César shook my snipped hair from his striped barber cloth.
“How long I been clippin’ you, Michael?”
I grabbed my coat from the hook on the wall.
“At least fifteen years. I just happened to come in. I was on my way to interview for my first lawyer job. You were still over at the Bryant Building. I needed a last minute touch-up and you fit me in.”
“Yeah, now I remember,” he said. “That interview had you uptight like a virgin groom. Time flies, don’t it?”
That first César haircut happened when I was in my late twenties. The air was cool and crisp, an early fall in the city, and I thought I looked respectable in my one and only blue suit and thin gray overcoat. I pushed against the glass revolving door of the building where I wanted to work and caught the reflection of my slightly overgrown hair on top of my ears. Too ragged for a first-year associate in one of Denver’s largest law firms, especially for a first impression of a second-generation Mexican-American trying to break into big time lawyering. I was early for the interview, of course, so I turned around and dashed into the only barber shop I saw. César Sánchez obliged me with a quick, clean and tidy haircut.
I landed that job and César landed a steady customer although back then I sometimes went several weeks between cuts.
César brushed off the chair. He said, “You take care and I’ll see you next time.”
“You bet, César.”
I handed him a twenty and a ten and waved away his offer to return the five dollars of change. It was a ritual we went through at the end of each of my haircuts.
I left his shop thinking about how the relationship between César and me had changed over the years. For the most part it’d been a natural, evolutionary process.
I advanced through the ranks of the practice of commercial law and climbed the ladder of achievement, one moneyed rung at a time. It took time, as anything worthwhile must, but I kept at it. My haircuts became more regular – every ten days, an automatic appointment – and periodically I treated myself to one of César’s haircut and shave specials.
Meanwhile, César’s Hair Palace grew from a one-chair, one-barber stand to a busy, noisy establishment with a shoe shine guy who claimed to be a veteran of some sort. César eventually moved the business and added two chairs, including one for Angel, a brassy, humorous woman. After years of six-day weeks, no vacations, personally opening and closing the shop, and doing everything from sweeping the hair clippings to updating the magazines to balancing the books, César earned the right to serve only his preferred list of customers. My seniority as a client put me on that valuable list.
The Palace sat on Seventeenth Street in the midst of Denver’s high-rises. His customers tended to be lawyers, bankers and other men who wore suits every day. The judges and financial consultants treated César like a friend, and when I finally had a little bit of standing in that community of old boys I talked him up. I soon realized he was so well-known downtown that he didn’t need any promotion from me.
His haircuts were always right, perfect even. Bottom line, he did what the customer wanted, not what he thought the client needed. He’d make recommendations, sure, but if someone really wanted a fade or a crewcut or maybe a Jordan, that’s what César gave him. He was meticulous about completely brushing off a customer’s shirt, didn’t mind adding a bit of gel or spray, if necessary, and he encouraged customers to make last minute suggestions. And, yet, each haircut took nineteen minutes, sometimes less. It was amazing but he was that good.
He wasn’t much older than I, but I could see that life had been a different kind of struggle for him. A large chunk of that struggle was out in the open. His forearms sported amateur-looking tattoos and a bent nose sat in the middle of his oblong face.
His clothes invariably were sharp and well-tailored, and his own hair style never varied – swept back, every strand in place, a nice sheen. His gray streaks came long before my hair started to turn and he joked with me about that. He’d say, “That’s a healthy head of hair Michael. Be grateful and take care of it. Or I might have to cut it all off.”
César could tell great stories about all the personalities who’d sat in his chair over the years – sports stars, actors, politicians. But I had a tough time learning anything about him. He was close-mouthed when it came to his own story. He’d been raised on the Western Slope, labored in the onion and sugar beet fields as a child, spent some time “out East,” was married and had a couple of sons. If I asked about his family, he answered quickly and decisively, “They’re doin’ great.” And that would be all. He’d go into one of his stories and the small talk about him would be abandoned.
He kept the mood light with jokes and Broncos updates, but when he had to be, he was all business, once in a while a bit impatient, especially with salesmen who wouldn’t accept no. His leathery skin would flush. His clenched fists would hang rigidly at his sides. His lips would curl around his teeth. And the salesman would rush out.
I knew to be on time for my appointments. I had this love-fear dynamic going on with my barber and it didn’t seem strange to me.
