The happiest man in America
While America was booting up for the First World War, Bobby Mitchell was trying on his birthday suit. That was 97 years ago. During the Great Depression he became a barber.
In 1981, Mr. Mitchell cut my hair for the first time in his ancient shop on the deserted main street of downtown Columbia, North Carolina. I was 11.
Last year, I went back to visit, and he cut my hair again – at his unchanged shop on a still vacant street. I was 42.
He’s been working in the same town, in the same shop, doing the same thing, for 78 years.
And he likes it.
He’s got money; his wife is the pretty daughter of a wealthy family. She brings him lunch every day as she has for the past 70 years. He still walks to work.
He says he’s the happiest man in America, and I believe him. I know he likes that industrial after-shave lotion men used in the 50’s because he still pats your cheeks with it.
And he still has a jar of mysterious green fluid that his combs bobble around in when they’re not holding up scraggly hair on worn-out farmer domes.
And he still wears that starched bowling smock barbers put on over their button-up, short-sleeved, fancy shirt with the pocket protector and reading glasses.
Old dogs, I guess.
Mr. Mitchell doesn’t ask how you want it. After almost a century, he figures your hair is probably too long, and he just makes it shorter.
How much for that level of experience? Still $5.
When I was a kid, I mowed his lawn. Next door was a place called Fran’s Shear Magic, and I cut their lawn, too. Fran herself was my sexless Mrs. Robinson while my voice was changing and my interest in fraternity fell off.
If you were a boy in Columbia anytime since oh, I don’t know – the Truman Administration – you knew Mr. Mitchell. At least if you were white and had enough money to keep your mom from plopping a bowl on your head, you did. I don’t know where the black boys went for haircuts, I guess I never asked. But I never saw any downtown, let alone at our burg’s only barber.
Columbia was ‘The South’ like that.
Maybe Mr. Mitchell keeps cutting hair because he doesn’t know what else to do. Maybe he just likes talking so much he can’t quit. Whatever the reason, I think Ol’ Bobby is proof that if you enjoy what you do, it never wears thin.
What’s weird is that when he started, it was the only job he could get. Fate made him into a barber.
Somewhere along the way, somewhere during the half-million or so haircuts he’s given, he started liking it. I wouldn’t have thought that could happen in a service job. But it sounds like pretty good advice: Either learn to like what you’re doing, or find something else.
And if you’re open to it, I suspect you can find a happy life doing just about anything.