Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Haircut and a Shave, Two Bits

I don’t remember my first haircut, which is probably for the best. According to the family album, I was crying (at least in the picture I was crying), and my mother can attest to this or not, but I think I was because the barber cut my ear. Nice for a lasting memory of a barbershop. That and—maybe I just created this tale out of thin air as part of the woven fabric that is my own personal egocentric legend— but I remember her using Scotch tape to seal the wound on the lobe of my ear. Maybe due to this experience and probably countless horrific hatchet jobs I've enjoyed over the years, I’ve grown to loath a visit to the barber shop, and obviously since the last time you saw me my hair wasn’t down to my knees, I do go quite regularly, maybe every six weeks or so.

It isn’t that my head gets heavy from hair, whose does? But there usually comes a time toward the end of that six week period when my hair just feels thick, hard to manage and cumbersome. It is a mental weight as my one and only example of vanity consumes most of my thoughts after I've first noticed that my hair is just too long or too thick or too much of everything. This is no more noticable than when I actually have to break out the brush for a few days and comb it…with a part even (and frankly, when I part my hair I think I look like an alter boy on his first day on the job, only poofier)… instead of just washing it, toweling it off and running my fingers through it for some excuse for style. Maybe it shows, but I don’t spend a lot of time on my hair, I never have. In fact, one time I came home from Great Clips, a ship-themed haircut place, with a bottle of hair gel and Kara laughed at me...not with me, but right at me. It wasn’t one of those “aren’t you cute wanting to make your hair look extra nice” laughs; it was more of a “you got suckered into buying hair products like a girl, laugh-at-me” laugh. She was right, I only used it a couple of times and decided that it made my hair look like an oil tanker crash site, so it eventually crusted over in the back of the drawer like that cement glue they had in grade school—the kind that could clear your sinuses with one whiff—and it didn’t make it into the box for the move to the new house.

Believe it or not, but I’m apparently a sucker for a gimmicky barbershop name, and back when I was a kid, we had a couple of doozies in my hometown: The Hair Force was one I remember fondly. I went there once, unimpressed by the lack of Air Force thematic elements in the place, as once you were inside there was nothing remarkable about it, and the walls were this ghastly peach/bisque/papaya color, you know, what the inside of skin looks like. Then there was The China Clipper, and I think I only went there because it was next to the much frequented Round Table and I could ride my bike, but it ended up being more China and less clipper ship in theme (they had a painting of a clipper ship in the window lest you forgot their origins). I don’t know if clipper ships ever went to China or not, but the two just didn’t mesh well, and I think I only got my hair cut there a couple of times. Plus, I didn't speak Chinese at the time, so explaining that my hair felt "poofy" to an old woman with scissors who nodded at me a lot was difficult to say the least. I think regardless of what I explained, she gave me the haircut a young American kid needed... in 1955 Mainland China.

Down the street and around the corner on Glendora Avenue, in the old Ralph’s shopping center (now a CVS or an auto parts place) was a man’s man barbershop. It was true to the term in every regard. It was the place you'd expect to find when you hear the word barbershop… no styling was done there. No cosmetology certificate hung on the wall, only dusty pictures of dead prize fighters, old race horses, the front page of a newspaper telling about the landing on the moon and a few pictures of very old hair styles for very old men. Hair gel was axle grease, and they had those little black combs in the blue juice. You left there smelling like Old Spice and the powder fluffed on you by the horse-tail brush, and for some reason, I always left there feeling around 60-years old. Gruff old men hung out there to watch the fight, read the paper and complain that the current president is far worse than any they can rightly remember, and they smoked, a lot. I think people could spit on the floor if they were so inclined, and the reading material of choice during your wait were business rags, Sports Illustrated and any kind of firearms magazines. The guy running the place (I don’t remember the name of it even), had a beard and looked a lot like what I would expect Black Bart to look like if he cut pirate’s hair back in the days of plunder and pillage, and when you walked in there, no bright-eyed recent cosmetology grad called you hun or gave you a warm smile; it was a curt “be with you in a minute,” a grumbling “take a seat,” and a chain-rattling “hold still or I’m going to cut your damn head off.”

Needless to say, I only went there a couple of times, as it was just too rough around the edges for my tastes; plus, I got that old-man-stubble feeling on the back of my neck.

For the most part, I visited the Haircut Store, simple, easy, quick and there were plenty of stylists on hand at any given moment. It was in the Vons shopping center next door to a pet store, turned flower store, turned water store, turned Starbucks. My dad had a choice description of the place (ask him when you see him), and he was completely right, but for an adolescent, getting your hair cut by a young 20-something with mid-drift, cleavage and wonderful perfume was the closest thing a 15-year-old could get to a lap dance, and it was far cheaper to boot. Who could blame me for enjoying a shampoo and some flighty conversation about what older women are actually like? Hell, that got me married!

