Meditations from the Barber’s Chair

A couple of days ago, I got a haircut. Haircuts are one of those peculiar male rituals that huge swathes of the population don’t understand without even understanding there is something deep and weighty there that has escaped their notice.

The rules of a man’s haircut are handed down from father to son and through osmosis in the presence of other men. If you have not been exposed to these influences, you are completely in the dark. As I sat in the chair I meditated on what I know, and what I think. Here’s what I cam up with:

My father is not a great spouter of axioms, credos, or maxims of unshakable truth, but from the time I was two or three I was told in no uncertain terms: A man gets his hair cut by a barber, ideally the same barber until that grand old man –and a barber is by definition a man– retires. Hair salons are for women and males too vain to really get away with calling themselves men. A ‘barber’ who insists on washing your hair before starting to cut is not really a barber. Nor is a barber who charges more than $15 a visit (although there is some wiggle room there in downtown Toronto, rent being what it is. Still, keep it under $20).

Your barber will have a first name that you will use in friendly banter without hesitation, but you might give him your patronage for twenty years and never learn his last name. Ideally, the name of the barber’s shop is ______ the Barber or ______’s Barber Shop. Shops that do not have the proprietor’s name are only kosher if it contains two or more barbers, and even then there’s something vaguely suspicious about a barber shop where there is not one dominant partner. You might be in a salon: Tread carefully.

Your barber will have the same haircut for the entire time you know him, and it will be a conservative coiffure that would not have been out of place in the 50s but is not inappropriate in the present either. His hair will be just long enough that he has to comb it, but it will never be overgrown: It will be clear of his ears and collar and have a recognizable and unmussable part. You will never ask your barber where he gets his hair cut. When you are in his shop, he is the only barber in the world.

You will always get the same haircut from that barber (except –just perhaps– once in the summer, if you want to try something shorter. You only get to pull this once in all the time you sit in your barber’s chair). This will come to be called ‘the usual,’ and it is the stock and trade of your barber to know ‘the usual’ of every one of his customers. If you have visited a barber even once before, he knows your usual. It is perfectly fine and polite to say, “The usual, but leave the sideburns as much as you can.” If you fail to say this, your sideburns are his to do with as he will.

When you enter a barber shop, you must quickly survey all the faces of those who were there ahead of you. They will each be in the chair before you, and it would be an extreme breach of etiquette to ask later who was there before you.

If you are a regular, you will be greeted as such, though perhaps not by name. “Hello, my friend!” is enough of an acknowledgment from your barber that you are a regular, and thus may join the ranks of those waiting in complete comfort and familiarity. From that point on you may participate in any barbershop banter you choose. It would be polite not to do so your first time in a new barbershop, as there is a tempo to each shop that much be observed first before jumping in with both feet. You are not one of the clique until you have sat in the chair and been shorn at least once.

You may watch the sports on the television, but never contemplate changing the channel. You may read any periodical lying around, but –on the whole– you should seek out something to do with sports or world events. If you ever lose track of whether it is your turn, always defer to the man who may be ahead of you. It is then up to him to protest that you were there first. If he doesn’t, then without a doubt it was his turn, not yours. Rest easy: He will never be allowed by the rest of the room to jump queue on you.

Quite often there will be two or three men in the room with generous paunches who lead the discussion. These men are almost never there for a haircut. They are neighbourhood regulars who pop in after work and before dinner to shoot the bull with their barber. It is polite to point out it is their turn, even though everyone knows they’re only there to avoid their wives and children. They’ll be jovial about refusing, and this will add to your share of the camaraderie inside the shop. At all times you should feel comfortable and at ease in your barbershop. Impatience has no place within those walls, neither does nervousness. Everyone is an equal, waiting for his trim.

When it is your turn without a doubt, take off your glasses (if you have them) and sit straight in the chair with your eyes focused into the middle distance. This is where you confirm that you are in fact getting ‘the usual’ –and your only chance to save your sideburns– and then your collar will be protected and the sheet thrown over your shoulders and down over your lap. From this point on, you will remain stock still with the possible exception of tilting your head when the barber taps you with his fingers to get a better angle. If there is an offending hair on your face, you can discretely blow at it. A barber who knows his business will spot this at once and remove the offending irritant with his brush.

