Search View Archive

Rough Cuts

Today the surgeon cut a little cancer out of me. A parcel of myself that had grown wild and threatened to consume the rest. Hair has that tendency too if left to its own devices. Barber and surgeon are historically related at the root. Only the instruments have changed. Cut it out, you insist, cancer is no laughing matter. Cancer kills you if you don’t uproot it. It’s a kind of shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, the surgeon a high-paid gunslinger, or rather knife wielder, hired to have it out with my renegade cells.

Now this particular cancer happened to grow on my right forearm, a nasty place for any right-handed person, all the more so for a writer.

“Easy does it, nothing to it,” remarked the surgeon with a certain swagger no doubt meant to reassure the patient. “If you had to pick a cancer from a catalogue, that’s the one you’d want.”

Comforted somewhat that the surgeon approved of my choice, I opted for a local anesthetic, wanting to have my wits about me during the procedure.

While cutting the surgeon kept us both entertained with a wry account of a patient he’d once operated on at Bellevue, a drunk who’d lost a leg after stumbling in between a colliding truck and a taxi, in an accident in which the taxi driver also lost a leg. The drunk’s no less inebriated buddies sent him directly to the hospital in an ambulance and dutifully followed in a cab, clutching the severed limb which they’d managed to salvage from the wreckage before the crashed vehicles burst into flames. Only when they got to the hospital, the surgeon pointed out to them that they’d plucked the wrong leg out of the wreckage, and that, henceforth, their friend would hobble through life on two left legs.

Apocryphal perhaps, the story lasted as long as the cutting. “I just love to cut!” the surgeon shook his head with a wistful sigh, evidently disappointed that it was already over and done with.

I myself was relieved. “If you had to pick a talent from the catalogue,” I said, “that’s the one I’d want you to have!”

For the stitching, he told me of an old Village character, a poet with no health insurance, who paid for each operation with a poem. “I remember one about a pair of surgical scissors, but don’t ask me to recite it,” he said, “mnemonics is not one of my strengths.”

“I’m from The Village too,” I said.

“No poems, please,” he said, “you pay.”

Fortunately I had insurance. My only regret was not to have taken a parting glimpse at the piece of me he cut out.

In a grudging way I admired the cancer for its stubborn will to grow, its total lack of concern for the surrounding cells comprising the rest of me. If only we could harness such pig-headed resolve to grow parts of ourselves on demand. In my case, I wouldn’t mind adding an inch or two at the top and trimming the same round the middle. From Nature’s perspective, I suppose, humanity is one big hungry tumor growing wildly beyond its allotted slot, colonizing, conquering, consuming.

Think I’ll go get a haircut.

Staring down at the heap of fleece on the floor after a haircut I have always suffered a pang of separation as if from a disposable accumulation of self. And when lifting what’s left of me out of the barber chair, I wobble a bit, feeling out the lightness and the loss.

Haircuts have always been traumatic.

Once, while I was in the hot seat at the barbershop of my early boyhood, a black limousine pulled up and a man with a black Fedora stepped out. Not given to undue haste, Giuseppe, who had just about finished my right side, ran to hold the door. “A trim,” said the man, removing his Fedora, revealing a more or less bald pate with a white fuzz round the ears. Making a big to do over every strand, Giuseppe kept trembling after the man had gone. My Mother had to remind him to attend to the left side of my head.

In late adolescence, I tried a barber school. With their hair slicked back and glittering gold teeth, the barbers-in-training looked like hungry young sharks, but having entered their precinct I was too intimidated to escape. Nodding at my request for a parting on the left, my trainee, who had been trimming his nose hairs, reached for an electric sheer and proceeded to take it all off, military-style. “What about the parting?” I asked, straining to hold back the tears. He shook his head and shrugged: “Too short!”

There were those years, following the arrival of the Beatles, when having it cut meant capitulation to the fleece police. Lean years for the trade.

Various girlfriends subsequently had a go at it, but the Samson and Delilah thing and a few mistakes prompted me to return to professionals.

Vincent, my current cutter, likes to talk about the plot of land he owns in Upstate New York. He can close his eyes, he claims, and picture every wild flower and weed. I figure a man who respects things that grow will go easy on the wispy boundary between being and nothingness.

Conversing with my reflection in the mirror—as tenuous a part of me as the falling locks—Vincent tells tales of the trade: what hairdos Madonna used to have done before she made it, and how the playwright Miguel Piñero dropped by one day before presenting his first script to the impresario Joseph Papp. “Lighten me up for luck!” he said. Papp took the play and put Piñero on the map. Vincent has not yet performed such miracles for me, but I’m a patient man and consider each haircut a high-risk investment.

Author, playwright, and translator, Peter’s Wortsman’s latest work, a translation of Travel Pictures, by Heinrich Heine, is forthcoming in the fall from Archipelago Books.


Peter Wortsman

Peter Wortsman's recent works include a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin (Travelers' Tales, 2013)--for which he won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY); a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (Pelekinesis, 2014--a finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews' Best Science Fiction Book of the Year--and an anthology which he selected, translated and edited, Tales of the German Imagination (Penguin Classics, UK, 2013). Forthcoming are a book of short fiction, Footprints in Wet Cement (Pelekinesis, 2017) and a translation, Konundrum, Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (Archipelago Books, 2016). He was a Holtzbrinck Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2007

All Issues