Saturday, August 15, 2009


Haircuts today are nothing like they used to be. I can remember telling my mother that a haircut cost a dollar, which was actually a quarter more that it really cost. This gave me an extra quarter to spend, usually on comic books. When Batman and Spiderman were only a dime each, this left a nickel to spend on a candy bar. I had to buy the comic books one at a time, since any purchase over twenty-two cents was subject to a penny sales tax. I can remember how angry I was when the price of a comic book was raised to twelve cents each. I had to scrape together more money, usually by a careful search under the living room sofa cushions, or forget the candy bar.

In any case, I always got the haircut first. And for this I had to walk to a barbershop. Barbershops are almost gone now, replaced by salons and styling centers with cute names like ‘The Klip Shop’ or ‘Unisex Center’. This is a real shame, because barbershops weren’t about cutting hair, they were more like men’s clubs.

The barbershops of my youth were smaller than the hair salons of today. Big enough for two or three barbers, they were small narrow shops usually paneled in wood, with a row of plain chairs down one wall, and barber chairs along the other. At the front of the shop was the cash register, at the back was a shoe shine stand. Discreetly put aside in a wooden box under the shoe shine stand were magazines different from the fishing and hunting magazines liberally distributed among the chairs. Needless to say, children weren’t allowed to read the other magazines.

All along the walls were stuffed deer heads, antlers, and photographs of other hunts. The conversations among the men in the shop were usually about hunting, or fishing, or camping.

The male barbers, for there were no women cutting hair, stood behind the massive barber chairs. Each of these was a work of art. Ornate cast steel with intricate patterns of scroll work and gleaming gratings. Stuffed leather cushions. A foot rest that could be flipped back and forth between two positions for maximum comfort (actually, since my feet would just barely reach it, gave me something to play with while my hair was being cut). Best of all was that the entire chair swiveled, reclined, and could be raised and lowered by pumping a long lever that operated a hydraulic cylinder under the chair. By comparison, a dentist’s chair was a mere child’s high chair.

When it was your turn to have your hair cut, you walked forward with a mixture of fear and hope. What if the barber thought you needed a booster seat? Once safely seated, with a length of toilet paper clipped around your neck and covered with a large cotton apron, the haircut itself was a series of ear nips, head twists, and chin lifts, all of this accompanied by the feeling of hair falling down your face. I can remember desperately wanting to scratch my nose, but I was determined to wait it out. A barbershop was a place for men, and you never heard a barber tell a grown man to sit still.

The barber rarely had to ask you how you wanted hair cut. After all, it had only been two weeks since your last visit. Besides, there were only about three main styles. The regular cut with a part on one side, the crew cut, and the flat top. And some features were universal; long sideburns were those that extended to the middle of the ear and the back of the neck was bare well above the collar.

Finally, the barber would finish cutting your hair, and he would turn the chair around to face the mirror behind him. “What kind of hair tonic do you want?” he would ask.

On the shelves behind the barber were glass jars full of combs, an assortment of scissors, and drawers and small wooden cabinets full of electric clippers. In a long line in front of the mirror were long-necked bottles of hair oil. The greasy contents of these bottles differed little in viscosity, but greatly in fragrance.
“I want the one with Hop-Along Cassidy on it,” I would always answer.

The barber would lift the bottle with the picture of my favorite cowboy and shake onto my head enough oil to lubricate the family car. This oil was massaged into my hair in such a manner that after my hair was combed, a blue norther’ blowing through town couldn’t have mussed a single hair.

Now that my haircut was complete, the barber would remove the apron from around my neck with a flourish and loud pop, all the hair clippings falling to the floor around me. Has anyone ever watched all that hair accumulate on the floor without wondering if there was some possible use for it?

If I had been older, the elderly black man who shined shoes in the back of the shop would have stepped forward at this point with a whisk broom lightly dusted with scented talcum powder to help remove the last trace of hair clippings from my clothes. At my age, I was unlikely to part with a tip, so the barber would lift the air gun from its hook, stretch out the long hose and blow any remaining hair from my neck and shoulders. This usually just blew the hair down my shirt where it scratched and tickled me for the rest of the day. It was a fitting tribute to the American petroleum industry that my hair did not need combing after this operation.

Not being an adult did have one compensation. Bubble gum. When you paid the barber, he gave you a piece of bubble gum that was better than anything you could buy in a store. And it was big, a giant cylindrical piece of pink gum in a blue and red wrapper.

Barbershops were always closed on Sundays and Mondays. Someone convinced me into believing there was a law forbidding barbers from working on Mondays. I always had visions of an army of barbers off in the woods hunting and fishing every Monday. After all, this was the main topic of conversation in the barbershop. By the time I was a teenager, I must have listened to a hundred discussions concerning the merits of various bass boats and endless debates pitting the .30-06 against the .30-30 for the title of ‘Best Deer Gun’.

Every Sunday, I received instruction in the official religion. But it was at the barbershop that a boy received his education in the unofficial religion. That was where I heard my first political argument, and where I learned my community’s opinions on subjects ranging from the condition of this year’s crops to foreign policy.

There was a real tradition of democracy in the barbershop, too. Every man got to speak his opinion, especially when he was sitting in the chair getting his hair cut. The barbers would solicit opinions, ask questions to get the conversation started, and then mediate the argument. While it might be rare for a barber to actually disagree with a customer, he could ask another customer for an opposing viewpoint. This was pretty rich stuff for a boy to listen to.

I wonder what is taking the place of the barbershop today. Hair salons may be cutting the hair, but that was only one of the jobs done by old-style barbers. Where are all the other jobs being done? It seems that today, boys, and maybe the men, too, are missing a lot of fun.

One more pleasure is gone, too. The best part of the haircut was the walk home. No one ever walked slower than a boy with fresh cut hair, munching on a candy bar, and totally absorbed in the life or death perils of Batman.

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