Clipping in with barber-shop thoughts on T-shirts

There may be times when the global situation appears so dire, and the self so powerless, but the world is still full of tiny moments of grace


I was sitting in the local barber shop the other day, ageing gracefully, while my young son had a complex, time-consuming hairdo. The cut involved close shaves and delicately crafted lines etched into his skull until he began to look like a miniature silver-scarred warrior.

President Barack Obama was giving a press conference on the flat-screen television mounted on the wall next to the barber’s chair – he was on mute, which did nothing to lessen the seriousness of his tone – and someone in the shop was talking about triskaidekaphobia.

Now if you are reading this from the depths of your mouldering bed, cocooned in that duck-down duvet that has seen better days, you probably already know that triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number 13.

And when the 13th falls on a Friday, like today, there are those among us who are so cauterised by dread that they are afraid to step a lilywhite foot on to the floorboards.

I wholly sympathise, although personally I couldn’t give a damn what date or day it is. But, man, there are times when the global situation appears so dire, and the self so powerless, you just want to bury your head under the sheets.

I decided to think about something else. T-shirts sprang to mind.

I’m referring to those T-shirts bearing hearty catchphrases and smatterings of flaccid wit that some of us insist on stretching over our D cups and moobs.

Blame the recent sunshine; blame the abandoning of layers of woolly jumpers that usually act as a barrier between one’s delicate vision and other people’s slogan-emblazoned chests, but it feels as if T-shirts have been screaming like a squall of bats ever since the snow melted.

Most T-shirt statements are simply irritating, as in the “I’m With Stupid” variety that somehow still seems to attract purchasers; others are more esoteric and demand attention for longer, despite the fact that the wearer is now yards away. “My Mother is a Travel Agent for Guilt Trips” was one that had me walking into a lamp-post; another, which I did quite like, at least lent an air of bold confidence to the wearer: “We Are What We Eat – I’m Fast, Cheap and Easy.”

In New York last year I watched an attractive woman push a buggy across a broken footpath down in the East Village. Her image looked like hard work, from the spiked heels and leatherette leggings to the gleaming buggy that might possibly have been designed to orbit Mars. She was also wearing a baggy T-shirt that spinnakered out from her bony shoulders and read: “I Make Milk – What’s Your Superpower?”

Now, I realise I may be opening myself up to the combined fury of two continents’ worth of La Leche League members, but that kind of smug self-satisfaction makes me want to throw a bucket of baby sick over a pair of sleek designer shoulders.

Imagine how one’s own babyhood would have been if our mothers had had access to a digital T-shirt printer: “I slip half a Valium into her bottle and settle down to watch I Love Lucy – what’s your bedtime ritual?”

The leap from thinking about T-shirts to thinking about those sweatpants that leave wording inscribed across girls’ derrieres didn’t seem too treacherous.

Sitting in the barber shop, hair clippings grazing the air, I came up with my own slogan, based on those stickers you sometimes see in the back windows of shoddy motor vehicles, saying “My other car is a Porsche”. On the backside of my gruesome grey leggings I’m going to print “My other arse is a Pippa”.

Anyway, my reverie was interrupted, gently (and none too soon), by a man called Thomas, who was sitting next to me watching the muted television.

He introduced himself by saying he was a great admirer of Obama’s oratorical gifts. Thomas is a lover of words, a taxi driver and a poet; he is also a father and grandfather. He and his family have been badly bruised by our economic crisis. Thomas, continues to write, in the mornings (his most creative time) in his cab.

One day, Thomas told me, he had the pleasure of welcoming Seamus Heaney as a passenger in his car, and at the end of the journey he politely asked Heaney if he would accept a gift of a book of poetry that he, Thomas, had self-published.

The Nobel laureate was delighted to accept the book, but as they said their goodbyes and Thomas returned to the driver’s seat, Heaney called him back.

“You’ve forgotten something,” he said. “You must sign it for me, Thomas.”

My son hopped down from the barber’s chair, battle-ready. Thomas took his place. I was grateful to hear his story, grateful to see how moved and inspired he was by a man whose reputation for kindness is so entirely, deeply, deserved.

Walk under ladders, put your new shoes on the table, dance with your umbrellas up, adorn the cat with peacock feathers – this dangerous, unpredictable world is still full of tiny moments of grace.

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