The Sultan of Swat In Chair No. 4

WHEN I was 12 and we lived in Manhattan, my mother always took me to the same barber shop to get my hair cut. It was on the ground floor of the Barbizon Hotel, on the corner of Broadway and 79th Street. One day when we were there, Victor, the owner, came over and whispered to my mother that the man whose face was swathed in hot towels, lying back in the fourth chair, was none other than Babe Ruth."Babe who?" my mother said. "Babe Ruth!" I hissed, contemptuously. "The slugger. Baseball. The Great Bambino. The Sultan of Swat!" Victor smiled in his oily manner and my mother finally registered, but my attention was now focused on the mound of steaming towels in chair No. 4. Underneath all that, could there actually be the familiar face of the man who looked down on me from three glossy prints pinned up on the wall of my bedroom? He was too fat, I thought. He looked more like a sea lion than the greatest slugger in baseball history. And those splayed feet propped up there, those corny brown and white Cordovan Oxfords! Just then Mr. Luigi, the barber, bustled over to chair No. 4, cranked it up 15 degrees, and began removing the towels, one by one, each with a dramatic flourish. I didn't want to look, but I couldn't look away. The face, when it was finally revealed, was pink, and steaming, and buried in jowls; but it was the same one I knew so well, the same one that looked down at me when I said my prayers. "Come on," I whispered to my mother. " Let's get out of here." Mr. Luigi had squeezed a blob of hot lather into his palm from a nearby machine, and was carefully applying it to the familiar/unfamiliar features. She stared at me. "Don't you want to meet him?" She said. "I thought you were a fan." I shook my head. "Well, we have to get you a haircut, anyway." A young woman in a nurse's uniform was sitting in a chair with her back to us facing Babe Ruth. She was holding one of his hands. "What's she doing to him?" I whispered. "She's pushing back his cuticles," my mother said, giving me a broad smile. "He's having a manicure!" "Oooh!" I thought, imagining some grim but necessary operation. But apparently the process was painless, for the Babe was smiling. And when the woman got up and moved her chair to his other side, he patted her hand and shut his eyes. His face - pudgy, still pink, the flesh smooth - relaxed even more; and then he sighed. Apparently, he was not only not in pain, he was having himself a good time. I went back to my magazine. A few moments later Victor approached us. "Mr. Luigi can take you now," he said. "But first, let me introduce the young man." Babe Ruth had gotten up from his chair and Mr. Luigi was helping him on with his jacket - a terrible looking, pale green-and-white plaid. He looked less fat now, but more ordinary. His eyes were small and reddish, I noticed, and he had a pug nose. I couldn't see his hands. Victor was saying something to him and then they turned and came over to us. Both of them were smiling. "How do you do," my mother said, shaking the great man's hand. She mentioned my name. "My son. So looking forward to meeting you." "One of his heroes, I understand," breathed Victor. I looked up. I had to. And there, not two feet away, was Babe Ruth, holding out his pitching hand. I shook it. What else could I do? The flesh was smooth. The handshake solid. "Wish I had a ball with me, son, but I guess this'll have to do," said the great man; and he signed his name in large, round letters across a sheet of hotel stationary that Victor had provided. "Thank you," I mumbled, my face as hot as if I were in the bleachers looking directly into the sun. And then, with sudden inspiration, "Good luck on Saturday." MY mother, Victor, and Babe Ruth all laughed; and I could feel my face turn an even deeper shade of red. I hadn't meant to be flip or silly. Far from it. I had simply hoped that the sun would not blind him, that his arm would hold up under the enormous strain, that each time he stood at the plate he would hit a home run, that he would win the pennant for the Yankees as they said he would, as he had in the past. But how could I say all that? I sat down in the chair that was still warm from the Babe. He had a nice smile, I decided, better than in his pictures. There was a certain rugged quality to his face, too, underneath all that flesh. And he took special care of his hands. Maybe that was his secret. A manicure, my mother had called it. I would have one, too. Even if the first few times it hurt, it was sure to put me ahead of the other guys.

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