On Barbershops

This morning while brushing my teeth I realized I need a haircut.  I am convinced I am not alone in my whipsaw of never remembering I need a haircut until I have no time to get a haircut, and promptly forgetting all about when the time is there to do it.  One of life’s minor injustices, to be sure.

On those rare occasions when memory and opportunity intersect, I go to a barbershop.  A men’s barbershop.  Not a “stylist,” not a unisex, Top 40 playing in the background metrosexual personal expression facilitation operation.  A barbershop.  Since at least 1970 it’s been there, in that same location in the arcade (it’s a re-development, from back before the word was fashionable, of an old movie theater) down past the cubby-hole offices of the businesses that come and go, some on to better things, others towards the recollections of old men’s conversations that start with, “Hey; you remember when ol’ Joe Jones had that surveying business down here? ”  For decades two guys ran the shop — it’s two chairs, with a naugahyde bench running down the opposite wall — and one of them is still there.

The floor is red-and-white tile.  The red’s faded to a sort of dirty pinkish color, and the white is what some marketer at Sherwin Williams might think of as “Ancient Yellow.”  The naugahyde bench is held together in several places by duct tape (as it should be).  On the wall above the bench are (i) a pencil drawing of a much-younger Billy cutting a child’s hair; (ii) a price list for services that include things guys used to go to barbershops for but haven’t for decades now; and, (iii) a picture of some horse that seems to have won some accolade in a horse show.  They’ve been there, in precisely those positions, since I’ve been going there, which means since the mid-1990s.  On the far wall are two framed collections of arrow and spear heads.  Until a few years ago they also had one of those soft drink machines — it was an RC machine — where you put your money in, then opened a tall, narrow door and reached in to pull your selection out.  One day it was gone, and when I asked Billy said the compressor had gone out and it would have cost him too much to have it fixed or replaced.  I was crushed; so far as I know that was the last operational such machine in the county.  Now all that’s left are those ghastly behemoths with back-lit top-to-bottom plexiglas fronts and flashing lights with . . . buttons you push.  Coke machines are coke machines and pinball machines are what they are, and I disapprove of mixing media.

In election years there’s usually a piece of poster board (hand-drawn) with the local races and candidates listed on it, and boxes beside each name.  Purely on the honor system, you can go put an “x” in a box beside your candidate.  Historically it’s proven a not-unreliable indicator of the hopefuls’ respective outcomes.

Billy’s old enough to be my father.  I know that because his two children were a year ahead and a year behind me in school.  When I go I’m frequently the youngest customer by 25-30 years.  I’m turning 49 exactly six months from today.  “Bustle” is not a verb or noun you’d associate with the pace of business there.  I don’t mind sitting on the bench, waiting my turn, and I don’t mind spending 20 minutes on a haircut that a military barber would spend about 1:15 doing.  I listen to the other customers and Billy talk with each other.  I hear a lot of names, some of which I recognize, some of which are people I know, and a good deal of which are complete strangers.  At their ages the conversation is usually about who’s sick, who’s well, who just buried his wife, who’s finally too old to put in a garden this year, and so forth.  It’s the easy rhythm of sociability, of conversations that you realize are decades old by the time you hear them.  In fact, they’ve been having this conversation since the 1950s and you’re just hearing the latest 30-minute installment of it.  You’ll hear about people’s children and grandchildren, who’s married, who’s back from college, who’s in trouble and who’s taking over the family shop.  Sometimes you’ll hear about Local Characters and their doings over the years.  I still recall the time that everyone was reciting all the local businesses this one ol’ boy has been invited never to come back to.  It was priceless.

They give a pretty OK haircut down there.  I’ve worn my hair more or less the same way since about 1973 and so my standards are not very high.  In terms of self-expression I’m just happy if my hair doesn’t proclaim, “I am an idiot,” too loudly.

The boy who used to cut with Billy retired (around here we say “retarded”) and moved off to be closer to his boy who lives a couple of counties over.  I was worried because shortly thereafter Billy “taken sick” and it was an open question whether he’d be back.  But he found some younger boy (who’s actually younger than I am) who’s now got the other chair, and so it looks as though the Succession is safe for the time being.

[Aside:  Here I must pass some observations on the word “boy” and its usage.  A few weeks ago some boy name of Toobin wrote a disparaging article in the The New Yorker about how awful it is that Clarence Thomas doesn’t speak much if at all during oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court, and spends a great deal of time leaning back staring at the ceiling while $1,000+/hour lawyers drone on in front of him.  Ann Althouse, who teaches law at Wisconsin and runs an eponymous blog, linked to it and prompted a merry firestorm of vituperation in the comments section.  She’s got a pretty loyal crowd of commenters, some typically supportive, others less so, and some of whom seem to have their own axes to grind and do so, relentlessly.  Among the latter are some who are, shall we say, sensitive to issues of “race.”  A segment of the comments to that particular post circulated around the dynamic that this Toobin boy seems to expect that Thomas shall entertain him, like some minstrel show.  Within those comments the subject of “boy” came up.  As everyone knows, “boy,” like “son,” was an address of condescension employed by whites towards blacks, back in the day.  This is unfortunate, because around here every male under the age of about 75 is a “boy.”  I am my father’s boy and everyone in town knows me as such and will know me as such until I die.

