Widow, barbershop help spruce up reclusive older veteran
Janet Kusumoto is the Miss Marple of her street — a loveable, amateur detective of sorts, much like in the Agatha Christie novels.
She knows the comings and goings of her Fife neighbors, and those of their cats.
And like Miss Marple, she’s caring and sweet.
It was her powers of deduction and her big heart that led the 81-year-old last summer to check on a man who lives a few doors down.
William Brown, 77, hadn’t been out much on his riding lawn mower.
That concerned Kusumoto, and what she found when she visited him concerned her more.
He “looked like Rip Van Winkle,” she said as she sat with Bill Brown on his couch, during a recent interview with The News Tribune.
Both suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, and his had flared up especially badly — which made daily tasks excruciating.
Brown said his hands looked like boxing gloves. And he admitted his hair, which he cut himself, had gotten long.
“I’m comfortable with my hair hanging down,” he said. “I don’t have to look at it.”
But he said he appreciated it when Kusumoto intervened by taking him to a barber, getting his nails trimmed and regularly checking on him ever since.
“At our age, you never know what’s going to happen, so I wanted to make sure he was OK,” she said.
Kusumoto says she’s lived on 15th Street East for about 40 years, and Brown has been there for six or seven.
They first became friends through their dogs. Kusumoto would visit with Annie, her Dandie Dinmont terrier — and brought treats for Lacey, Brown’s black cocker spaniel.
Both dogs passed on in recent years, but the neighbors still waved hello at each other, until Brown’s arthritis kept him house-bound. So Kusumoto started visiting him instead.
“She comes around pretty regular,” Brown said.
Eventually he mentioned he was a veteran who’d served with the Marines in the late 1950s and early ‘60s in Korea, where he was wounded.
Kusumoto said her late husband served in the Korean War.
Brown has no record of his service, and as such doesn’t receive veteran’s health-care benefits. So Kusumoto took him to the nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars post, where they’ve started trying to verify his service.
“I’m getting old, I need help,” said Brown, who added he lives on Social Security, and that the money doesn’t go very far.
After the service, he worked as a long-haul trucker, but first he bought a red Corvette and took a road trip around the States.
“I bet all the ladies were after you with that car,” Kusumoto said.
Brown had a good time, he admits, until a female hitchhiker he picked up accidentally wrapped the Corvette around a telephone pole in Nevada.
“You shouldn’t pick up women in Nevada,” Kusumoto teased him.
The pair are well known at The Barber Lounge in Fife, where Kusumoto has taken Brown for a couple trims.
When she called the business to explain what Brown needed, the owner set them up with 45-year-old John Dorgan.
Now he and owner Albert Carrillo are considering opening the shop to all veterans in need on the last Monday of every month.
“It’s just my labor, that’s easy to give,” said Dorgan, who has been a barber for about 2 1/2 years.
He had enjoyed cutting hair at a couple events for veterans, and saw Brown’s trim as another haircut for someone in need.
“People like to enjoy being able to relax and being taken care of,” Dorgan said, and it seemed as if Brown had been “forgotten.”
On his first visit Brown had some matted hair, Dorgan remembered. His shoulder had hurt, and he couldn’t comb it himself.
The barber gave him a short trim and a shave. And when Brown visited again, he got what Dorgan calls a more stylish “Errol Flynn” look.
The shop doesn’t let Kusumoto pay for the service, but she’s found other ways to say thank you. She sent the barbers a Christmas card, which said: “Thank you so much for being so nice to Bill.”
And she visits sometimes with little gifts.
“She came in and dropped off chocolates, which is my weakness,” Dorgan said.
She brings goodies when she visits Brown, too, including a sort of cannabis lotion she says helps with her own arthritis.
Both neighbors say they’re pretty much on their own these days.
Brown says he’s been married three times and has 13 kids. Two wives passed away, and he separated from one.
“We used to get together for Christmas and birthdays and things like that,” he said. “I watched my grandpa die. I don’t want them to watch me.”
Kusumoto has one son, but she says they don’t have much contact.
An acquaintance suggested she start inviting Brown over to her house, but Kusumoto is firmly against such visits. She doesn’t want neighbors to think she has a boyfriend. Their relationship is platonic.
“We’re not bosom pals or anything,” Kusumoto said. “I want to keep an eye on him.”
She turned to Bill and asked rhetorically: “You don’t want to get married again, do you?”
Then she answered her own question: “Hell no.”
Still, they’ve talked about moving to the same veteran’s home, one day.
A few days before Christmas she brought him a soft blanket, a small tinsel tree (his first Christmas tree in about seven years), a can of peanuts and a stuffed brown and white dog.
“It’s amazing, as you get older you really get attached to your pets,” Brown said, thinking of Lacey.
Then he kissed her on the cheek.
“Thank you, honey,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Bill,” she replied.
As they headed out to lunch, each enjoyed a smoke in Kusumoto’s car. (She tells Brown he shouldn’t smoke in his house.)
They stopped for a minute on their street, to see if a cat Kusumoto didn’t recognize matched a poster she’d seen about a missing pet.
It didn’t, but the friends decided they’d keep an eye on the feline they’d seen, who Kusumoto thought needed a bigger collar and looked too skinny.
She and Brown both have a soft spot for neighborhood cats in need.
For veterans in need
Veterans in need who would like a complimentary haircut can call The Barber Lounge in Fife at 253-719-8766 for more information.