Whenever I'm asked to speak at a journalism seminar or creative writing class, some well-scrubbed student inevitably shoots a hand in the air and inquires brightly: "Where do you get your ideas?"
Then the rest of the students crane their necks forward expectantly while tiny beads of blood form on my forehead and I stammer: "Well, um . . . you see, there's no one . . . it's sort of like being a bricklayer, in the sense that. . ."
By this time, of course, the student who asked the question is playing with her hair and staring at the ceiling while the others glance at the clock.
Meanwhile, the teacher is standing in the back of the room thinking: "I wonder if we can get a real writer next time. Mr. Hagemeyer was saying something about Joyce Carol Oates possibly being available. Now she'd be super . . ."
The fact is (and this is what I end up telling the little brats), I don't know where I get my ideas.
Since there are so few thoughts of any consequence running through my mind, it's hard enough to recognize them, let alone tag them as to point of origin.
But perhaps we can arrive at part of the answer with a little story.
Not long ago, during a trip out of town, I found myself in need of a haircut.
This, of course, is an absolutely terrifying situation. There is nothing more unsettling than having a stranger cut your hair. You may as well put a bowl over your head and get out the scissors yourself, as the finished product is usually about the same.
Nevertheless, I had no choice in the matter. So I asked the concierge in my hotel to direct me to the nearest hair-cutting establishment.
"Two blocks down on your right," he said confidently.
The directions brought me to a place called Sal's Barber Shop. I peered in the window. The shop was tiny. There were only two barber chairs. Bottles of Wildroot and rows of hair tonics were arranged on two counters. A small man with a comb and scissors in his breast pocket sat in one chair reading the Racing Form.
In the other chair, a customer dozed while another small man with a comb and scissors in his breast pocket furiously slapped a razor against a leather strap. A framed picture of the '65 Green Bay Packers decorated one wall.
Maybe, I thought, we'll look around for something a little more . . . contemporary.
Which is when I found Impressions.
Impressions was located three blocks up from Sal's. The outside of the shop had a vague art deco look to it. Through the window I could see the walls were painted black. The six chairs were painted silver. Still, I needed a haircut. It was either this place or Sal's.
A Julian Lennon dirge was blaring over the sound system when I walked in. A heavily mascaraed girl of about 17, her hair severely spiked, sat behind the front desk. She was thumbing through a copy of Savvy.
"Help ya?" she said in a bored voice.
"Well, I'm thinking about a haircut," I said. "Nothing too crazy, just a . . ."
"RENEE!" the girl yelled toward the back of the shop.
Renee was . . . well, she was a very tall woman. She had mounds and mounds of orange hair piled atop her head. Some of the hair then looped and cascaded down one side of her head. The other side of her head was shaved. There was also this: Each of Renee's fingernails was painted a different color.
Naturally, my first instinct was to turn back to the thuggish receptionist and inquire: "Uh, would there be anyone else available to . . ."
But by this time Renee was already jabbing me with her multicolored pincers in the direction of one of the chairs.
After explaining how I wanted my hair cut, I came to another horrifying realization: Renee was a talker. A big-time talker.
The woman appeared to be working on at least six cups of coffee and seemed determined to fill me in on much of her life's history, including two failed marriages, one to a former seminarian. You wondered if it had anything to do with those fingernails.
I don't know how long I sat in Renee's chair. Morning drifted into afternoon and a dull fog seemed to settle over my brain.
Well. The haircut cost me $26. It was an absolutely horrible job. Picture a grim-faced Okie with a burr cut emerging from a dusty pickup truck in a Steinbeck novel, and you have some idea of what I saw in the mirror.
Now, you talk about ideas for a column.
I could see myself writing about that someday.