“Did your barber die?”
This is what my Grandmother said to me last week during Sunday dinner. Being one of those dear old things who thinks it undignified to be openly critical, she always comes sidling up to criticism through the back door. So between spooning mashed potatoes onto my plate and ladling brown gravy over them, she commenced telling about the time my old barber, Roy Craig, died.
“Roy kilt over right there in his own barber chair,” she said, extending a plate of biscuits in my direction. “He went in that Tuesday morning to open the place up and had a heart attack while stropping his razor.”
“I remember,” I said.
“Weren’t no other barbers in town except Lloyd Dean Maxwell and nobody wanted to use him on account of his drinkin.’ He’d get tight on that Old Charter and clip as many earlobe and eyelids as cow licks. And the days he happened to be sober was just as bad because he’d have them shakin’ fits.”
“Yes, ma’am. I remember that too.”
“So when Roy died there weren’t no barber to get folks presentable for his own funeral. It was such a shame watching half the men in the county promenade through that funeral parlor as scroungy as a bunch of mangy yard dogs.”
“Are you telling me I need a haircut?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do with yourself.”
Tuesday I decided to honor my grandmother’s wishes. I walked through the back door of the “Main Mall” in our little town. The “mall” is just an assortment of antique shops now; room after room of peddlers pushing second-hand treasures–and Mike’s.
Mike’s is one of those old fashioned establishments built sometime in the 1930’s. The original chair and pole are still there. And I suspect the same strap and straight razor too. There’s an assortment of magazines on a small table in the corner: Field & Stream, the Farmer’s Almanac, and Bassmaster. The tv is always set to Newsmax “ever since fox fired Tucker and hired that transvestite.” Beneath the tv is a glass case full of baseball cards, campaign buttons, and a couple sets of false teeth. I’m yet to inquire into the significance of the chompers.
Mike was sitting in the chair trimming his nails with a pocketknife when I walked in. “If you’d have waited any longer I’d have to break out the garden shears,” he said.
“I’m really just here to view the body,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m here because my grandmother is convinced that you must be dead.”
“Hell, I might be! Sometimes it’s hard to tell once you get past 70.”
A bit of banter like this is as integral to the haircutting session as a pair of scissors and a comb. It’s meant to put the customer at ease. And I need to be put at ease. A man becomes vulnerable when he is enshrouded in a cape, his glasses taken away, and then being set upon about the head with sharp instruments.
“Scissors or clippers?” asks Mike.
“Dealer’s choice,” I says.
“What do you want me to do with this mop?”
“I don’t much care. I just want a great deal less of it up there when I leave.”
And this is the truth. I learned a long time ago that it really doesn’t do any good to tell a barber what kind of haircut you want. The man with the scissors is going to give you the haircut he’s going to give you, and there’s not much you can do about it.
Years ago, me and my naivete wandered into a barbershop in Raleigh, NC. They sat me down in a chair attended by some fella they called Thumbs.
“What can I do for you,” asked Thumbs.
“I want something simple and respectable. Think banker or Baptist preacher. Nothing I have to primp, oil, mousse, gel, style, pomade, spike, or blow-dry.”
“I know just the thing,” says Thumbs.
He pointed my head down toward my lap and gave me strict instructions not to move. Then I heard what sounded like a car backfiring as he cranked some absurd piece of machinery behind me. Next thing I know, something wheezing like tuberculent skilsaw was trundling across my scalp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw heaping locks of hair tumbling across my shoulder and onto the floor.
Then Thumbs hit a pothole somewhere atop my dome. “Whoops,” he said, but kept on truckin’. Suddenly, he jerks my head up and turns my face towards the mirror.
“Is that short enough?” He asked.
“I’d say so.”
There are peaches in Georgia with a thicker mane than he left me. I looked like an extra from Schindler’s List.
“This shouldn’t be difficult to maintain,” said Thumbs, quite satisfied with his experiment.
“Well, I certainly won’t have to blow-dry it,” I said.
So when Mike says, “how do you want it,” I know he’s just being polite. But I play along, knowing that however he chooses to amuse himself with my head today will have grown out or grown over within a few weeks. Plus, I have a good selection of hats at home. At least I have honored my elders.
It’s Sunday again. As Grandmother spoons fresh creamed corn onto my plate she looks at me and says, “If I was you I’d kill that barber.”