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  1. #1
    Brian Russell
    Guest

    Memoir chapter crituques please

    I\'m working on a memoir -- a funny, slice-of-life kind of thing in the mold of a David Sedaris. This is one of the chapters I\'ve finished.

    Was looking for a critique, more on what I could do to make it funnier, more interesting and less on grammar, but whatever suggestions you\'ve got are appreciated.


    ________________________
    <TITLE>Here’s A Tip For You</TITLE>

    When my family and I first moved to the St. Louis area, anytime we needed to go someplace, we’d think back to a place we had previously passed and go there, even if there were other stores more suited to sell us what we needed. You want a new pair of shoes? We could find a shoe store in the phone book, but we don’t know the street names around here so let’s just go to Target. Dentist? There’s one over off the main road, let’s just go there – recommendations be damned. Until we learned our way around town – and coming from tiny Huntington to St. Louis, learning our way was an overwhelming process – we stuck to where we knew.

    That’s how I wound up at Crazy Willies. The time finally came that I needed a haircut, and not wanting to spend 16 hours in the car back to my old place in Huntington, I resorted to finding one nearer my new house. Crazy Willies sat off one of the main roads in town and was on the way to a lot of other places in our comfort zone. I decided it was as good a place as any to get my simple 15-minute haircut that is to a good barber like asking Rembrandt to finish your Winnie the Pooh coloring book.

    Crazy Willie’s was a nondescript hole-in-the-wall joint tucked inside the square of one of St. Charles County’s 7,934 strip malls. The building was ugly, with yellow siding and a pothole infested parking lot. Still, the barbershop had a sign I could see from the highway, and that was good enough for me.

    My mom dropped me off one day just before the start of school and said she’d be back to get me in an hour. I walked into the square at the center of the building, which was planted with trees and shrubbery and a park bench – one of the few strip malls in the area with any greenery to it, I would learn. Crazy Willie’s was on the right. A man with a ponytail past his butt and tattoos covering both arms stood outside the door smoking. He gave me a ‘what’s up’ nod as I entered. I tried to avoid eye contact.

    The barbershop was a long rectangle, with chairs running along one long wall and the back short wall, and four barber’s chairs along the other long wall. There was one small window at the front, and the place smelled of hair products. Several old men, none younger than 60, sat in chairs waiting for a haircut. As I entered, the only barber in the shop looked up from his customer and said hello. He was also an older guy, younger than his customers but still past 50. He had glasses and gray hair, cut short and parted to one side.

    I took a seat on the short wall, at the back of the room. The guy currently getting his hair cut was talking to one of the waiting customers about something having to do with war – Civil, best as I could guess from their age. I picked up one of the magazines from the small table in front of me. It was a Sports Illustrated from about three years earlier – somehow barbershops never have current magazines.
    As I sat there waiting my turn, the tattooed prison escapee who’d been smoking as I entered walked in and positioned himself behind the fourth barber’s chair. He nodded at the other Civil War veteran, who gingerly climbed from his waiting chair and into the barber’s chair.

    I had never seen a barber like this guy before. At my old barber shop, there were four hair cutters – two homosexual men, always impeccably dressed, a woman perpetually clad like a gypsy and the owner, a normal looking older guy. But people like this fellow, apparently covered in tattoos – I thought they were all locked up or working in tattoo parlors between jail stints. That a man like this could have any other profession struck me as odd.

    And his haircut did little to inspire faith in his talent. Generally, I expect my barber to be either a gypsy woman or a man with the kind of haircut you’d find in a J. Crew catalogue. This guy looked like he’d lost faith in his own profession and had simply decided to let it grow how it would. It was shiny and unwashed and, even from across the room I could tell, reeked of smoke. He was blonde and had a scraggly beard and seemed to accept his hair as a condition of homo sapien life, not treasure it as a hair professional generally should.

    I watched him work on the old guy, whose hair – what there was of it – seemed in perfect condition, as if he’d just had it cut yesterday. Maybe he had, for all I knew – I wouldn’t put it past a guy 153 years old to get his hair cut every day just to have something to do.