Once in college, there was a haircut place on campus, and since it was closer to where I lived at the time (on campus) I frequented there for a couple of years. They served tequila shots to special guests (one of my fraternity brothers was cozy with the owner), and I guess that after a couple of those, regardless of the quality of service, every haircut looked perfect. Is that part of my scalp supposed to show? Don’t worry, another shot? Nobody told me that friends don’t let friends drink and sheer. Plus, they were usually free, the shots and the haircut, as they made enough money from the regular population so they could always cut us a break.

Now, it’s changed quite a bit for me. No tequila shots. No tip-hungry flirty girls accidentally brushing their chest up against the back of my 15-year-old neck. No gun magazines. No spitting on the floor. No relaxing shampoos. I just don’t enjoy getting a haircut anymore (I guess you saw that coming, right?). Excuse the pun, but it is all cut and dry at this new place. Get in, get out. I’m not much for idle chatter, and the place that I go now, Great Clips, I have never seen the same girl working there twice, so it’s impossible to get a rapport with anyone. My name and style particulars are in the computer so the conversation is a study in minimalist communications, and I usually try to be as vague as possible just to see what they’ll do (it’ll grow back, it always does):

Stylist (I dare call her a barber, as I think a barber is a man): Ryan, we’re ready for you. Still want a Number Two (in reference to the length of the clippers)?
Me: Yep. It’s always a little thick too.
Stylist: How much do you want off the top?
Me: Just enough so it won’t lay down, but not too much so it sticks up.
Stylist: Do you square it off in the back or is it rounded?
Me: I don’t know, I rarely look back there.
Stylist: How about your sideburns?
Me: About a half inch on the left and three-quarters on the right (which usually elicits a cheap laugh).

That’s roughly it on an average visit. The girls are like hair hookers, there for the job, cut the chitchat and worry about the tip at the end. They’re not interested in what I do for a living, and they probably can’t image it’s too much since I’m usually there on some random Thursday afternoon. I’m not interested in their lives as much as they’re not about mine, but I sometimes ask questions about their scissors, if I notice something new, and I’m always amazed at the extraordinary cost of something so simple.

My last visit was only a week ago, as I wanted to get my hair cut for Natalie’s party; it was getting a little unruly in my opinion. Nobody was there, so I was in and out in a matter of 20 minutes or so. The girl that cut my hair was especially chatty, but I didn’t mind because I didn’t have to say anything, just a few nods and “uh-hun” in the right places and she kept on about cosmetology school, how many heads she screwed up along the way, how long her first haircut took and how many times she cut herself over the years. As it turns out, if you ask the right question, they’re like a Chatty Cathy doll with a broken string. What is the question, you ask? Simple: What is cosmetology school like? That was it. I didn’t have to say anything for the whole time I was there.

But then, she threw in something that hit me like a ton of bricks. She said: “Your hairline is receding a little.” Gasp! Receding! Like the tide? Like deforestation? Like global warming? Receding? As in, going back… up… away? Good gracious, I wasn’t expecting that at all. She said it in an a-matter-of-fact sort of way, like a dentist pointing out a crooked front tooth or a doctor making light of the fact that you have a lazy eye. They’re professionals geared to give it to me straight, without the kid gloves, but to hear from a state-certified cosmetologist that I am on the forefront of a hairline recession was the blindsided punch in the face I wasn’t expecting.

Usually they just make fun of the gray hair, which I’ve grown to accept as part of my overall debonair characteristics of my appearance. Sure, I’m graying gracefully, I tell myself. I’ll look distinguished, wise. “If I tell you to cut off all of the gray hair,” I usually joke, staring down at the snow-tipped tufts of hair clumped on my apron, “I don’t think there’d be much left.” It’s funny. I get a laugh. It makes me smile. But I can’t say, “Cut only the ones that are left.” That’s not funny. I won’t get a laugh and I don’t think I’d smile about it.

The kicker to the whole experience is that I came home that day, walked into a house full of women (and Matthew, but I can’t blame him)—my mother-in-law was visiting from back East, Kara’s 13-year-old cousin who comes pre-wired for hip style and fashion right out of the box, Kara and Natalie—and nobody noticed my haircut. I paraded around for a couple of hours, even used the words “haircut” and “my hair” several times strangely out of context and not a peep out of the lot of them. So much for mattering. I give up trying to get their attention, vying for some validation that I’m not going to wake up the next morning and look like George Costanza, and I go outside to fetch the mail. My neighbor from across the street drives by in his car, glances at me before he pulls into his driveway, gets out and hollers from across the street, “Hey, you got your ears lowered, looks good.”


Well, I’d better get back to work. I was supposed to start a new project on Friday, but I’ve put it off all weekend, so another day can’t hurt. I’ve neglected a lot of my freelance work as of late. My main client has been loading up the assignments recently, and since they are the major squeaky wheel on the largest vehicle I like to call My Paycheck, they get first priority.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a huge list of things to do; however, you can imagine that this isn’t one of them.

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