When I was young, haircuts were an easy chore. Every month my mom sent me to a family friend. So I sat in the center of Mrs. C’s kitchen on a wooden stool draped in a plastic poncho. But before the cut, Mrs. C would wet my hair in the kitchen sink. Her long fingers through my bushy hair relieved any tension I accumulated throughout the day. The rush of warm water against the stainless steel sink drowned any geography questions that remained. The smell of dinner cooking on the stove reminded me there was more to life than adverb assimilations and pie charts. But before I drifted any further into the warm water, Mrs. C pulled my head out of the sink, picked any carrot shavings out of my hair and went to work.
Even though Mrs. C tried to maintain a sense of focus on the task at hand, there was always a constant flurry of action to divert her attention. There was the dinner to be made and laundry to load. Her kids would dart in and neighbors would open the back door. Cool autumn winds would skirt across the wooden floor and raisie my plastic poncho, sending freshly cut hair into the air.
Then the phone would ring.
If the phone call was for one of Mrs. C’s kids, they would chat away while taking a peek at dinner. If the call was for Mrs. C, she would pull the phone with the long green cord back to the stool.
As Mrs. C chatted, I kept my eye on the cord to make sure she did not circle too many times and form a noose. I also tried not to listen even though she was six inches from my ear. Instead, I returned to the day and tried to remember if President Johnson came before Grant and what was the capital of Delaware? I then tried to devise a plan to stay for dinner for what was cooking on the range was a lot closer than what waited at home.
After Mrs. C hung up the phone, a brief moment quiet fell over the kitchen and we were even afforded an opportunity to catch up on the day.
MRS. C: So, how are you today?
ME: Pretty good!
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
MRS. C: How was school?
ME: School’s school.
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
ME: And how are you today, Mrs. C?
MRS. C: Pretty good!
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
ME: How’s the home front?
MRS. C: Home front’s doing fine.
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
ME: Can I stay for dinner?
MRS. C: No!
Mostly a hush fell over the room while Mrs. C worked and I waited. It was a quiet time, a nice time, a moment where I was able to sit back and listen to the television softly playing in the living room, the low hum of the dryer tumbling towels in the mudroom, the coffee pot perking on the counter, the low-heated burp of spaghetti sauce on the stove, the warm breath of Mrs. C on the back of my neck, the sharp slice of curly hair being cut one centimeter from my ear, the crinkle of the plastic poncho as I shifted and the gentle sigh as I remembered my own dinner lay a far, far away. (Four blocks.)
When I went off to college, the consistent haircuts came to an abrupt halt. No longer would Mrs. C cut my hair. No longer did I have a routine. To reflect my current financial status I needed my haircut to look lean and stretch the seasons. For the first time in my life I had to find a barber.
I found a place a few miles from my parent’s new home in Omaha, Nebraska. The name of the barbershop was The Viking and the barber’s name was Burle. Hearing those two words in association with hair would send most people running from the shop. After all, the Vikings were Scandinavian sea pirates not known for personal hygiene, and the name Burle is a Middle English term meaning “knotted hair”. But I went anyway for I was searching for a barber to look at my bushy hair and shave it all off.
When I stepped into the barbershop, I thought I was going to see a merry ole time of men drinking mead, singing songs of war. What I found instead were guys sitting in a small lobby reading the newspaper, watching TV and shooting the breeze.
Every guy in the lobby looked like he didn’t need a haircut for the next six months. I had a difficult time figuring out who already had a haircut, who was waiting and who stopped by just to get out of the house. Since I did not know, I did not fret. It was a Saturday with nothing else on the calendar. So, I grabbed a chair, perused a Field and Stream magazine and soaked up the atmosphere.
The conversations were kept to a friendly level with topics ranging from the weather and vacations to hunting and fishing. And when it came to sports, the only team worth mentioning in the state of Nebraska is University of Nebraska’s football team.
