I just feel overwhelmed. Like we’re all taking a test, and I’ve done well, but the universe has found a cheat sheet I’d hidden in the back case of my calculator.
I think this feeling is a phenomenon also known as “Winter.” (See also: “Life.”)
But there are days that seem just too hard. Too much. Too loud.
On those days I put on my shoes, call my first mom, and ask how she’s doing. I start walking towards SportClips.
Towards Edna and her 22 nephews.
Towards a three on the sides, scissors on top, and a one and a half on the beard.
Towards a familiar feeling.
And maybe towards memories of me, Porter, and a few Zachs. All of us running down Majors Lane, toilet paper streaming from the tall oaks lining the asphalt, the lights of a car growing closer – and looking back to see the blue and silver of Aunt Linda’s van.
And, of course, GUN LAKE.
We got in, shut the doors, and drove home. Aunt Linda was the last to break out in laughter.
Jeff Miller is an author and tall guy from Kent, Ohio. He can run a three-minute mile, bench-press 625 pounds, and was born inside the mouth of an active volcano. He also enjoys canoeing. The third book in his middle-grade fiction series, THE NERDY DOZEN, will be out in December. Yes, your niece or nephew will love it.
Visit him at www.jeffmillerbooks.com.