There will be some small talk, but –as a rule– your time to talk was while waiting. The barber will talk over your head to the rest of the patrons without any hesitation. There’s nothing rude about this. If you’re blessed with a thick head of hair, you will be complemented on this, or perhaps teased. This is meant as high praise indeed, but you are expected to make a self-deprecating remark.

There will be stages to your haircut (assuming you are not one of those people who crops so closely a number one clipper can do the whole job): The barber will start with the clippers, then a pass through with scissors, then another pass with a smaller clipper that will focus especially around your ears and around the back of your neck. Another pass with scissors will follow to even out any irregularities and make sure your hair doesn’t stick up in odd places at the end of the job.

At this point your protective sheet will be removed and your collar unprotected –This is not the end of the haircut! The barber will now attack the nape of your neck with the smallest available clipper, and a man worthy of his profession will take a straight-edge razor to where your sideburns (or what’s left of them) meets your facial hair, and edge out the hairline around your ears and above your collar.

At this point your barber is essentially finished, but it will be his inclination to put some kind of spray, gel, or wax into your hair. If this is not your preference, you should say so as soon as he’s done with the straight edge. If you do this two or three times, this becomes part of ‘the usual’ and the offer is never extended again unless you specifically ask.

At this point you will be spun around in your chair to face the closest mirror, and a hand mirror will be held behind you to show the hairline around your collar. Put your glasses back on, and tilt your head to either side appreciately. Smile, and say, “That’s much better, thank you!” If your barber knows his trade, your hair is now fine. If you ever get a bad haircut, there’s nothing to be done about it. Say “That’s much better, thank you!” and never frequent his establishment again.

It is appropriate to tip your barber between one and two dollars (depending on your satisfaction), but he will go through the process of giving you all of your change. Just like a canny bartender, your change will always include the coins necessary to tip. Say, “Oh, just four back is fine,” or whatever you need to keep your tip in his hand. He will thank you, bob his head, put the coins back where they came from, then turn to the waiting crowd, spin his chair around and say, “Who’s next?” Your business is now done. Unless you came in with a son to get a hair cut, leave, making some pleasantry about “See you next time. Have a happy (insert next closest holiday to pass before you expect to need a haircut again).”

That’s the theory. Here are a couple of personal annecdotes to reinforce my point.

My childhood barber from the age of two or three until my late teens was Jack the Barber. Jack cut three generations of my family’s hair: My father and grandfather before him had made their monthly pilgrimmages to his shop to be shorn. Jack was a legend, with a steady clientele and deer and moose trophies hanging from his wall that he had collected on hunting trips with his regulars –who would also made up the bulk of his friends.

Towards the end of his career, Jack’s fingers lost some of their nimbleness, and he took to hitting my ears with the scissors. I was never allowed to complain about this, as it would be the height of bad manners to question the legend in his own shop. When he finally retired, he didn’t hang up his clippers for good. He told everyone that he was giving up the shop and retiring to his family farm, where he would continue to clip the die-hard regulars one day a week in his barn if they chose to make the trek. My father beseeched my mother to be allowed to follow his barber, but she –who had never particularly liked his unchangeable ‘the usual’ haircut– put her foot down: Driving thirty minutes into the country to wait in a barn five times longer than he would have had to in the shop was too much devotion to offer Jack the Barber.

My father and I set out in search of a new barber, although of course we could never ask Jack for a reference: He was the only barber in the world until he retired to his farm. I remember one haircut I got from a barber of the very oldest school. He had all the original fixtures –chair, vanity, cash register, hot foam shaving machine, strop, etc.– from his first days under the spiral pole in the late 40s. He had a shock of perfectly pommaded white hair, and a dapper moustache spiked out with beeswax, and his hot foam shave –at no extra charge– was heavenly, even though I was too young to have much need of it.

Truly, he was an exceptional barber, but he was also easily in his 80s, and had no intention of retiring. I began to daydream in that chair that the man might keel over mid-haircut –not such an incredible thought for a man advanced in years who spent twelve hours a day, five days a week, standing next to his barber’s chair. After performing first aid, I would then be left to wander the city in search of another barber to finish the other half of my haircut. Perhaps some shaving foam would still be behind my ears on my journey. What was my rule? You must be absolutely comfortable in a barbershop. With regret, I stopped going. Within a year the shop closed, and I can’t imagine that fine barber folded up his straight edge for good willingly.