Cornhusker football is to the state of Nebraska what Judaism is to the state of Israel. Every Nebraskan worships the Cornhuskers. And when my parents lived there, everybody followed the teachings of the Head Rabbi, Coach Tom Osborne. Coach Osborne was a living icon that built a football dynasty on the Great Plains that will be matched by no other. When the Cornhuskers played other teams, they did not just beat them. They husked them. And even though every good Nebraskan knew how the game would end before it even started, the whole state shut down on Saturday afternoon to turn on a TV or radio:
Good afternoon sports fans as the Cornhuskers of the University of Nebraska host the Kansas Jayhawks in what poses to be a great day for Big Eight Football. With a 7 and 0 record, the University of Nebraska is coming off an impressive win over the Iowa State Cyclones with a final score of 88 to 3. Even with the convincing win, Head Coach, Tom Osborne, could not stress the disappointment in his defense’s inability to post a shut out. Head Coach of Kansas, Bob Keane, is coming off his first win of the season with a victory over his in-state rivals, the Kansas State Wildcats. Interested in maintaining his current winning streak, Coach Keane suggested postponing today’s game. He suggested a possible date of, and I quote, “The day after I retire.”
The Cornhuskers took their first play from scrimmage and posted their first touchdown before I took my next breath. Before I turned a page from my magazine, they had a 21 point lead. The game was over before it even started. So Burle turned down the radio and waved me to the chair.
Burle knew only one hairstyle. Learning his trade in the Army, he could look at any mane of hair and shave it down until nothing was left. But in those passing swipes, I found Burle to be a great conversationalist. He talked about vacation destinations, hunting for pheasant and where to find a decent steak. He talked about a great and many things that should have filled me with interest except for one thing…
ME: That sounds great, but I don’t know how I would get to any of these places. My car is dead.
BURLE: Car won’t start?
ME: Not even a click.
BURLE: Could be the battery?
ME: Battery’s brand new.
BURLE: Could be the connection?
ME: The connection is clean.
BURLE: Could be the distributor cap?
ME: The what?
BURLE: A crack in the distributor cap. Did you leave your car in the rain last night?
ME: I did.
BURLE: There you go. There’s moisture in your distributor cap. No sparks can ignite.
ME: What should I do?
BURLE: Pop the hood, open the distributor cap and dry it out with your sister’s hairdryer.
ME: What about my hairdryer?
BURLE: Son, after I’m done with you, you’ll never need a hairdryer again.
Even though I paid five bucks for a haircut, I saved a couple of hundred dollars on an unnecessary trip to the auto mechanic. In fact, I found myself going to Burle, not so much for the haircut, but for the wisdom he spouted every time he set down the electric clippers.
But as time passed and the seasons became cooler, I wanted a little more on top.
I heard there was a salon just down the street from my college in Yankton, SD that offered discounts to students on Tuesday afternoons. The name of the place was The Hair Affair. It sounded exotic, like a cozy French cathouse where a young lad could stow away for a quiet afternoon, neglecting his studies while a mademoiselle caressed his hair.
That was my vision but reality greeted me when I entered the salon. Instead of a parlor filled with wine, music and women from the four corners of the globe, The Hair Affair reminded me of The Viking. It was tiny place where the beauticians worked at stations that stood side by side. Also, there were plenty of women who sat in the crowded lobby either waiting for their appointment or just staying around to chat. Again, I could not distinguish where I sat in line. And since women do not get haircuts but instead have their hair styled, I was in no position to determine.
I looked at the magazine collection that ranged from Redbook to Good Housekeeping and felt a little out of my element. So I waited and listened. And as I listened, I began to realize that women enjoy the social aspect of their haircuts as much as men. They love to talk about their boyfriends, their families, the latest fashions, and since my college was so close to the Nebraska border, they also talked of Cornhusker Football.
I also learned the average woman’s hair appointment lasts six days longer than a man’s. Men usually take five minutes in the chair and head back into the lobby to finish their coffee. When women are finished with the haircut, the process only begins. From there the beautician switches from combs to refined scissors to prim and perm her client’s hair to deified perfection.