I changed firms a couple of times, bought a few more suits, and it would have been more convenient for me to use the trendy hair salon on the first floor of the office building where I finally settled. But I stayed with César. He hadn’t raised his prices to extravagant levels and I knew what I was going to get from him. No surprises. I simply sat in the chair and he’d do his magic without any instructions from me. We understood each other.
I unfailingly left his shop feeling good about myself, good about my life. How many barbers can do that? A good barber is hard to find.
César hit me up for legal help only once. Everyone from my mechanic to my kid’s second grade teacher eventually asked for my “opinion” or a “little bit of advice” or, anxiously, out-and-out representation. César the barber did it the one time, and that was after I’d been his customer for ten years, and it wasn’t for him. César’s friend, Abel, had been busted on a narcotics rap. César was concerned that Abel not be talked into anything that he’d later regret. He was worried that Abel might be pressured to plead out to something that the district attorney couldn’t prove, or agree to a plea bargain that meant he had to testify against his associates.
We discussed his friend one evening after César closed for the day. I was his last appointment and it was obvious that César wanted to talk. He produced a couple of beers from his back room. I made myself comfortable in one of his barber chairs.
He explained his friend’s circumstances, then he made his pitch.
“I know you don’t do criminal law, Michael. But I was hopin’ that you could steer Abel to an attorney that will treat him right. I grew up with Abel, we picked peaches together when we were kids, over in Palisades. I’d hate to see him railroaded. He ain’t a snitch, but when it looks like you don’t have a choice, some men will do stupid things.”
I didn’t hesitate with my response.
“Chris Morales is a good friend. He’s top gun, one of the best defense attorneys in the state, hell, in the country. If he takes a case he pulls out all the stops. Whatever he does for your friend, you can believe it will be the best he can get, from anyone.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he said. “I’m not sayin’ Abel’s a saint, but he’s also a family man, never hurt no one. This drug business is out of character for him. And it’s his first serious arrest, so there must be somethin’ that can be worked out. I’m just afraid the prosecutor will take advantage of him. Abel ain’t exactly the brightest candle on the cake.”
“Chris is expensive,” I said. “You get what you pay for, César. Can your friend take care of that?”
“That’s on me, Michael. Like I said, I grew up with this guy. We’re practically related. I think of him like a brother. He’s done favors for me in the past, it’s almost like I owe him. So, you tell your friend that he sends his bill to me. I’m good for it.”
“It’s going to be steep. I hope you can swing it.”
He shook my hand as though we were closing a deal.
“You let me worry about that,” he said. “I won’t embarrass you with your lawyer chum. I pay my debts. Just one thing, Michael.”
“What would that be?”
He squeezed my fingers.
“I’m countin’ on you to keep an eye on your man, Chris. I know he’ll do a great job and that Abel will land on his feet. But if you could just stay on top of it, I would appreciate that. Okay?”
I agreed and I did what César asked. I was glad I could help César.
Chris took the case, primarily because he thought Abel had illegal search issues that needed to be aired out in the courtroom. César covered all the bills, including expensive pre-trial experts and forensic tests on the seized drugs. Chris filed motion after motion and scheduled numerous hearings. The prosecution ran out of steam after about nine months of legal scrimmages. Abel pleaded to a minor possession charge and walked away. No major conviction, no jail time, no need to turn against his pals, who remained unknown to everyone except Abel.
César overwhelmed me with gratitude for the favorable resolution of his friend’s legal problems. The free haircut was more than I expected. I felt that I’d raised my standing in his eyes although I hadn’t done anything except give him a referral, something I did every week for others who never thought twice about it.
We chugged along in our respective roles: César the barber, the downtown icon, who needed visibility to stay in the game, to compete; and Michael the high-powered corporate lawyer who valued his privacy and whose clients preferred that their lawyer stay out of the spotlight.
A few years after Abel’s case I showed up unexpectedly at the Palace. It was another fine Colorado autumn morning, just like the first time I met César. I had an arbitration in Dallas later in the week, which meant that I would have to miss my regular appointment. I thought that I would stop by and reschedule or, with some luck, finagle a quick trim if César could fit me in.
It was early, not quite nine, his normal opening time. The door was unlocked but the shop looked empty. I figured César was checking his books in the back office, the one with a sign on the door that warned, “Employees Only!”