We bounced between a couple of other hair cutters –even once or twice at my mother’s insistence trying her salon. I thought it was a fine hair cut, and the hair dresser was an attractive and humourous woman who was easy to talk to, but she did insist on washing our hair prior to cutting it. My father confessed with extreme displeasure that he felt like a homeless person when she did that. We stopped going.

He eventually found that rarerest of individuals, a young barber –still just starting out. The man, at the time, could not have been much more than 30, and he was already well on his way to establishing a proper barbershop in the truest and richest sense of the grand old tradition. My father, at peace once more, became a regular. By that time I was three hours’ drive away at university, and though I did get a haircut whenever I got home, I knew I had to find a barber in Toronto.

I had an interesting experience in Greektown one Spring. In dire need of a haircut –at some point my thick crop of hair begins to act like a toque if left untended, something I always notice particularly when warm weather hits– I popped into a barbershop that did not bear the name of its proprietor. Still, there were two chairs, and the barbers appeared to be brothers. I was prepared to take a chance.

Mistake! The two spent my entire time in the chair yelling at each other in Greek, waving their razors and scissors over and around my head while they did it. When I escaped with my life I tipped one dollar while my barber glowered at me, and I have never returned.

There have been other barbers in between. Five or six who failed to make their mark. They were not without skill or humour, but their shop lacked the atmosphere one has come to expect. A barbershop can never run out of a mall. Too much hustle and bustle outside the door. A barbershop can never have more than two chairs, because then you never get the same barber twice, and without the personal rapport, there is no magic.

No, I was adrift for years, a regular to no one, until I moved to Little Italy.

Enzo the Barber is now my barber, and though I do not live in Little Italy any more, I commute to give him my business. I am his regular. He knows my ‘the usual.’ A consumate professional, he has his own unique style: When I first entered his shop, an old radio was playing some Italian crooner –not so unusual for Little Italy. When the Italian patron rose and was replaced by a WASPish-looking regular, Enzo’s arm shot out to hit a button on the radio, and suddenly we were listening to Frank Sinatra. That’s right: He plays music based on the language of the man in the chair. That’s style!

Enzo’s television is turned to hockey or soccer at all times when he is not watching his grandchildren after school. for that forty-minute window until their mother comes to pick them up, Dora the Explorer is the order of the day, and no one would dare to question that situation.

Like any barber, Enzo knows his regulars’ hair intimately, and he once confronted me, “What happened here?!” I had not been to see him in three months, and half way between visits I had been home for the Holidays and my mother had cut my hair. He could tell I’d two-timed him, and two-timed him with some part-time hacker (no offense, Mom). He reminded me of this affront to his dignity on two following visits, just to make sure I understood. I was his regular. He was my barber. What would people think, with my mother cutting my hair on the side?

Enzo hates my sideburns, and if I ever forget to ask for them to be spared, his straight edge mercilessly trims them back to line up with the top of my ear, just like you see in those old snapshots of the Astronauts in the early 60s. He always comments on my hair, though, rotating through jokes about shearing sheep and asking how I can grow all that stuff in a month. He only ever talks to me in the chair when he’s got the clipper by my ear, leaving his comments hazy and half-heard. I mutter generic, monosyllabic responses. It’s a fine working relationship, and one I look forward to expanding upon until that old man one day retires and refuses to refer me to another barber.

Such is how men cut their hair. Now you know, and knowing –so I’ve been told– is half the battle.

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7 Responses to Meditations from the Barber’s Chair

  1. I have visited your port before. The more I read, the more I keep coming back! ;~)

  2. Salem Alaton says:

    This was a warm and intimate meditation on a most beguiling theme.

  3. [...] to a family barbeque, and I wore a hat. That is not a rare occurence for me. As I mentioned in my essay on the male barbershop experience, I have a pretty thick head of hair –I’ve never had a barber who didn’t make a [...]

  4. gypsy dress says:

    I dont think so – but k.

  5. [...] the publishing of my first novel, my love of notable quotes, everything I know about dancing, how men feel about barbers, and just about anything I have to say about poetry. Your positive feedback has meant a great deal [...]

  6. jeff says:

    This is friggin hilarious. The more I read the more I realized it was all stuff I kind of know in the back of my mind but its never been something I consciously realized before.

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