“Just got a call from Peggy Kibler down the street. Tony Drago collapsed and died this afternoon.” -text from my mom, January 27, 2014, 8:50 p.m.
The inadequacies of 21st-century grief: I doubt Tony the barber even knew what a blog was, much less ever read one, much less ever read this one. That makes this an idle gesture, but not an empty one.
Tony was my neighbor. Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting in his driveway on hot summer nights, perched contentedly on his folding lawn chair throne, sometimes joined by family, friends, or passerby but just as often existing, alone, at peace. He knew everything about everyone, but not in the malicious, nosy way you see on TV. His folksy omniscience never stopped feeling like true wisdom to me—not even after I grew, and left, and traveled, and worked. In terms of pure variety, I may have already seen more of the world than Tony ever did, but I’ve understood far less.
He was my neighbor, but he was also THE neighbor, at once both the living embodiment of every warm-hearted suburban stereotype you’ve ever held and a reminder that stereotypes can only scratch the surface, even when they fit you to a T. “Gregarious Italian barber from Chicago” is fairly accurate shorthand for Tony that somehow misses the point entirely.
From time to time, I catch myself imagining my childhood as a heady, Terrence Malick-like series of images bleeding formlessly into each other, and when I do, Tony’s barber shop recurs frequently. My brother and I used to joke that we could write a sitcom constructed solely from verbatim barber shop quotes—delivered by a colorful cast of characters including Bob the mailman and a host of other prickly white dudes whose names I can’t remember. Like his driveway forum, but coarser, Tony’s barber shop was open to anyone who needed to talk (or read Playboy quietly while others talked)—like a therapist’s office reserved for patients who would have beaten up Freud in high school.
That absurdity looms large and comic in my memory. But the barber shop was also where I caught some of my first unfiltered glimpses of adulthood, and not everything I saw was unambiguously positive: bad marriages, middle class disillusionment, racism, meanness. Tony generally remained above the fray, but it was still his fray, and that moral dissonance was jarring.
Years later, having committed quite a bit of moral dissonance myself, I’m less quick to judge. I work in a nonprofit, do-gooder sphere that has a tendency to reduce people and positions to extremes of goodness and badness, and I credit Tony, among others, for giving me the complicated perspective necessary to reject that absolutism outright. “Good” is hard to be, and harder to measure. Tony wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect at being Tony. And he was so good.
So, what now? I’ll wake up tomorrow, and send Tony’s wife a sympathy card, and go to work, and that will be that. I’ll feel a little sad, until I forget to. The English teacher in me would like to somehow tie this all back to the closing lines of The Great Gatsby. But “boats against the current” is, I suspect, too highfalutin for Tony the barber, so how about this: “Too cool to be forgotten.”