I strolled in, picked out the current issue of Time from his rack, sat down and waited. Several minutes passed and the situation started to bug me. I thought I heard muffled breathing on the other side of the door to the office.
I half-heartedly hollered, “¿César, qué pasa?” Nothing.
I reluctantly gave up on the magazine and César, and started to leave.
The office door burst open. I fell back in my chair.
César tumbled through the doorway. “Run!” he screamed.
Before I could react, César tripped and sprawled to the floor. A guy wearing a ski mask pointed a gun at César, then at me.
I shouted, “What the ...?”
The guy in the mask shouted back, “Shut up! On the floor!”
I looked at César and he nodded and indicated with his eyes that I should do what the gunman ordered.
I slipped off the chair and laid down on César’s cool tile floor.
César said, “Let this guy go. He’s not part of this. It makes it worse for you.” He was calm, contained.
The words didn’t register with me. They weren’t what I expected.
The gunman stood over us, still working that gun for all it was worth.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “You bet I’ll let this guy walk out of here. This is your fault, C. This is your mess. All you had to do was treat me right. But, old habits, right C? I knew you’d rip me off.”
I couldn’t put it together but the guy’s implied threat cut any bravado I might have had stored deep in my gut. My nerve drained away and I started to sweat. I heard César and the gunman talking but they didn’t make any sense. The pounding in my ears didn’t make any sense either.
The gunman put his gun against my temple. His eyes peered through the slits in the ski mask – red-veined, dilated pupils that moved constantly. I felt the hard barrel push the side of my head.
My breath came shallow and fast.
César kicked the back of the man’s knees.
The gunman grunted and fell in a heap. His gun jerked against the back of my head. I heard it rattle on the floor next to me.
César leaped to his feet and jumped on the man, punching and kicking him furiously. A stream of ugly epithets flowed from César’s mouth, in Spanish and English.
“Rudy! ¡Cabrón, puto! You try to take me?! You try to pull this two-bit bullshit?!”
He didn’t stop the beating until the man went limp and passed out. It lasted less than a minute. The mask had ripped away from the gunman’s head. Blood flowed from his eyes, nose and mouth.
César took three deep breaths. He picked up the gun. He looked at me, shook his head. He hung the “Closed” sign on the door, turned the lock and shut the blinds.
“Help me with this.”
He lifted the man’s shoulders, I grabbed the legs and we half-carried, half-dragged the unconscious gunman to the back room. I tried not to look at the blood.
“Any minute now the rest of my crew will start showin’ up,” he said. “Don’t make any noise. Even if you hear them at the door. Except for Angel they don’t have keys. Fred and Oscar always expect me or Angel to let them in. Watch that this pendejo don’t come to.”
He pointed at an aluminum baseball bat lying on the floor.
“Use that if you have to. If he starts movin’ hit him hard, right on top of the head.”
I picked up the bat. It felt heavy and awkward in my hand but I gripped it solidly and was ready to do what César wanted.
With his left hand César punched numbers on a cell phone. His right hand held the gun.
After a few seconds he said, “Angel? ... Yeah. Rudy showed up. ... I took care of it. You on your way? ... Yeah. ... Okay, okay. ... No, nothin’. ... Yeah. ... Look, I know. What can I do? I told you he was up to somethin’ stupid. He had to be. ... No, I’ll finish it. Call Fred and Oscar. Now. Tell them we’re closed today – there’s a gas leak or somethin’ like that. I’ll get back to you.”
Then it was his turn to listen to her. Several times he started and stopped what he wanted to say. When he finally could say it completely, it came out as, “I said I will take care of it. That means I will take care of it. All of it.” His eyes focused on me. “You handle Fred and Oscar.”
He jammed the phone in his shirt pocket.
The blood in my brain finally started to flow again. I said, “What the hell is going on? Who is this guy? What are you into?”
César shrugged his shoulders. He stared at me. He shrugged again.
The man on the floor groaned, turned on his side. César kicked him in the jaw. The man quivered, then was still. Blood and drool dripped from his lips. I dropped the bat.
“Take it easy,” I said. “You’re gonna kill this guy. What was it? A holdup, a burglary? You catch him in the act? Whatever, it isn’t worth killing him.” Then I had a brilliant flash of wisdom. “We should call the cops.”
