I was in the Loveliest Village on the Plains last Tuesday. My plan was to watch Auburn play LSU in basketball that evening, but a work-related task had me arrive into town around noon, so I decided to eat lunch downtown, walk around campus, and take pictures of the new Toomer's Oaks without hundreds of folks crowding around them.
After yet another amazing meal at Moe's Original Barbecue, I stopped into Toomer's Drugs for some ice cream. From the counter, the first bite of cookies and cream gave me a brain freeze, which made me wince and turn my head slightly towards the front doors, through which I first saw him.
I immediately recognized the man. He intially walked past the doors of Toomer's and away from my sight, which disappointed me, so I went back to my ice cream.
A few seconds later, the doors opened, and in he walked, right up to the register for a candy bar—and for the life of me, I can't remember which one it was, but that's because I knew I was more interested in this legendary fellow who I'd seen on television for a brief moment while watching the Auburn-Alabama basketball game a week before. It was Bubba Bowling.
You know, Bubba Bowling? The guy who they interviewed during a TV break about the new Toomer's Oaks during the Ironball? That guy. It was him. As he paid for the candy bar and left the register, I was frozen—not so much from the ice cream anymore, but almost as if I'd just watched Elvis leave the building. I turned back around and made a decision—I had to talk to him.
I downed the rest of my ice cream (by this point, there weren't many brain cells left to freeze), walked to my car to get out one of my notepads, and mashed the crosswalk button at the intersection of College and Magnolia. A man in an Auburn hat stood next to me.
"Does pressing that button help the lights change faster?"
I honestly didn't know.
"I guess it can't hurt."
We both walked across College Street, and somehow I think we both knew we were heading for the same place. I walked into the Campus Barber Shop and found Bubba talking to one of the crew members doing construction next door. It was a small space that smelled like barbicide and talcum powder. There was a deer head, a pheasant, and a large-mouth bass mounted on the wall and scenic pictures hung up from hunting excursions. Paul Finebaum was talking on the radio sitting next to one of the mirrors. The worker told Bubba about some loud noise that would be coming from the other side of the wall. Bubba was chewing on his candy bar and told the man he wouldn't mind, they weren't that busy today. They talked for about a minute more, and I got my chance.
"Are you Mr. Bowling?"
"I saw you on TV last week during the basketball game..."
"Oh, you saw that, huh?"
"...talking about the Toomer's Oaks, yeah."
I told him who I wrote for and asked him if he had a few minutes. Not for a haircut—although, I probably could've used one—but to talk about Auburn and maybe gain a little insight from somebody I'd heard so little about, yet seemed to have a story or two to tell. He gladly obliged, threw away the candy bar wrapper, and took a towel off one of the barber chairs next to him.
"Have a seat right there, that'd be fine."
The man from the crosswalk entered and asked for a cut. Bubba was his guy. So as Bubba did what he does best—connecting with people—he gave the man with the Auburn hat a haircut.
As I watched the two men interact, the Auburn hat now hanging from a hat rack on the wall and the clippers in Bubba's hand, I knew what I was observing was an everyday occurrence, but what I really saw was a man who was at the top of his game, the master of his craft, and quite frankly, somebody you imagine would shoot the breeze with you for hours if you had the time. By now, he was chatting with his customer about Paul Finebaum—I almost felt bad for interrupting.
"So, how long have you been in Auburn?"
"I started barbering here in 1969...born and raised here," he said without looking up from his clippers, then back to the man in the chair, "You know 'I-Man,' right? It's not his real name, but I think he calls in just about every day..."
I found myself wanting to hear more about Finebaum, personally. Being from Birmingham, I've always been interested to hear folks outside of my hometown talk about the man who now had his show broadcast on SEC Network. If I had to base it on Bubba's point of view, I'd perceive that Finebaum doesn't really bother many folks outside of Birmingham—at least not with the same kind of venom.
"So there was a guy from the news, right? Came up to you about the Oaks?"
"Oh yeah. He said, 'We're trying to get somebody to talk about the trees being back.'" Bubba really hammered the word "back," which I thought was fitting. "He said, 'Would you come over here and say something?' And I said, 'I'll try to.' I didn't know if I could or not."
