Saturday night Bearbait called me to let me know that my long-term barber, Paul, had died suddenly of a heart attack. Paul, I’m guessing, was in his forties.

Five years ago Paul was the first barber to cut my hair after I moved to San Francisco. He worked then out of a barbershop on Castro Street. Louie’s was a relic of the older Castro, a neighborhood slowly displaced, like every other city on this planet, by Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and Pottery Barn. The kind of barbershop that didn’t take appointments; Saturday afternoons were packed; six barbers in six chairs and a row of seats facing opposite, cluttered with auto magazines, newspapers, and Playboys, which never ceased to amuse me, as nobody in the place was straight.

You’d walk in and if you were new like me, you’d simply take your chances with whatever barber opened up first. Looking back, I was very lucky to get Paul. Though he was Russian and sometimes spoke in an indecipherable accent, he was a damn good barber, and he drew a devoted following. He gave me the best haircut I had ever had for $18, and I was hooked.

Because he had a loyal following, and because the shop took no appointments, I’d often have to wait an hour or more for him to open up, while the barbers on either side of him sat in their own chairs, flipping through the newspaper, waiting for clients. Saying I was devoted to him is an understatement. I would structure my days around my haircuts, taking the bus in the middle of a workday when I knew he’d be free.

He cut my hair for five years, and we’d talk about dogs or my mother, who was sick for over two of those years. He had lost his mother when he was my age, and always asked about her. I stuck with him through my break-up and my moving out and my getting sober. When money was tight he’d firmly decline my tips.

Recently we had many conversations about happiness and depression. I could sense in him a familiar pain, and I had my suspicions that some of his unhappiness was due to drugs. His face became more drawn and his moods were often dark. I told him about my experience with anti-depressants, gently suggesting that he might find some relief through them, though he seemed intent on “fixing” it himself.

In January he opened his own shop down the street in a cute little studio with hardwood floors and an abundance of natural light. I followed him there, naturally. I’d sit with my coffee and pet his large fluffy dog while I waited for my much-appreciated appointment.

On Saturday I had wanted to go in, but ended up looking at an apartment for rent instead. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway, because by then he was already dead.

I wonder, of course, if the heart attack was a result of drugs. And it’s a useless torture imagining that I could have somehow saved him from that, that through my experience with speed I could have drawn a door out of nothing through which he could slip and escape the approaching end. It doesn’t work like that. We’re only ready when we’re ready, not when others want to rescue us.

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