One of my favorite things to do when it’s dark is to look into the lighted windows of people’s homes.
Yes, that sounds totally creepy. I do not sneak up in the bushes.
But I’ve always been fascinated by dwellings that aren’t my own. Other places, other lives. When I look inside these little worlds during brief moments walking or driving by, I see comfort and contentment that doesn’t live within my own heart.
Blue television light flickers on walls dotted with family pictures. A person bends over a sink by the window of a glowing kitchen whose fresh wood cabinets I can almost smell. A Christmas tree silently illuminates an empty room after midnight.
As I pass by, I’m filled with fleeting curiosity and longing. Everything I see looks familiar, reminding me of my own experience, and at the same time, hauntingly out of reach.
Although it’s usually homes that have this effect on me, it was also true of the Vicente and d’Oro Barber Shop in Dorchester, whose window I passed in early spring almost a year ago. This is where I met Jalijah, a young woman who was getting her hair lined out on a Saturday night.
But before, in the tradition of this blog, I tell someone’s story, I want to linger on what it’s like to respond so powerfully to a scene in a window. To want, for a few aching moments, to be one of the people inside.
I wandered by Vicente and d’Oro on my way back to the Red Line, after an abortive attempt to find a fundraising party for Emmanuel Gospel Center. I was so late that the party was over by the time I got to the neighborhood.
It would have been weird to walk into Vicente and d’Oro and say “there is something about this place that speaks to me of home.” But the scene evoked a distant memory for me – one to which I often return, not fully aware that I am doing so.
I grew up in a big house, and I discovered recently that two of my other friends who did the same also salivate over tiny places – tree houses, cabins, bungalows. We search for coziness the way an addict craves the next hit. One particular scene from my childhood contains such coziness.
When I was about 10, I sat in the basement TV room with my Mom and our live-in babysitter, Rosie, while Rosie folded laundry. We were watching the Celtics, with their now legendary ‘80s players – Bird, Ainge, Parrish, and McHale. I liked the proximity of TV, bodies and laundry basket. The warm, flower-clean smell of the fabric, the wintery cling and crackle of static on socks. I liked the communal, informal, non-kinship sharing of upkeep – it wasn’t Rosie’s job to do laundry for us; she was just pitching in. I liked the harmlessness of the commercials cajoling us, members of the great mass of people out there who know they want something, just can’t figure out what it is. I liked the voices of the announcers, speaking almost in cadence with the repetition of the sport’s language – free throw, field goal, third quarter. We gathered around the brightness of the TV, an electric campfire whose light just grazed the friendly-dark corners of the room.
I sensed the same warmth through the window of Vicente and d’Oro. My perception of it likely had less to do with reality, and more to do with my own loneliness. My mother had died in February, I was feeling my singleness, and I had just trekked to an unfamiliar neighborhood in search of a friendly gathering I was unable to find.
What I saw in Vicente and d’Oro is already kaleidoscopic, transient, almost as lost as the ancient memory of my youth. But I think there was a woman whose hair was wrapped in a red bandanna, skinny, her legs not reaching the floor, maybe my age or a decade older, holding a drink in a paper bag. She sat next to a teenage boy. He was scrolling on his phone and she was looking around. Young men in white T-shirts and sloping jeans stood, scissors in hand, behind customers in chairs. A TV broadcast a soccer game.
To me, getting a haircut, no matter how engaging one’s conversation with my stylist may be, is still a solitary activity. I always feel like a lone wolf on my errands, moving about the city, waiting in silence with strangers I’ll never see again, thumbing through a magazine or my phone.
Maybe the same was true with these people, getting their hair cut that Saturday night. But after the sun goes down, something changes. A barbershop begins to look less like a place of business, and more like someone’s living room. Was it only the bright light and the TV, shining out against the darkness, when most of the other storefronts were closed? An optical illusion created in my own consciousness, an exaggeration of community evoked by my own sense of longing?
Maybe. But maybe, where two or more are gathered, joined in a common, quiet purpose, there is room for a bit of wonder. Whether that purpose is folding laundry and watching the Celtics, or getting a haircut in a shop whose lights have cut it like a diamond out of the dark. There is a fleeting chance to be still, not to worry about before or after. To take care of basic needs. To sit with others, uttering agenda-less words that pass by like clouds. To feel, for a moment, that you are safe.
The lights shone on the gray of the sidewalk, and the people waited. The boy with his phone and the woman with her beverage. The barbers continued their work, focused on the heads in front of them, backs turned against the hungry dark.
I was determined to return, however awkward, however strange.
When I did, I met Jalijah. I’ll tell her story next time.