Friday, February 27, 2015

A Search for the Perfect Haircut

The plight of a regular guy who just wants a regular haircut has been neglected by mainstream media because of two erroneous presumptions:  An average-looking fellow should have no difficulty obtaining a medium length hair that is parted on the side and any discussion about it will be boring. Neither is true. Appearance can and does affect the weay we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived by others. And since hair style is integral to the way we present ourselves, it is not surprising that there is a regular flow of opinion pieces that describe ways in which hairstyles can give insight into the wearer's personality, make fashion statements, create practical dilemmas, and impact budget. Even the traditionally male-dominated military has been so concerned about ways that hair can impact female members' morale that new regulations were written to allow ponytails that fall fewer than three inches below the collar, corn-rows of specified length and geometric design, and buns that are less wide than the wearer's head. 

To create proper context, it is necessary to revert to my childhood. My mother’s hairstyle was chosen by a caucus of my mother's mother, sister, and first-cousin.  I was inadvertently drawn into this process when I was left to fend for myself in the "beauty parlor" (now hair salon) waiting room. It took the better part of a wasted afternoon for this trio to have their hair washed, cut, colored, and "permed." Most intriguing was the row of shiny hair-drying hoods that looked like props from a low-budget science fiction movie. To combat boredom, I studied the lady clients as they came and went.  Even as a child, it was obvious that the term beauty in beauty parlor was being used rather loosely: “Looking better” parlor might have been more accurate. 

As a counter-point to these dreaded outings, every third or fourth Saturday morning my dad and I visited the local barbershop. It was dingy, narrow and sparsely furnished. There were a few chipped-paint mirrored-cabinets mounted above old-fashioned sinks that were never used. Three barber chairs sat in front of speckled grey linoleum that had been worn bare where the barber stood.  And five barely padded waiting chairs sat in front of a plate glass window with a blind opened just enough to let sunlight enter the room. These chairs always had at least two bored-looking occupants who would be seen before us regardless of our time of arrival. Despite the gradual morphing of beauty parlors into luxurious hair salons and a growth-industry,  this pragmatic simplicity has not changed much over the years. According to industry statistics, salons now outnumber barbershops by more than twenty to one. 

My father was a no nonsense kind of guy, and I came to appreciate the predictability of each barbershop visit. No appointment is needed and I expect a total weight time of about 20 minutes. I am not good with names, but regardless of which shop I visit, I only have to remember Richie, Tony, Frank (a.k.a. Frankie), and Vinnie. When these same barbers “style” hair in an upscale salon, their clients will know them as Richard, Anthony, Francis, and Vincenzo.

My haircut ritual does not vary much from one visit to the next.
“Hey Richie, how are things going?”
“Good.”
“Don’t cut my hair too short. I want it a little on the long side”
“Okay.”

The haircut takes less than ten minutes and my barber always cuts it too short. Then, he uses three brushes in the same sequence: A soft brush that applies lavender-scented sneeze-inducing talcum powder to my neck; a stiff bristled brush that rids me of itchy hair remnants, and a push broom that moves hair from the floor to some secret location.  When he is finished sweeping, I say, “Thanks. It looks nice.” I give him a tip and I am on my way. There are no surprises. this is not true for hair salons. They have lots surprises. During the middle ages, barbers cut hair but they also did blood-letting, tooth pulling, and minor surgery. (The red stripe on the barber’s pole is said to have originated from bloody rags draped over the pole.) Modern salons generate twenty billion dollars a year by offering a list of ancillary services that include poking cuticles with sharp objects, applying hot wax to yank out unwanted hair at the root, and rubbing mud on facial skin with the promise that it will glow and look more youthful.

With the admonition that I needed to spruce up my appearance, my wife sent me to a well-known hair salon. Danielle took me right on schedule ‒ which was disappointing because I like reading outdated magazines and reflecting on absolutely nothing. She covered me with a pink nylon smock instead of the familiar white and blue cotton variety.  I said, “Don’t make it too short.” She said. “Okay,” and began washing my hair. This was humiliating. I had washed my hair when I showered that morning and I was probably six years old the last time someone washed my hair for me. There was no chance of escape. The pink gown was like wearing prison orange and prevented me from rushing out into the street. As a peace offering for my “Is this really necessary?” she handed me a cup of coffee garnished with little hair clippings that moved aimlessly about its surface like tiny amoebae. Her animated monologue made me extremely nervous, not because of content, but because her pointed scissors were being waved dangerously close to my right eye. I learned the names of her three most recent boyfriends, which of them were cute, and why she did or did not like them.  My wife had prepped her that I was a physician, so she thought it reasonable to share that she was suffering from cramps and diarrhea. I hadn't said much, but now I was speechless: Tony or Vinnie would have required I.V. fluids and an ambulance before they would admit to having diarrhea.  When she finished, my new best friend (and patient) held up a mirror to show me parts of my head I had never seen before. And when I nodded acceptance, she sprayed it with enough shellac to keep it neat if I decided to walk through a wind tunnel.  Maybe the hair washing was needed to remove any foreign matter that might have been permanently plastered to my skull.  I smiled and said, “The haircut looks very nice.” Then I gave her a generous tip to go with the pricier bill, and I left.

Not admitting defeat, my wife vetted the next establishment more carefully. This time I was sent to a unisex “spa” where an unsmiling Asian woman bowed and offered me steaming lemon-scented towels for which I could find no useful purpose. I unfolded them, squeezed them into a ball, and put them back on the metal tray. As expected, there was no waiting, my hair was washed before it was cut, and this time I drank from a cup filled with bitter-tasting green tea. So far, everything was okay – except for the music. A real barber has a radio sitting on a shelf  plays upbeat 1960’s oldies; the barber' favorite opera favorite opera. or the third inning of a Yankee's game. Instead, I was listening to tinkling noises filtered through the sound of waves crashing on a stormy beach. Maybe this music was chosen because my shirt was soaked from a mishap that occurred during the hair-washing part of my haircut.  There was endless combing and snipping, snipping and combing, until the operator announced that we were almost finished. I skillfully eluded the hair spray but I was unprepared for what came next.  I closed my eyes when she began to gently massage my neck. I opened them wide when she began using her knuckles to “loosen tight muscles” that were probably caused by the stress from the haircut. When she held up a mirror so I could examine the back of my head , I was almost too distracted by the red welts to notice that now my hair was too long. It looked exactly as it did before it was cut. I told her that “It looked nice,” gave her a generous tip, and walked down the block to wait in line at Richie’s barbershop.             # # #


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