Two constants of Dushanbe life in the summer are heat and dust. Despite cloudless skies and practically non-existent humidity, the dust is such that a permanent haze fills the air, the mouth and the lungs, dust from the dirt kicked up and sprayed about by machines, dogs, cows, goats, people, and from the belching of the cement factory at the north end of the city, coating the nearby world in a fine bitter powder.
About the dust I could do nothing; but I resolved to ameliorate the heat - and improve my prospects at an impending business meeting - by the simple expedience of a haircut. Simple, I thought; forgetting, of course, that simplicity is a complicated thing.
There is a barber shop about a half-mile from my office, a short and not unpleasant walk past the bazaar, sambusa stands, teahouses and beer gardens. It is literally a hole in the wall, a tiny room built into the front of a supermarket, its one chair attended by a single barber who has the great fortune to be rail-thin so as to fit between the back of his barber chair and the wall. As one might expect when one purposes to get a haircut at lunchtime, I arrived to find the one chair occupied and recently so, presaging a long wait outside (no room to wait inside!) in the hot sun and dust. Not being one to permit myself such suffering, or for that matter to go too long without indulging my murmuring stomach, I determined to cross the street to the rather large beer garden fronting the Soviet-style opera house. I quickly found a table that allowed an unobstructed view of the barber shop so that I could gauge my predecessor's progress on the tonsorial throne and prepare myself to seize the same at first opportunity. Well, he sat, and I sat, he at least attended to; thrice the waitress passed me by without so much as a nod and after a long interval of absence returned to my vicinity for the sole purpose of waiting a table just then occupied by three young men, directly next to mine, then flitted away on taking their order oblivious to my pleading eyes and now-growling stomach.
Well, says I, so much for my putative shashlik and Baltika 3. Having no intention of remaining where I evidently could not be seen or heard by persons only inches away from me, and having noted that the activity in the barber chair had moved along a bit, I crossed the street back to my strategic position in front of the barber shop, ready to take my honored place the moment it became vacant.
Of course, a ragged old woman chose exactly that moment to plead her life's woeful story to me (not that I understood a word of what she said, mind you; she could just as well have been calling me unflattering names and commenting on my ancestry; but I chose to believe something less to my disadvantage) and thus beg a mere Somoni (29 cents US). At least to the point of that sum, I am not without generosity, and besides, her begging was annoying, so of course I gave her a couple of Somonis to send her own her way, she calling down the blessings of every attending deity on me. Well, I suppose no deity was in fact attending at that moment, for as I turned from this momentary distraction, just at that very instant, of course, out slips the one customer and in snivels another, two feet and half a second in front of me.
At that event of course I should have been deterred from further commerce in this part of the city, but being the fool I am, in a burst of unjustified optimism I wagered that this sniveller, having rather short hair to begin with, would occupy only a very brief portion of the barber's workday, and thus allow me to achieve the purpose of my venture after only a momentary delay. My stomach now threatening a riot, I ducked into the supermarket and liberated an ice cream cone from the freezer, separated from its enjoyment only by the checkout lines.
There were two checkout lines, conveniently; that to the left looked rather longer than the one to the right, so being naive, I got in the shorter line. Smart people, they were, those who weren't in this line; for no observable reason whatsoever, both the checker and shoppers moved as if they were encased in strawberry Jell-O, dawdling despite the rapid (no air conditioning, of course) melting of the creamy object of my alimentary desire. In the fullness of time the person ahead of me gathered up her provisions and moved off to clog some other line elsewhere, and I turned to hand my single purchase to the clerk to scan, when the female person (surely no lady) behind me pushed her groceries forward on the conveyor, past me and into the scanning hands of the clerk, who smiled innocently at me as she rang up my tormentor's goods and left me dripping sweetness onto my hands and anger out of my eyes.
I could not, of course, remain in that line without engaging in, if not homicide, at least mayhem; and a glance to the left informed me that the other line now contained but one customer, so I bolted over behind the other shopper, who was to my great joy having her last item scanned. Naturally, my joy was misplaced, for this woman was utterly ignorant of the fact that it would be necessary for her to exchange money for her purchases, as she had none whatsoever with her and bade the checker wait while she sauntered over to an ATM to procure some cash. How much time this took I measured not in minutes but in centiliters of frozen stuff eloping from its appointed post at the top of my cone and assuming new quarters on my shirt and shoes. But how my heart leapt! upon the return of the now cash-suffused shopper, who by some miracle managed to complete her purchase and move on perpetrate her remaining daily allowance of imbecilities. Seeing my opportunity, I glanced back to prevent those behind me from repeating the perfidy done me in the other line, and quickly presented my ice cream cone to ... no one. As I should have at this point expected, the clerk had simply abandoned her post and gone off to do something else that suggested no improvement to my prospects of ever enjoying frozen ice cream. How long I stood there, too dispirited to do more than watch the drip, drip, drip of my melting lunch, I did not note, but presently a new checker appeared, glanced at me with a combination of amusement and fear, and deigned finally to take my money, freeing me to tear off the wrapper, fly outside, and stuff what little was left into my waiting mouth.
And then back to the barber shop, where to my incredulity the barber was finishing with the head of his customer, eager no doubt to begin the considerable adventure of attending to my ragged locks. Or so I thought. Imagine, dear reader, my upheaval upon watching the customer rise from the barber chair, remove the draping from his person, and ... stick his head in the sink for a shampoo and rinse! Another half hour of waiting at least! And this with spotted clothing and sticky hands from my mostly-liquid lunch! No, that was too much to bear, I could wait no longer, I had a meeting in only twenty minutes at my office, a fifteen-minute walk away. I would have to attend that meeting haircutless, a self-conscious sheepdog, hot, hungry and sticky.
Of course, in the meantime, the meeting had been canceled.