Contrary to what readers of this space might infer from my frequent scathing criticisms of the current U.S. administration and the people that put it in place, I am not a rabid anti-American.
Some may recall the piece I wrote at the end of a five-month road trip through America. It began by paraphrasing Charles Dickens–It is the best of countries; it is the worst of countries–and went on to note its fascinating cultural diversity, geographic splendour and the many contributions its citizens have made to the world’s betterment, from music to literature, from science to technology, from championing religious freedom to advocating for democracy.
The Dame and I recently travelled to the small Arizona town of Florence for a sunny break from the frequently gloomy skies of November in the South Okanagan. It was the first time we’ve been in the U.S. since the ascendancy of the Conman in Chief and like many Canadians we were hesitant about giving the tacit support of our tourism dollars to a country that would elevate such a repellent person to the nation’s highest office.
I rationalized that it would combine a holiday with firsthand research in a state Trump won by four percentage points.
Florence is a dusty desert town set along the Gila River amidst stands of saguaro cactus and sagebrush halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. To say it has seen better days would be kind. Sprinkled along its historic main street are boarded up businesses, a burnt-out bar and ramshackle buildings of limited aesthetic value. It does not have a grocery store and its main industry is incarceration.
Nearby, the Del Webb resort community of Anthem at Merrill Ranch stands out in sharp contrast. Littered with snow geezers and the more prosperous of the local population, it has a mini-shopping mall, an 18-hole golf course and a modern recreation/fitness facility and pool.
Back in Florence, near the end of the main street, an old school barber shop seemed a logical place to scope out rural Arizona in the era of Trump while getting my ears lowered.
The shop is a comfortable place, roomy, with two barber chairs, an assortment of seating for waiting customers and a pool table covered over, either out of disuse or to keep the falling follicles from fouling the felt.
A young boy is getting clipped in one of the chairs, while his mom, dad and brother supervise from the sidelines. They are Canadians, I am soon to learn from the affable proprietor, who rises to greet me and usher me to the empty chair.
Ted the barber is a voluble man with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Florence. He looks to be in his mid-fifties and has lived here since his family moved from Oregon when he was a child. He wears a blue barber smock and moves gingerly with his back tilted forward from the waist at an odd angle.
The Canadian family, he informs me upon learning of my nationality, has moved to the Florence area for a business opportunity and will be staying five years. Preoccupied with the boys, the parents take no notice or offense at Ted telling a stranger their business.
After carefully determining the precise lowering of the ears desired, Ted sets to removing hair at a leisurely pace. The counter below the mirror is cluttered with the usual assortment of barbering tools and the mirror itself is framed with photos from Ted’s life.
Ted seems perfectly suited to the intimacy of his chosen profession. Loquacious without being overbearing he answers his curious customer’s questions with the authority and detail gleaned from a lifetime of living in Florence.
The town’s main employers are the 12 prison complexes scattered on the town’s perimeter that house by his estimate 39,000 law breakers, from juveniles in “training” camps to murderers awaiting their fate on death row in the super max penitentiary. He says the guards and personnel at the lower paying state prisons tend to live in Coolidge, a slightly larger down-at-the heels town about 10 miles up the road. The better compensated federal prison workers commute the 50 miles from Tucson and the suburbs of Phoenix with a smattering mingling with the snow geezers in the manicured Del Webb development.
There is a disproportionate number of courtrooms in town to deal with legal matters that inevitably arise from the plethora of prisoners who are officially considered citizens but cannot vote. The town receives a set annual amount for each prisoner housed in its jurisdiction. He says most of the lawyers and judges who preside over the courts commute or live in Anthem.
Having been cautioned about talking politics, I guardedly remark that Arizona has a new Democratic Senator for the first time in a while. Ted says, only slightly scornfully, the new Senator owes her election to the wave of liberal Californians who have moved to Arizona in recent years to escape the crowds and high taxes of California living. He says he cringes each time Donald Trump opens his mouth but notes that he has been good for the economy. I suspect he is one of the deplorables and so steer the conversation to more friendly ground.
One of the photos framing the mirror is of a local sports team. It is signed and inscribed with best wishes for Ted’s speedy recovery. Ted catches my eye settling on the photo and explains he had a little accident some years back. When asked if it involved cars he laughs and says somewhat sheepishly that his misfortune occurred at a family gathering.
Two teenage boys were causing mayhem pushing a small wooden merry-go-round at a speed that upset some of the smaller children. Ted went over to comfort one of the girls and inadvertently put a foot on the platform just as the youths resumed pushing. The resultant momentum propelled Ted onto the adjoining concrete where he broke his neck in four places. It put him in the hospital and he was bedridden and unable to walk for four years.
At the time of the accident Ted was a successful businessman in Coolidge, operating a number of cash-oriented retail businesses that fell on hard times with the boss unable to watch over them. He was eventually forced to sell the businesses at less than favourable terms.
During his long recovery, which he termed as near miraculous given the doctors’ original prognosis, he held no animosity toward the boys who pushed the merry-go-round. They visited him frequently and expressed great remorse.
“Accidents happen,” he says, matter-of-factly, with no discernible rancour or self-pity.
After relearning to walk and with his businesses now gone, Ted took up barbering and has been at it for six years. When asked about the physical rigours of being on his feet cutting hair, he says he owes his ability to work on the massive doses of morphine he takes daily. He says the furor over America’s opioid crisis caused his doctor to cut his prescription in half with another cut on the horizon. He’s not sure how he will get by when his current supply runs out and asks if I know anything about the marijuana derivative CBD oil used for pain and inflammation.
Ted lives in a large house on 10 acres a few miles from town. He’d like to sell the property and get something more manageable. One of his regular duties is removing the rattle snakes that sun themselves in his driveway and slither into crevices around the property. He scoops them with a shovel and sets them down away from the house. He used to kill them until the rat population ballooned. He and his wife kept a lot of outdoor cats that helped with the snakes and rats but lately the owls and coyotes have taken their toll and they are down to about four. They have a couple of small house dogs.
Ted is proud of his daughter who is entering pre-med school. There is a graduation picture of a teenage girl stuck on one side of his mirror and I suspect she is one of the girls in the sports team photo.
Ted does not seem beaten down, as one might expect, from all he has endured. He comes across as a proud, if slightly bent over American, determined to face the vagaries of life with the courage and resiliency that made the United States the envy of the world. He is a man of true grit, the kind of person the silver spoon rich guy Donald Trump could never be.
There can be no doubt the U.S. ranks high on any list of the world’s great countries and it is because of decent Americans like Ted, who persevere and make do with what life has given them.
Ted is a good and thorough barber. He lathers and shaves the back of my neck with a straight razor then places a soothing hot towel over my head while administering a brief scalp massage. He whisks away loose cuttings before sending his Canadian customer away with a broader understanding of the constituency that put Donald Trump in office.
The charge for the haircut is 10 dollars. The information and inspiration are free.