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Push Back in the Barber Shop

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“I want a Beatles haircut!” It was the first of many declarations to come, telling a barber what I wanted only to gaze into his hand mirror later on, with horror. My father brought me to the barber shop, its candy stripe pole revolving outside in the busy strip mall. The only thing new that day was my demand, and it was also an unwelcome demand.

“Oh, I get that a lot nowadays,” the authority figure in doctor’s whites told my father. “All the boys want a Beatle haircut, ha!” With a flourish, he floated the cloth around my neck, cinched it, then snapped on the shears. A crew cut was coming next.

“Wait,” I called out. “You can’t cut it. It has to grow out!” It was alarming. “We need to go! We can’t come back for like six months. Dad, make him stop!” It’s hard to tell which of my feelings was more powerful, the desire to belong, stand out, or just not look laughable.

With a chuckle, and now a full audience of other Dads and 6 year old boys, all of the boys stirring to my cause. My father said, “Go ahead, and make it the usual!”

The “usual” was my old look: shorn on the sides and back with an Elvis wave frozen in the front, all of it shellacked against the wind and fragrant of Witch Hazel or some other medicinal smelling fixative. Although I had previously swaggered out with that hairstyle, on that bright day in 1965, I slumped, instead, so full of misery the men had to laugh.

“You got a real pistol there,” one said–just three years away from the rest of the ‘60s.

“Hey, boy, when you get your hair cut, do you go to a barber shop, or to the hair dressers with your Mama?”

It was 1968, a mere three years later, and the neanderthal taunting me on the day hike was a cousin then in his 30s who was eager to score points off a 12 year old cousin from up North.

“Hardy, har, har,” I said. “So funny, I forgot to laugh,” That was both barrels, peppering him with the latest double-blast of sarcasm just then going around our middle school.

Transitions were speeding up, and my hair was then longer than the innocent lads from Liverpool. Only a week earlier I had been shaken and stirred by the “Sergeant Peppers” album, then overwhelmed by “Are You Experienced?” Hendrix did more than accost my ears, however. He made it clear that the ‘60s of puppy love was dying out, and I recoiled physically–unaware that it was really my innocence that was over.

Just as I had pulled away when my Mom asked me if I wanted to go with her to the hairdressers, and get a decent haircut, at last. She and a friend made it their adventure, and all the more more embarrassing at that age when I was still walking behind my parents in public. If long hair was disdained, hairdressers were worse–a den of bonbons and gossip, no place for a sarcastic young man. Entering head down amid tin-foil dye jobs, curlers and roaring driers made me blush. Soon, the stylist’s soft hands, voice, and compliments all introduced me to something else that was new: the siren song of sex.

Again, the shift was underway. My father’s haircut, with that sandbar, signaled his years of military service to the country. More than that, it communicated to other adults in the lusty throes of the Baby Boom, that he had trained to suppress his individuality for the greater good. My steps went skipping sideways. From that Beatles’ pudding bowl to the blow dry coiffure of the ‘70s, my hair was all about my individualism, yet another kind of conformity, not to the group but myself, a wild child rebelling against whatever you got.

“They do your nails for you, too? Holy Christmas,” my cousin growled.

And so it was with no small irony that a buddy and I went for a hair cut together to an intentionally old style barbershop. Named simply Barber, it sits one of our dying shopping centers. Outside it looked closed like the rest of the mall, the ruins of an old paradigm. “Are you going to get a mani-pedi?” a gal-pal chortled.

I tried to push the door open and more than a dozen men had to shift. The poster on the wall had some 32 photo-variations of a buzz cut, and with my thinning ‘70s fuzz looking like a comb-over, I sat and started to sweat. The place was slamming. All the life in that mall was in that tiny shop. Not a man bun in the joint, and all the stern and manly souls were getting the full shave down.

And more: scalp massages, hot towels over the head. One man was having his nails done. The Korean staffers worked with silent discipline–no bonbons, no gossip. All the clientele were cops, firemen, intelligence analysts, and grim; a smile would make them look weak. When my turn came, I asked for No. 22, their longest style. My well-amused buddy called out, “No–short! Really short. The Number 6!” The Korean Master looked at me. “You sure?” I didn’t understand his question until it was too late, but the style was the most military one they offer–and included shaving my bushy sideburns to the skin clear behind the ears. I was in a dream of surrender. After all, five decades of quarterly humiliation is one too many jokes at my own expense.

The time had come to conform, to box my hirsute rebellion in the garage with my old year books. Hair fell to the floor and my troubled spirits rose with the process in which he combined the geisha with the barber. He shaved my scalp, face, pummeled my face with hot watery hands, engulfed my dome in a hot towel. When he held up the mirror for the old disappointment, I was too sensually dazzled to care how short it was. Which is to say nearly bald. He pointed at my hairless vacancy. “Too short here!” The other men blasted a big laugh, and this time I joined them–some fifty years after this all began.

I love it. Military yet hip. Drive with the windows open, the roof open, and relish the wind massage. Super easy. Wake up and go, no need to comb. It looks like I’m a forward-looking guy, not an Alt-right skin head, as I had feared. Everywhere now, in life or on TV, I see men sporting the same No. 6 look, all sexy and dangerous. The only men with long ‘70s hair styles are those who seem left behind, like shopping centers. I cannot wait to go back, and will book my next experience with one of the women. Soon. Like tomorrow.

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