More than two decades have passed since a solitary year spent on the campus at the University of Rhode Island. I looked a lot younger than my twenty-one years although in my mind I was already a seasoned man of the world, even when all other evidence suggested strongly that that was not the case.
There was something refreshingly archetypal in the appearance of the URI (as me and my fellow alumni call it) campus; a solid beacon of New England academia. Buildings of learning, of heavy stone and imposing heft, classically carved and angular; borders of well-mown lawn quads. Old buildings blending in with more modern, practical blocks of concrete and steel. Names which have stayed with me through the years: Roger Williams, Butterfield Hall, Roosevelt Hall, Heathman House, Memorial Union and the Ram’s Den.
About six weeks into my year on campus I made the monumental decision to have a haircut. The reason for the monumental nature of this decision was due to the fact that this would mark the first time I’d ever had a haircut on foreign soil (England doesn’t count).
‘I’d like a haircut, please,’ I said to the girl of similar age to me who was sitting behind a desk at the entrance to the hair salon. It was all a new experience, there was no receptionist at my barber shop back home, just a row of seats of varying comfort and some massively out-of-date car magazines.
The girl smiled, which, as a young and somewhat lust-starved male thousands of miles from home, I naively took as a sign of clear romantic interest – as opposed to the general friendliness she was actually trying to convey.
‘Sure,’ she said, quite beautifully ‘Have you got an appointment?’
I’d never had to make an appointment for a haircut before. I was thrown.
‘No’ I replied, as it seemed the honest thing to say, and perfectly encapsulated my predicament.
‘OK, well, we’re really booked up today but we can do Tuesday.’
This was as close to arranging a date with her as I would ever get.
‘Tuesday, er, yeah, Tuesday should be cool,’ I said, because I’m an idiot.
She smiled and I smiled and for moment it was obvious we were in love with each other.
‘We can do 4:3o.’
‘Cool. What’s your name?’
‘Gareth,’ I said, because that is, in fact, my name.
Now, I’m Welsh and, while I don’t have a strong Welsh accent, it was clear that I was in no way shape or form, American. Which had, on occasion, led to slight communication problems.
‘Jarret?’ she asked.
‘No, Gareth,’ I felt our relationship was on the rocks and considered whether perhaps we should start seeing other people.
‘Jarret,’ she once again said, as though trying to convince me that this was, in fact, my name after all.
‘No. Gareth,’ I said ‘With a ‘Gee’.’
There was a brief pause in the exchange; an impasse of sorts.
‘Gee. Gee for Grape,’ I said, not fully fluent in the phonetic alphabet at the time yet still not entirely sure why I opted for grape. She laughed, the way she used to in the early days.
‘Gee, for grape?’
‘Yes. Gee for grape.’
She wrote the letter G into the diary, then looked up, awaiting the next letter.
‘R,’ I said, which she wrote obediently down.
And, sure enough, an appointment was made for a haircut at 4:30pm the following Tuesday for a moron from Wales answering to the name of Grape.
Autumn came to Rhode Island around about the third week of October. Red and orange leaves swirled and danced on the wind and the nights’ grew dark and bitingly cold as we made our way from classrooms to halls to the comforting corner of the Mews Tavern in town.
And in a department store at the Wakefield Mall, I bought some clippers and never had my hair cut in America again.