César made a sound that I guess was supposed to be a laugh. It came out too horrible for that, though.
“You been a good customer, Michael. You’re solid – I can see that. The way you handled Abel’s trouble showed me that. You’re not like some of the geeks who parade through here. For a lawyer your head’s screwed on tight, your heart’s in the right place, most of the time. Your roots are strong, same as mine. You never ask too many questions, you show respect, you don’t talk down.” He paused, examined the gun. “For all that, you deserve a break. You walk out of here and forget anythin’ you saw and the next time you come in for your regular, we don’t bring this up. Like it never happened. You hear me, Michael? Nothin’ happened. You shouldn’t even be here anyways. So, maybe you were never here today? I think that’s the way we do this.” He paused again. “I’ll take care of this guy.”
My tongue ran over the words I wanted to say but I pushed them out.
“I can’t believe it, you talking like that. I have to go to the police. You know that. I saw the whole thing going down. He was trying to hold you up. He had the gun, he threatened you, me. He would have shot us if you hadn’t jumped him. You have nothing to worry about, César. No D.A. will file charges, no jury would convict you of anything. Colorado has the Make-My-Day law – what you did fits right in with that. I’m your witness, I’m ...”
He waved the gun in my face and I shut up.
“Michael, you don’t understand. I’m givin’ you an option. Take it, while you can. You don’t have to be involved. Maybe you shouldn’t, right? You’re a partner in the firm now. Right? You need this kind of publicity? You want to be interviewed by the cops, the D.A.? Have to do depositions, subpoenas, maybe lie detector tests if the defense attorney really gets into it. Testify at a trial? I don’t think you need all that.”
He wanted to erase me from the scene and he said anything that popped in his head that he thought might sway me. He said everything except the truth.
“Why you doing this? What’s your connection to this guy?”
César snapped open the gun, looked through the chamber, shut it, then stuck it in the waistband of his pants.
“I know Rudy for a long time. We used to be ... uh ... roommates. We have a partnership, an ongoin’ arrangement from years ago. He thought I didn’t treat him right – maybe not accountin’ for all the profits, from his point of view. Guys like him are like that. Don’t trust nobody because they can’t be trusted, and they know it. He showed up today in that dumbass mask and wanted to collect what he thought was his, and what I know he ain’t earned. You saw how it played out. Now, I have to clean it up. Like I said, you don’t want to be involved with this. You walk out now, never mention it to no one, and it’s like it ain’t never happened. For what it’s worth, you can take my word on that. I got no beef with you. Angel will do what I say. You really are an innocent bystander. But you have to cooperate.”
He let all that sink in.
The barber opened a narrow door in the corner of the office. He pulled out a mop, bucket, and a box of trash bags.
“I’m asking for some leeway from you,” he said as he shut the broom closet door. He picked up a pair of scissors, shook his head and put them back on his desk. “Maybe ‘cause you been comin’ in here for so long.” He stared at me and I had to look away. “Maybe ‘cause we know each other on the side of my life that shouldn’t mix with this side of my life.”
I looked back at him. He pointed his chin at Rudy’s bloody face.
A knock on the front door stopped my response.
I walked away from César and the unconscious man. Behind me César grunted as he moved Rudy’s body. I heard the thunk of Rudy’s head bumping the bucket.
Dan Riley, a young assistant district attorney who wanted a position in my firm, waited at the outer door. I quickly opened it, eased out, and shut it behind me.
Riley looked surprised. “Hey, Michael,” he said. “How are you? Is César open or ...?”
He glanced at the closed sign hanging on the door then came back to me with the unfinished question in his eyes.
I said, “Uh, he has to ... to take off, probably won’t be back today. Some kind of emergency, a gas leak or something, somewhere. Not sure. I was just trying to change my appointment. You might want to call him tomorrow, see what’s up.”
Riley nodded, muttered, “Damn.”
He said the things that he thought were necessary to keep his name on the list of potential future associates in my firm. I participated in the charade, did my part, until finally he went on with his business. I ran back to my office.
I had to spend a few hours on the phone and I ended up indebted to a jerk Texas lawyer but I managed to postpone the Dallas arbitration. I needed to keep my regular appointment with César. I didn’t want him to think that I’d moved on to another barber. A good barber is hard to find.