06 May 2011

On Haircuts

J. Alfred Prufrock chose to measure out his empty life in coffee spoons; I have always considered that Prufrock by this accounting he would somehow assess the character of his life based in the number of tea parties he had attended and the spoonful of sugars he had dropped into his cup and with which he stirred the liquid while engaged in small talk with the ladies that he met. It is a meager means of measure, I think, regardless of the amount of coffee drunk. But then, Prufrock is an insignificant man. 
But today I am considering some measurement of my life in terms of the haircuts I have experienced. Now, I am not considering the quantity of them, in fact, but rather, the defining nature of the tonsorial experience and what it might suggest about the particular contexts of my life in which those cuts took place. As Prufrock’s coffee spoons define the quality of his life, so might the shedding of my locks offer some insight into the progress of my existence. After all, a boy-man’s haircuts are not insignificant events: Samson’s original restyling, after all, served as a defining moment in his life! 
But I think that any boy’s first haircut marks a major milestone in his maturity. Then, when my first visit to the barber took place, there were no ‘children’s’ barbers but only barbers who cut children’s hair. When I grew up the task of taking the child to the barber was often assigned to his stay-at-home mother, probably because weekends were never long enough to accommodate all of the heads requiring cutting, and on weekdays men were usually at places of employment. But I want to think that my first visit to the barbershop occurred on a Saturday afternoon, and so I am going to allow my father to be in attendance at the momentous event. Before the advent of puberty, before the first day of public school, the ritual of the first haircut looms large in the mythology of parenthood, and I want to give my father an opportunity to participate here, though in fact, I honestly don’t recall anything about the actual event itself. Much of what I will describe derives from later observations and television. And not a little fantasy. 
When I was ready for my first haircut (I suspect at the age of about four or five) my parents took me to the local barbershop. This emporium was a rectangularly shaped room of some size (at so it must have seemed to the rather diminutive four-five year old). There were four or five barber chairs—heavy steel structures with considerable cushions on the arms and seat and in my memory either wine-colored or slate blue in hue. There remains in my mind some connection between early barber chairs and the dentist chairs I later learned to dread. Indeed, I may have conflated the two seats, and though I no longer dread work on my hair, I still tremble at thoughts of my visits to the dentist. Of course, outside the front door of the former was the red and white candy-striped pole identifying the establishment as the barbershop. Outside the latter  . . . well, usually there was a lollipop and a waiting automobile. 
The barber himself was dressed in a short white coat—not unlike the garb of a lab technician today—and he appears in my imagination a portly and older man (at least older than the father, and certainly seemingly ancient in the eyes of the young boy) atop whose head rested a well-coiffed but sometimes thinning gray nest of hair. Often he had an accent—in my memory I identify it as Italian—and he always smiled a bit loudly. My parents probably lifted me onto the chair, and as the barber cut my hair they would engage me in small talk in an attempt to distract me from the proceedings. 
I wonder what it is that frightens young boys about their first haircut—is it the nature and size of the scissors? Perhaps it is the public nature of the denuding that produces such terror. Maybe the boy-child’s screaming occurs as a response to the feeling of being assaulted, of having all control taken away, and of being placed in a condition of feeling abused. 
At the end of the ordeal, the relieved parents treat would smilingly lift the young child out of the chair (in this case that would be me!) with the promise of a reward of an ice cream sundaes or some other sweet treat: this reward was probably earlier offered as some enticement to permit the violence of the haircut to be perpetrated upon him. 
After that first traumatic experience, haircuts became rather routine and regular. I do not recall being at all consulted on either the timing or the styling of these events. During the winter months my hair was allowed to grow long, but during the summer months it was razed into a crew cut for which was purchased some heavy wax that made the front of my hair line stand up straight, in a perverse imitation of a girl’s bangs. At these events the barber would grab his electronic clipper and simply mow from front to back, leaving, as I have suggested, just enough hair to stand erect! 
I do recall a very brief time, as well, when during my later adolescence I was permitted to visit the barbershop by myself. Unlike today when appointments are highly recommended, then a pre-planned visit to the barber was not necessary usually; if the establishment was crowded—as on any Saturday it was likely to be—the proprietor (I don’t recall the presence of receptionists) would simply declare how long the wait would be, and I would joyfully take a seat along the back wall next to the magazine table. There, I could find the newest issues of Playboy or Esquire, and I could for a brief time engage my adolescent fantasies in the relative anonymity of the man’s barber shop looking at photos of naked women and reading sexual advice from the Playboy adviser. At that time, women patronized beauty parlors and only men frequented barbershops, (except, of course, the parents of those younger children spoken of earlier, and they were usually too distracted by the event to take any note of my sensational reading materials). Waiting for an available barber, I felt free to indulge my libido in relative freedom until my turn was called and I turned reluctantly from the photos to the interview. But the barbershop had turned into a legitimate refuge and resource for my exploding sexuality. 
At some moment, of course, the sex turned real (never early enough!) and the refusal to allow one’s hair to be cut turned into an active rebellion—this decision was ascribed to the influence of culture, of course—this was the 1960’s and there was Hair and plenty of it. But I think some personal rebellion attached to the anathema of having one’s hair cutI had hated those crew cutsand this tonsorial rebellion represented perhaps some response experience of the powerless of childhood. Barbershops were now religiously avoided, and unshorn locks became de rigeur
The loss of a large part of the hair cutting population required barber shops to open their establishments to new clientele—women—and so as to provide some comfort to their new customers the proprietor would hire a single woman hair stylist. And because she was accustomed to dealing with longer hair, she could when needed, also handle the longer locks of the traditional male customers who slowly filtered back in albeit, as irregular customers. As more men and women began to frequent such establishments, more women were hired, and barbershops and beauty parlors became hair salons and Playboy was replaced with People and Esquire became Vogue and Working Mother
At some point, I believe somewhere in the early to mid-1980s, I began to be concerned with the quality of the cut. I cannot say exactly what provoked this new vanity, but shopping for hair stylists became common practice. I recall a conversation with my dear friend Larry regarding the proper etiquette when sitting in the stylist’s chair. It was his custom, he averred, to talk and joke with the stylist so as to ensure that they remain kindly towards him. I held that it was best not to talk with the stylist at all for fear that by the conversation they might become distracted; I carried in with me heavy tomes of scholarly work to ward off anything but polite talk and simple direction. Bad hair days became now a cliché. In beauty colleges students learned how to trim moustaches and beards and to fluff and flatter their male clients. It no longer seemed emasculating to occupy the chair next to a woman having her hair bleached. 
And that is how things remained until yesterday when I went in for my regular hair appointment. These days I visit the salon every three or four weeks, but I had been unable to make my regular appointment last week and so I was just a bit behind schedule. I think I looked a week behind schedule. And as I seated myself in the comfy chair and looked in the mirror before me, I saw a man in his mid-sixties staring at himself while behind him, smiling beautifully and running her hands through my hair, was a young, beautiful woman not too much older than my daughtermy stylist! And I was completely bemused by the situation: in fact, I could have been this child’s grandfather, and the smile on her face was not meant to be alluring or seductive as I might once have considered or even hoped, but was, I thought, just a bit . . . well, patronizing. And why not: I was probably almost three times her age and probably a big tipper, if she treated me carefully enough she would benefit from my age and largesse. As I glanced in the mirror all I saw was a scruffy, disheveled older man, and behind him, this lovely young girl whose responsibility it would be to make respectable this very disheveled and forlorn man. She looked at me warmly and with great sympathy; I looked back at this lovely child and couldn’t even fantasize. 
I wondered if I dared to eat a peach?


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