    What surprised me, though, was the barber’s skill. He handled his scissors delicately, as though they were extensions of his fingers. And he spun the guy in his chair gently – unlike the gypsy woman from back home who seemed to think her chair doubled as a roller coaster. As I peered over the top of the magazine, my faith in Tatman grew. He may frighten small children and unconfident teenage boys, but he can cut a head of hair.

    I sat in my chair, my gaze switching between the old SI and Tatman, for an hour. I knew my mom would be outside by now, so I got up and headed out. Sure enough, she was sitting in the car listening to the radio.

    \"It doesn’t look like they did anything to your hair,\" she said through the open window as I approached.

    \"I’m still waiting,\" I said. \"It’s going to be a while.\"
    With that, she started the car and said she had more places to go and that she’d be back in 45 minutes. I trudged back inside and resumed my position on the back wall. A short while later, as a parade of gray, white and nearly bald heads paraded in and out, Tatman called me up for my turn. As impressed as I was with what Tatman had been doing with the hair of these ancient wonders, I was still hoping the other guy would be my barber.

    \"What kinda cut you want?\" Tatman asked, spinning me in the chair to face him. Apparently a slightly frightened customer is easier to deal with.

    \"Uh, just like it is but shorter,\" I answered. Seemed the easiest way to phrase it.

    \"Well, what size blade do you want on the sides and back and how short do you want it on top?\"

    I’d never really been asked this kind of stuff before. Normally, my dad would just take me to the same ol’ place in Huntington, and, since we’d been going there my entire life, I’d just sit in the chair and the barber would start cutting. It was just my haircut. That’s how it was and always had been. I didn’t know what blade to tell Tatman to use. I didn’t know there were multiple choices.

    \"I don’t know,\" I said. \"Just make the sides short enough so that it’s barely there, and make the top just short enough so I can brush it down.\"

    \"Well, I’ve got this blade here,\" Tatman said, shaving a small spot in the top of my sideburn. \"And I’ve got this one here,\" he said, shaving even closer at a spot slightly further down the same sideburn.

    \"Go with the shorter one,\" I told him.

    Just like that, he was off. He cut my hair without saying another word, positioning my head up and down and to the side as needed with hands that were surprisingly soft for such a frightening man. Not more than 15 minutes later, he was finished. He spun me in the chair so I could see the haircut in the mirror, and it looked perfect, just like it had been done in Huntington. I paid the man $11 for his trouble and left.

    For the next three years, Crazy Willies was my barbershop. Tatman and the old man cut my hair monthly, and for the most part did a very good job of it. There was the one time that the old man left my bangs so crooked that, after seeing my reflection in a stainless steel trashcan for sale at Target, I walked around with my arm across my forehead like the damsel in distress from a 1920s silent film. My mom and sister thought it was much funnier than did I.

    Things were going great at Crazy Willies until one afternoon during my junior year of high school. I was playing basketball in the cul-de-sac in front of my parents’ house with my friend Jeff. Out of the blue he said his barbershop had recently raised its price.

    \"It used to be $10 plus tip, but now it’s $12,\" he said.

    \"What’s your place charge?\"

    \"Wait a second, what?\" I asked.

    \"I usually pay about $13 total after tip. What’s your place charge?\"

    \"You tip your barber?\"

    I was confused. I had never heard of people tipping their barber. I mean, why the hell would you? Because he didn’t cut off your ears? The head barber typically owns the place or pays the rent. He should charge a fare that’s enough for him to pay his bills and make a profit, but not so much that he drives away his customers. Any idiot who’s ever taken even the most basic business class knows that, and even idiots like me who’ve never even done that much ought to know it. And it’s not like there’s service to be paid for. A barber isn’t a waiter, making $2.00 an hour, with the ability to greatly affect the quality of your meal with the quality of his service. A barber gives you the best haircut he can every time because the first time he doesn’t, you’ll find a new barber and that first one will quickly find himself with no customers. It just didn’t make sense.

    \"So you’ve never tipped your barber?\" Jeff asked laughing.
    \"God, I’d be pissed if I were those guys. I’d see you coming and lock the door.\"

    He was right. If Tatman and the old man were expecting tips all these times, and I’ve stiffed them, they probably hate me. They probably spit on their scissors before cutting my hair. They probably take their sweet time on the customer before me hoping that the other guy gets stuck with me. I suddenly felt a great deal of shame.

    \"Why do you tip the barber? You already have to pay them,\" I said.

