Everything Is Happening at Once
At exactly seven o’clock on Thursday evening, I knock.
The sign over door 220 with that slogan: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
A large man, focused on the papers in front of him, sits behind an ornate desk. With a fancy fountain pen, he scrawls a note. He doesn’t look up. He’s pudgy and sort of ageless. Maybe late thirties. He wears an impeccable suit. His cheeks are oddly plump, like a child’s, but his demeanor—craggy. The room dimly lit by a single lamp. Persian carpets cover the floor. Bookshelves line the walls, packed with books arranged by height. I hate books arranged by height. Books should be arranged by subject. Books should determine their own place on the shelf, based on—
“What do you want from me?” He fires the question right in my eye.
“Want from you?” I’m not ready for that question. I’m expecting some answers. Is this affiliated with Gurdjieff? Is “the Work” some kind of international organization? How long is the course of study? Does it cost money?
But I look at him and fire back, “I want to see things as they are.”
My response surprises him. I like that.
“If I agree to take you on,” he says, as if that would be a burden, “you will indeed see things as they are.” He snorts. “You will see it all for yourself; you’ll see it all as a by-product of your own accelerated evolution. If you can follow that.”
I nod and don’t say anything.
“You’re exceptional,” he states impersonally. “Most people come in here and can’t stop telling me how much they already know. But you”—he pauses—“you’re actually getting some of this already.” He says this with utter certainty, even though we have just met. “But that’s neither here nor there, really. And there’s no way to predict where you will go with this. If anywhere at all. Part of the problem is you’re young. You haven’t completely fallen asleep yet. You can’t wake up until you go to sleep.”
I feel naked.
He leans back and folds his hands over his doughy middle. “Sleep” and “awakening” are straight out of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.
“But if you want to pursue it, then I will let you stay as long as you abide by the rules. We meet here twice a week. It’s not optional. If you’re doing this, then be on time, or don’t bother to come back. Don’t get involved with me personally in any way. If you do, you’re done here. I’ll know it, and I’ll throw you out. And express no hostility to me or anyone else involved with this.”
He says all this without the trace of a smile. In a rumbling redneck drawl. With rock eyes. Green rock eyes.
“And one more thing,” he says. “You can quit anytime.”
He snorts again and stands up. He’s taller than I am, about six feet. The three-piece suit he wears, I’m sure it was hand-tailored in England. Fits him perfectly. The vest snugs to his big belly like a pillowcase. Then I catch myself. I’m already getting involved with him personally. The fact is, I really don’t care where his suit was made.
Before I can utter a formality, he’s opened the door, slipped an envelope into my hand, and shown me out without another word.
Bright office building light floods the hallway. The envelope in my hand says open this later.
≈ ≈ ≈
I walk outside and say out loud, “It’s later.”
I open the envelope. Two sheets of paper inside. One is a mimeographed sheet listing the meeting times and the rules. The other is handwritten:
You may commence this activity with a real Work group on two conditions:
1. Go to an old-timey barbershop and get a military haircut.
2. Do not explain your haircut to anybody under any circumstances whatsoever.
Or else do not bother to show up here again.
The note is signed in a giant script: Dr. Cox.
“Damn it,” I say out loud. “Fuck him. To hell with his fancy bullshit and the living dead who follow him.”
≈ ≈ ≈
I have pounds of hair. It grows up instead of down, and the longer it gets, the taller and curlier it is. I’m over five foot ten with this hive.
To my surprise, the barber doesn’t even blink when I tell him, “A crew cut.” He probably thinks I’m joining the military to kill Vietnamese farmers. He’s a scissors machine set on Fast. Brown steel wool piles up on the floor. Then he picks up the electric trimmer, and when it buzzes my left temple, the word “Task” flashes in my head. “Goddamn, this is a Task!” I say to myself. A Task designed by a teacher for a student to execute, a Task the student would never dream up on his own, a way to catalyze new experience and new perceptions—to crack the limits of self. I want to hug the barber, grab his cheeks, and tell him, “Good God, man! This is a Task!”
It doesn’t take long or cost much, but according to the piles of curls on the floor, it should have done both.
Chilly outside the barbershop in March. Still wintertime in Atlanta. The chilly air clutches my neck, exposed without the blimp of curls. One hand, then the other, up there feeling around. Walking down the street with hands on scalp, fingers wandering like antennae, burnishing this stiff scrub brush where my wire mop used to be.
The physical sensations are shocking and riveting.
But then come the questions.
“What happened?” Friends demand to know.
I shrug. “Nothing. Just got a haircut.”
It’s the refusal to explain that ratchets the crew cut to another level. I abide by the terms religiously.
“You had a bad trip, didn’t you?”
“No, man, I didn’t have a bad trip.”
“Are you enlisting?”
“Hell, no, I’m not enlisting.”
“You got drafted?”
“And I didn’t get drafted.”
“What the hell? Are you going straight?”
“What the hell? Are you going straight?”
I try to laugh it off.
“Well, what happened to you?”
I abide by the conditions. I don’t explain. That makes all the difference.
“What in the hell happened to you?”
A giant crowbar pries open a giant seam between me and all my radical-hippie-anarchic-do-what-you-feel friends. I see gloom in their eyes, which I have never seen before. All I did was cut my hair. It shouldn’t have mattered much at all. But it matters a lot.
Some of my friends drift away and quit talking to me.
Maybe I drift away from them, too. They’re hardly the free thinkers and free spirits I admire if they can’t let a haircut go unjustified.
I’m invited to fraternity parties.
All I did was cut my hair and refuse to explain it, and everyone I know gets upset and everything changes. It’s a multilayered shock, and it takes a while to ponder.
I feel like a python swallowing a deer: this is a big lump of cosmic meat, a lot to digest. This is one bellyful of hairy venison.