The Barbers of The ‘Ville

Seeing a UVA alum headline that Ronde Barber has been elected to the Football Hall of Fame took me back to my early days at UVA. I was walking up Main Street from my Fifeville digs, having moved out of grad student housing a few years earlier, with my teenaged son. While this was my regular route to Brooks Hall, I was heading up at a different time for me, and on this afternoon there was a small, growing line of women, most standing, a couple with folding chairs. Being curious, I asked what was going on and a giggling, middle aged woman explained that they were there to “watch the Barbers when they come by.”
I, of course had no idea what she was talking about and couldn’t fathom a town with what I thought were “barber parades.” I was already bemused by some of the local rituals, including the hubbub surrounding horse races and football. During my first semester, I’d written an ethnographic style paper about the annual painting of blue and orange stripes along University Avenue, as I’d never witnessed an entire city given over to so much sports related pageantry. I was a Northern raised girl and had attended a small, formerly all-women’s college, where the sports were tennis and equestrian, and not primarily featured. Although my original grad school was comparable to UVA in many ways, as a fellow in philosophy, we were away from the bustle, and decidedly unconcerned with what went on in the larger campus areas.

In what I think was an attempt to shush me, the nearest seated woman quickly explained by saying “Just give it two minutes and you’ll see,” while the standing lady said “They’re brothers- Tiki and Ronde- and we come out to cheer them on and get a look. They run here on certain days.” (She actually named their running days, but I didn’t pay attention to the schedule she’d memorized.)

Ooo-kaay, I thought with a shrug. That’s nice, I guess, but I wondered what made these brothers special, and what were the names she called them. I started to move on, but just then the seated women rose, and on both sides of the street, eyes turned as a line of young men appeared, obviously part of a team. They didn’t run in military formation and while they were clearly training, most seemed casual and friendly, acknowledging the people on the street with a glance or nod. One playful young man laughingly waved and did a graceful pirouette, but it was clear that he was not the object of their attention, even though a few people smiled and politely waved him on.

But then the brothers appeared: two brown, beautifully sculpted bodies, one after the other, aware of their fans, but focused on their runs. Both had on t shirts, an apparently disappointing occurrence for a few followers. The men smiled and one waved, but they kept on jogging towards downtown, and in that flash, the excitement was over. The chair ladies rose, folding their chairs in a swift movement, a few chatting, most making their way back to their lives, leaving me more confused than ever.

All of the men were attractive athletes, but in a hundred years I would never have imagined women lining up only to watch two men jogging. I had a mix of reactions that included surprise, concern about the possible racial undertones, and downright amusement at the silliness of the entire “event.” I decided that I was either in the most liberated and fun loving town or the most desperate, but any way you sliced it, I knew I wasn’t in New York anymore.

The Barber twins with their grandmother. 1996

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