    \"It’s just what you do, man,\" Jeff said. \"You tip waiters, don’t you? Please tell me you tip waiters.\"

    \"Of course I tip waiters. Everybody knows you do that.\"

    \"Everybody knows you tip barbers. Everybody but you anyway.\"

    I was stunned. How could I have gone 17 years without knowing that? Who else was I supposed to be tipping that I wasn’t? Am I supposed to leave the mailman a few cents every day? Am I supposed to tape a dollar to the trashcan every week when I pull it to the curb?

    Jeff and I finished our basketball game and I went inside to find my dad. If anybody was supposed to teach me about tipping the barber, it was him. Maybe he’s been stiffing barbers his whole life, too. Maybe my Papa did as well. Maybe it’s a genetic ignorance, where none of the Russell men know who you’re supposed to tip.

    \"Dad, do you tip the barber when you get a haircut?\" I asked. He was sitting on the couch watching a show about hummingbirds.

    \"Yeah, why?\" he asked.

    \"Have you always?\"

    \"Yeah. Why, don’t you?\"

    I shook my head and wandered off. Weeks passed, and my hair grew to a point that my mom started asking when I was going to get it cut, which is her way of saying ‘Go get your hair cut.’ The problem was, I couldn’t go back to Crazy Willies. Not now. Not after knowing that I’d screwed those two guys out of tips all these years.

    It’s not like I could just go in there now and start tipping. They’d know something was up. I’d be better off just continuing to stiff them. But I couldn’t do that, either. There were only two possible solutions: Walk in there for my next hair cut and, when finished, tell the guys I’m sorry for stiffing them all these years and give them each $200, or find a new barber. And since I didn’t have $400 lying around, the decision was made for me.

    Since my dad got his hair cut at a place downtown, near his office, his recommendation was worthless and I took out the phone book and started looking for a new place closer to home. The problem with that was that every barbershop was just a name and an address. I wanted to see the place before I committed to going there. Eventually, I noticed another small barbershop in another strip mall that was on a road between my house and my then-girlfriend, eventual-wife Mandy’s. It sat between two competing pizza franchises like a little guy trying to break up a fight and it fit my bill for an acceptable barber shop just fine.

    \"I think I’m gonna go over to that place on Wilton,\" I told Mandy, who had been my girlfriend only a few months and who somehow managed to maintain some level of respect for me, despite the broken wrists debacle and now this. \"It’s the one between the two pizza places.\"

    \"Yeah, it’s across the street from Howard’s – the ice cream place,\" she said. Her knowledge of every dessert franchise in the area was exhaustive. \"My dad goes to that barber.\"

    Mandy’s dad gave the place a recommendation and so the next day, I was off. It reminded me little of Crazy Willies. This place had big, tinted windows in front that let in lots of natural light. There were all sorts of decorations covering the walls and a TV was playing the St. Louis Cardinals game. Also, there were at least six different barbers, including one woman, cutting hair. When my turn came, a tall man in his 40s with a mustache and a nice haircut called me over. I sat down and he wrapped around me the discarded-umbrella sheet all barbers use to keep the hair off your clothes.

    \"What can I do for you?\" he asked. By this time I had learned how to answer that question.

    \"Give me a one-and-a-half on the sides and back and leave just enough to stand on top.\"

    The barber went to work, and unlike at Crazy Willies, he talked to me. We chatted about the Cardinals, school, the weather – all the things a barber normally talks to a customer about. Of course, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the barbers’ silence at Crazy Willies probably had as much to do with their frustration over knowing they weren’t getting a tip as it did anything. Still, I liked my new place.

    \"That’s a fine haircut,\" I said as the barber showed me the finished product in the mirror. I paid the man $11, plus a $4 tip, and went on my way.

    When my dad saw my haircut later that evening, he asked if I’d tipped the barber this time.

    \"Yeah, $4,\" I said proudly, as though it was some kind of public service.

    \"Geez, what are you, trying to make up for years of neglect in one shot?\" he said with a laugh.

    I hate tipping.