I once had to explain to a lawyer from Minnesota the broad outlines of “boy” and its permutations, because they are not co-extensive.  Specifically, if you wish to understand and be understood around here, you need to know, among other intricacies, the distinctions between boy, ol’ boy, good boy, and good ol’ boy.  As mentioned, every male under 75 is a boy:  “Earnest that boy he just won’t get that no one’s gonna give him more than $1,500 an acre for that farm of his daddy’s.”  (Notice the triple subject, a common grammatical construct around here.)  An ol’ boy is generally (of course, context is everything, as usual) a boy who ain’t no account:  “Clarence?  That ol’ boy ain’t taken a sober breath since spring of 1963 and I don’t reckon he’s about to start now.”  A good boy will show up on Sunday afternoon after church and pressure wash his widow neighbor lady’s front porch:  “Junior’s a awful good boy; he’s been Real Good to his momma since his daddy passed.”  A good ol’ boy might have laid out of church because he had him a couple or fifteen too many Saturday evening, and he might be carrying a twelve-pack when he shows up, but he’ll still come over on Sunday afternoon and pressure wash his widow neighbor lady’s front porch:  “Shirley’s jus’ a good ol’ boy; he ain’t goin’ nowhere but he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”]

I recall when Barbershop came out.  I enjoyed it, sufficiently so that I bought the movie on DVD some time later.  In addition to being funny I thought it interesting how the character of the goof-ball white boy is handled.  Most of the time, of course, if there’s a black character in a mainstream movie he’s the one who sticks out, and it’s his mode of expression, of existence, that is “treated” as being the non-standard.  He’s the dramatic contrast, in other words.  Barbershop exactly flips that; it’s the white guy who’s the mustard splotch on the shirt front.  But most of why that movie resonated with me had Zero to do with the physical attributes of the actors and actresses.  I liked that movie because that’s where I go to get my hair cut.  And the social role the shop plays in that movie neighborhood is exactly what my barbershop plays here in my own county.  We don’t have a Checker Fred down at the arcade, but there used to be a barbershop just off Main Street here (curiously enough, the guy who ran that shop happened to be black) and there was some boy — when I met him he must have been in his 60s — who hung out there who’d bet you the price of the drink that he could finish a coke faster than you could.  I saw it done, too; he had the talent of being able to swallow without swallowing, so to speak, and he could kill a standard bottle of Coke in about ten seconds.  That’s not an exaggeration, by the way.  So when I saw Barbershop it felt like meeting a bunch of old friends.

Among the many reasons why I chose to raise my own boys back here is so that they will have — I hope — the chance to experience places like the barbershop.  They’re places which communicate, very subtly, the message that Here is Where You Belong.  You don’t have necessarily to stay here, but I suggest that everyone needs a hole, so speak, that fits his own shape perfectly, and into which he can ease himself. 

Nowadays they call it “alienation,” a fashionable name for the feeling you get when you realize that there’s no place for you, that you don’t belong anywhere.  Observe by the way that belonging everywhere is belonging nowhere.  “Alienation” is a hobby indulged in by people who spend a tremendous amount of energy contemplating how alienated they are.  I remember back in 2008, when Dear Leader was running against McCain.  I ran across a quotation from one of Dear Leader’s (apparently ghost-written, it seems) books . . . about himself, of course.  He talks about how “alienated” he felt, and I realized that there was no better contrast between the two candidates than that word.  John McCain grew up in the Navy, likely still keeps in touch with his Academy classmates, and survived years of torture (at the hands of people whose eventual victory Dear Leader celebrates) only by forging a tightly-knit web of surreptitious support and communication with his fellow prisoners (read In Love and War, Admiral Stockdale’s joint memoir with his wife; that’s what John McCain survived).  I wonder whether McCain even understands the notion of feeling “alienated.”

“Alienation” is, like so much else, something of a choice.  I have a very dear friend who recently departed from the Big City to a smallish town out in what he probably grew up thinking of as The Sticks.  Among his other hats, he wears one as Musician, specifically jazz/swing (although he also plays other stuff as well, those seem to be his home).  What with Life and All, I haven’t seen him in years, but keep up, more or less, via Facebook.  I’ve watched years of his posts now, and a great deal of them deal with the perceived contrast between Places Where There are Hep Cats, and places where there are not.  I gather his new home is a Place Where There are Squares, and he seems to lament that fact.  Poor boy.  He needs him a barbershop.  He needs to drop that Squares vs. Hep Cats shit and go volunteer at the local humane society shelter.  Get involved in Meals on Wheels.  Call the local high school band director and see if the drum line could do with a volunteer helper.  Join the Rotary or Kiwanis.  Show up at the booster club’s pancake breakfast. 

He needs to find his barbershop, and until he does, I’m afraid he’s doomed to feel “alienated.”

One thought on “On Barbershops

  1. I love this! I struggled to find my boy a good barbershop and lucked up on one a few miles down the road. The floor tiles are black and white. You get a drink from the fridge and leave money in a box. Each child gets to pick a Hot Wheel and a lollipop after the haircut. Two women and three men cut only boy/man hair. One of the barbers happens to be the sitting mayor of a somewhat sports-famous little town many miles down the interstate — comes over to cut hair to get away from the politics so he can make some money. Listening to what’s said in his local shop when he’s barbering there — now that would be something. Bet there’s not a pothole in the town that doesn’t walk in to present itself during his barbering hours!

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