One of the other barbers walked in from the back as he put a button on his story.
"And the rest is history. I said what I could..."
Most folks who are born and raised in Auburn ought to be able to share at least one good story about a football game, and Bubba is no exception. I asked him if he had a favorite memory of an Auburn game, and he did not disappoint in painting a picture for me as he talked about the 1989 Iron Bowl—a game that Auburn won 30-20.
"The first time Alabama ever came to Auburn to play football. That stands out in my mind. I was working the ball game with my Lions Club, and I was on the second level there in the scholarship section. I had so many high-fives given to me by the college boys around me—Auburn won, you know—that when I went home, my hands were throbbing. I mean, actually throbbing."
By this point in the conversation, he was seamlessly alternating between telling stories and using the clippers to buzz around the head of the man in the chair.
"But it was fun. It was so much fun. Plus I won $125 from a football board, too. That really helped."
The man in the chair added, "That was a lot of money back then."
Bubba laughed. "It was...I went and bought me some new hunting accessories."
It hadn't taken me this long to understand it, but at this moment I was particularly glad that I had decided to stop in and talk to this man. What was so great about the experience was how smooth his words were. He could make you feel like you were there in the time and place where the events of his life occurred.
To be honest, I hadn't really paid much attention to what he'd said on television the night of the Ironball the week before. I remember that game being a particularly tense one that eventually got away from the Tigers in a bad way. Of course, now that I'd been sitting in one of his chairs for ten minutes, I wondered how I could have possibly missed anything this man said. The inevitable question rolled off my tongue.
"So I know you talked about the trees on TV," I said to him. "What do the new ones mean to you now?"
The answer blew me away.
"Well, I just feel like we're whole again, you know what I mean?" he replied with the most earnest and heartfelt tone I'd heard in his voice all afternoon, and it got better. "It's kind of like when you miss a tooth when you're a kid—you have a tooth come out, and then you finally get one grown back in, and you know..."
He paused for a second.
"...you finally get to where you can smile again."
It was such a simple comparison, but it was so profound, and he hadn't even skipped a beat before he went right back to trimming his friend's hair around his ears and above his neck. This was every day for him. Shooting the breeze, sharing his love for Auburn, just being an Auburn guy who contributed something unique to the community by engaging with them through one of life's routines—getting a haircut.
He continued talking to the man in the chair.
"When I saw myself on TV the other night, I was so shocked I looked so old. I told my wife, 'Why didn't you tell me?' She said, 'What?' I said, 'That I'm old!'"
"Makes you yearn for the small screen days."
Again, Bubba didn't skip a beat. "Makes you yearn for radio is what it does."
Auburn has been a changing landscape over the last several years, and it's no secret that as more and more young people stay more connected to their phones, the art of the honest conversation tends to fade away. That afternoon, Bubba struck me as the kind of man who didn't mind what changes might come or what the future holds. He'll still be doing his job, sharing his stories with folks who walk into his shop, loving Auburn, and that's how it should be. Put aside all of the craziness out there—outside the warm spring air when the leaves on the Oaks flicker green and gray on a breeze—and you've got people like Bubba who have a heart for Auburn that you search for all your years on the Plains, then realize is right under your nose on College Street. And it's a heart that wants to be shared.
"We've got some smart young people here, and I'm proud of each and every one of them," he told me as his friend paid him and walked out the door. "What I want from Auburn students is simply to love it like I do. You know, I don't just love the university—I love the town, the people, the whole package, everything. And that's why I love my job so much because I get to visit with all these fine folks. I mean, they're a lot smarter than I am."
"I don't know about that," I said as we shared a laugh. "You've been doing this for a while now. Surely there's some wisdom you could offer them?"
He slid his glasses off his nose, tossed a towel on the chair, and said, "Well, it's called 'walking around sense.' It's certainly not book sense."
Although, I think the man in the chair and I could agree that there wasn't a book in the entire Ralph Brown Draughon Library that could've imparted the kind of lessons I gleaned that afternoon inside the Campus Barber Shop.
*All photos taken by the author. Reuse requires permission. © 2015