  2. #2
    Finnley Wren
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    Though I only read the first few paragraphs, there's lots of good stuff in here. But it's drowned out in a lot of redundancies and wasted words. You want it to be funny, you gotta get to the punch line faster. Just for fun, I rewrote the first few paragraphs like so:

    When my family and I first moved to St. Louis, anytime we needed something, we’d think back to a place we had already passed and just go there. Coming from tiny Huntington, learning our way around was an overwhelming process, so we stuck to what we knew. That’s how I wound up at Crazy Willies.

    It was a nondescript hole-in-the-wall tucked inside one of St. Charles County’s 7,934 strip malls. The building was ugly, with yellow siding and a pothole infested parking lot. Still, the barbershop had a sign I could see from the highway, and that was good enough for me.


    In your version, you tell us three times in three different ways about your family's habit of going to only familiar places and why. It's funny the first time, and the "why" is really kinda universal. No need to explain it.

    And with a name like "Crazy Willie's," I say just throw it out there (the way that I did) and let folks wonder what the hell it is. There's plenty of time to let them know it's a barbershop!

    But you've got something here. Use less words and keep it up! Best of luck.

  3. #3
    nom de plume
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    Good things first: the first paragraph struck a chord with me because i've a horrible sense of directions and will do as your characters do. It's effective humor when the audience relates to the situation.

    I liked your Rembrandt vs Winnie the Pooh coloring book analogy.

    I agree with Finnley on the wordiness. But i'd revise the following:

    "Crazy Willie’s was a nondescript hole-in-the-wall joint tucked inside the square of one of St. Charles County’s 7,934 strip malls. The building was ugly, with yellow siding and a pothole infested parking lot. Still, the barbershop had a sign I could see from the highway, and that was good enough for me. "

    to this:

    Crazy Willie's was a hole-in-the-wall joint tucked inside one of St. Charles County's 7,934 strip malls. The building had siding the color of urine, broken windows and a pothole-infested parking lot. Still, the barbershop had a sign visible from the highway, and that was good enough for me.

    I read the beginning and bits here and there. The following caught my eye:

    "seemed to accept his hair as a condition of homo sapien life,"

    It's homo sapiens. This remark doesn't do much for me.

  4. #4
    Ray Veen
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    I had some thoughts, and then, "holy crap, it's 3am!" I'll be back tomorrow.

  5. #5
    Brian R
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    So what does it mean that I've only had three responses? Does that mean the story stinks and nobody's reading it? Is it too long?

  6. #6
    Gregory White
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    I agree with Finnley and Nom's advice. But, as is, I'm afraid I was quite bored with the excerpt.

    Since it is always advisable to read books in the genre in which you want to write, may I offer a good Memoire writer? (in my opinion)

    I've found many of Augusten Burroughs books enjoyable. Mainly:

    DRY
    and
    RUNNING WITH SCISSORS.

    Gregory

  7. #7
    Brian R
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    Yeah, I'm a fan of Burroughs. Running With Scissors was great, and I also liked Magical Thinking.

    You have any advice for improving the excerpt Gregory, or is it just a boring subject/too poorly written/something else?

  8. #8
    Brian R
    Guest

    Re: Memoir chapter crituques please

    Updated first few chapters. Thoughts?



    When my family and I first moved to the St. Louis area, anytime we needed to go someplace, we’d think back to a place we had previously passed and go there. Coming from tiny Huntington to St. Louis, learning our way was an overwhelming process so we stuck to where we knew out of an unfounded fear that we might leave the house and wind up in Wyoming looking for a grocery store.

    That’s how I wound up at Crazy Willies. It was a nondescript hole-in-the-wall joint tucked inside the square of one of St. Charles County’s 7,000 or so strip malls. The building was ugly, with yellow siding the color of a smoker’s living room and a gutter dangling from the roof, the broken end resting on the sidewalk. It had a pothole infested parking lot and several large speed bumps that provided ample business for the nearby auto shop advertising expert shock and strut repair. Still, Crazy Willies had a sign visible from the highway, and that was good enough for me.

    The time had finally come that I needed a haircut, and not wanting to spend 16 hours in the car back to my old place in Huntington, I had resorted to finding one nearer my new house. Crazy Willies sat off one of the main roads in town and was on the way to a lot of other places in our comfort zone. I decided it was as good a place as any to get my simple 15-minute haircut that is to a good barber like asking Rembrandt to finish your Winnie the Pooh coloring book.

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