I watched one of the beauticians work the finishing touches on an elderly lady’s gray bouquet of hair. To my misunderstanding on what I thought was the end – as the beautician blew dry and combed her client’s hair – was only an interlude. And for thirty more minutes the beautician made sure that every single gray hair on her client’s head rested in a graceful state.
I gazed out the window and saw the November winds whip scattered leaves into squalls of mini tornadoes.
I turned to the haircut as the beautician kept switching scissors and combs like a neurosurgeon involved in a delicate procedure.
I glanced back at the parking lot and saw a tumbleweed roll into a grove of trees.
I turned to the hair couple. The intricate care the beautician devoted to this elderly lady’s hair was something I had never seen before. It went beyond a simple haircut or style. It was becoming a work of art, a labor of love, perhaps a selfless act of living beauty.
I looked to the parking lot one last time to see the winds bending a small tree to the ground.
What was this hair couple thinking? Everything they had worked on for the past hour would be null and void the second the lady opened the door.
I sunk further into my plastic chair as the hair-ballet moved into its final movement. And as I watched, I listened to the howling winds beating up against the fiberglass awnings, the low hum of a barber chair being raised, the perk of steam juicing the hair curlers in a foggy machine, the dull splash of warm water swirling in a plastic sink, the murmur of quiet conversation, a muted hairdryer, the single snip of one gray hair drifting slowly to the ground and the faint cry of country music from a monotone AM radio that provided the underlying current for everything in the room.
(VERSE) You said you use to love me, but now you just don’t care. Goodbye, Virginia, once more. After seven long years of heartache, I guess it’s time to part. Goodbye, Virginia, once more. Your heart fell out of lovin’ when I called you Lenore. Goodbye, Virginia, once more. You said the third time’s forgiven, but the fourth time nevermore. Goodbye, Virginia, once more. (REFRAIN) Goodbye, Virginia, I guess it’s adios. Goodbye, Virginia, don’t forget to close the door.
Eventually, the elderly gray hair lady paid up and stepped outside. My eyes didn’t follow for I didn’t have the heart to look. Besides, it was my turn in the chair.
From what I could gather on my first visit to The Hair Affair, a “style” was a way of rearranging my hair without really cutting it. The beautician moved the scissors around my head and always created the appearance of cutting, but in reality she just wet my hair, combed it back and snipped it to the point where I had to come in the next Tuesday for another appointment. (It took me three months to figure this out.)
By the time I finished college, I thought it was time to invest in a nice haircut. My brother, Chad, may have provided the impetus. He always prided himself on his appearance and even had a stylist. Like having a lawyer on retainer, Chad worked with someone who represented his hair.
I beseeched him to set an appointment.
CHAD: You really want Damien to cut your hair?
ME: That’s his name?
CHAD: Yeah… Why?
ME: Sounds kind of satanic.
CHAD: Damien is not the devil, but he’s good. He might even be able to help you.
ME: How many greenbacks?
CHAD: Since you know me, I can get you in for twenty-five dollars.
ME: Twenty-five dollars? I was getting haircuts at The Hair Affair for four.
CHAD: Well, you got your money’s worth. Do you want in?
I did and Chad set up the appointment.
Damien worked for a salon named Claude’s. It was not the typical chop shop. It was a place that catered to the whims of the Omaha elite. Claude’s was everything a salon should be: reclusive and selective.
I collected my money and told Chad I was ready. Chad took the day off and guided me through the nooks and private rooms to one of the back stations where Damien worked. They sat me down in the barber’s chair and talked about what they wanted to do.
For some reason I became a non-factor in the decision-making. I was a car Chad brought to the auto mechanic. And since I was on foreign terrain, I decided to keep quiet. Chad and Damien knew what they were doing. They had the hair to prove it. And between the two of them they went to work.
When Damien set down his scissors and grabbed a mineral water, Chad handed the mirror over to me.
For the first time in my life I was introduced to the difference between a “style” and a “cut”. There was a difference between using the money from the change of a Happy Meal and putting serious dough into an image. Never had my hair looked so good. Never did I feel better about myself. There was a stranger in that mirror that I wanted to know.
Unfortunately, Damien moved onto New York. So I stepped back from the scene as quickly as I entered and found another barber by the name of Mark. He was only a block from my work in the Twin Cities, MN. His haircuts did not involve much style, but he also did not wield electric clippers while talking about his latest hunting expedition. In fact, he was pretty quiet, quieter than most and one day he packed up and moved on without a forwarding address.
After Mark, I gave up on haircuts for a while. I was tired of looking for the next Ms. C. Instead of monthly appointments seasons went by. My hair started to grow. Then it turned feral. It got so thick I couldn’t get a comb through it. I bought a hair pick but it could only do so much.
I started to look like an unemployed folk singer or a circus clown on his day off. My co-workers started to notice. One dug it more than the others. He was older than me with a wife and kids and probably a dog. He was about as conventional as the word would allow and he was happy that someone was willing to run counter to the normal office decorum.
“Let it grow,” he chuckled as he passed me in the hallway.
He saw in me some form of protest, but little did he know that it was so much less. I decided to get a haircut before I was accidentally swept into a movement. I didn’t know where to go so I asked others for advice. Some suggested a training academy.
Only once did I have my hair cut by someone still in school. Before Ms. C, Mom hauled us to a vo-tech school. I was the first one up and immediately had one of my ears clipped. Not much blood was drawn but it did leave an impression to NEVER GO BACK!
Still, this training academy was for those would go on to work at salons like Claude’s. So I decided to roll the dice.
I reserved an appointment with a trainee by the name of Michelle. I immediately liked her. She had a quiet disposition that didn’t fill the air with nervous chatter but imbued her surroundings with a pleasant calm. I enjoyed the experience so much I went back a couple more times during her training and even followed her to a salon in St. Paul.
Although I had to cross a major river (Mississippi), I justified the extra step for I felt like I was supporting a rookie looking to build a clientele. Plus, going to St. Paul felt more like a grooming pilgrimage as I made my way to the historic Cathedral Hill Neighborhood with homes of red quartz creating imposing facades usually reserved for banks and churches. Even the salon had the feel of a grotto with a low ceiling, no windows and Christmas lights draped from the exposed stone walls.
Michelle’s station receded into a small alcove and to walk back to her station was to leave the din of the day behind. To sit in her chair for 40 minutes and amiably talk about nothing was always a nice way to end the day.
I had found my new Ms. C.
As the seasons drifted, Michelle started to hone her skills and I reaped a nicer style. No longer did I look like an unemployed folk musician. I now looked like someone who ran away from the circus to join an accounting firm. Respectable and sharp, my hair started to get noticed at work, but this time they were followed with compliments.
One co-worker took me aside to add something more. Like the elderly lady at the Hair Affair, she also had a bouquet of fine gray hair. She asked me a question: “What’s the difference between a good and a bad haircut?”
“What,” I asked.
As Michelle’s clientele grew, she started to raise her rates. She was no longer a newbie looking for support but a stylist who could afford to take winter vacations to Mexico.
By chance I had an appointment on one of her returns. She was still wearing sandals as if she stepped right off the plane. Her normal pleasantness was even sunnier as a warm glow radiated from her tanned skin and professionally whitened smile. She may have been back in St. Paul cutting my hair, but a big part of her was still in Cancun with the music, the sand and the immense, warm sun slowly easing into the ocean.
On my way home I decided to take a leisurely drive down the historic Summit Avenue, a motorized promenade, as if I could roll back the clock a hundred years to tip my hat to Mr. Fitzgerald. After all, it’s not often you can schedule a time to look and feel good. Driving down Summit Avenue with its stately manors and august colleges, I was fully aware of the impermanence of the moment. Two weeks is not much time. Even Michelle would move to a more exclusive location. It would be a bridge too far, but that was for another time. At the moment the thin, setting sun was doing it best to shine, Summit Avenue was relatively clear of snow, a lively tune rattled from the speakers…
It was turning into a rather nice day.