Today I’m going to get a haircut. I just decided. There’s no barbershop in sight. I don’t even know of any barbershops in this neighborhood. The urge to get a haircut has come upon me suddenly, like an early afternoon sun shower. I don’t know this part of the city well, yet already I feel a heavy sense of comfort, a balanced feeling scented with Lilac Vegetal and talcum powder as I drift along in search of a barber pole, one of those red, white, and blue cylinders that whirl ’round and ’round, hypnotizing people into having their ears lowered, as if getting a haircut is the most patriotic thing a person can do, up there with voting, giving blood, and joining the Marines.
As a boy, I dreaded getting my hair cut. I dreaded the mechanical white chair, the barber’s sneaky, small-toothed smile, the snipping sound his scissors made next to my ears, as bad as the whine of a mosquito, though not as bad as the buzz of dog-clippers, as we used to call them.
I remember the barbershop. There were two in my hometown, Patsy’s and Chris’s. My mother took me to Chris’s, though to me he wasn’t Chris, he was Floyd, the barber on The Andy Griffith Show: a short, slope-shouldered, seedy little man with an Adolph Hitler mustache and salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back in tight little curls. And though I liked The Andy Griffith Show, I hated Floyd the barber. His hands were too small; so were his teeth. They were the hands and teeth of a mole. He and the barber who cut my hair had the same lecherous smile. I imagined him doing nasty things to kids in the mysterious room hidden behind a stained blue curtain (where he kept dirty magazines in a drawer, I guessed).
As with all suspicious persons, you couldn’t say where Floyd was from, exactly, somewhere far away, like Bulgaria or Romania—one of those places ending in ‘ia’. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find out he was a taxidermist on the side, or a cannibal, and that the refrigerator he kept in his back room was packed with things floating in jars. He oozed bad breath and spoke in a thin, raspy voice that was equivalent to the sound the files labeled “bastard” made when my father used them to scrape burrs off metal in his laboratory: a voice dripping perversion and espionage.
On the little table of his barbershop, Floyd’s real life equivalent kept a spread of old comic books for his customers to look at, yellow with age. Most had to do with war: flamethrowers, tanks, and U-boats with commandants gritting their teeth while peering through periscopes. The floor was linoleum tiled, with alternating beige and green squares resembling headcheese and creamed spinach. I’d sit in the chrome and vinyl chair thumbing the same comic I’d thumbed a hundred times before, watching the same tanks blowing up and flamethrowers spouting and U-boats firing torpedoes at allied cargo ships, feeling queasy as though I were in the dentist’s waiting room, kicking the backs of my P.F. Flyers (guaranteed to make me run faster and jump higher) into the chrome chair legs, hearing the snip-snip of Floyd’s scissors, watching the miniature tumbleweed-like tufts of dead hair tumble down to the cheese and spinach tiles from the scalp of the old man whose place I’d soon be taking. I would note the pattern of hair falling on the floor, how much fell on green vs. beige tiles, seeing faces, ships, cars, trains, and States of the Union in the proliferating blobs before Floyd kicked them out of place with his wing-tips.
Click-snip. Snip-snip. Zwick-zwick-zwick.
Most of Floyd’s customers didn’t seem to have enough hair to bother cutting, old men with more hair sprouting from their ears than from their skulls. Fathers brought sons in baseball and Boy Scout caps, as if ashamed to have let their hair grow beyond three-quarters of an inch. I’d always go with my mother, who’d abandon me to Floyd and his sharp little teeth and bad breath while she went across the street to Tony’s Supermarket. How I dreaded the moment when the customer in front of me would stand up from the big white complicated chair, hand Floyd two dollars, and wait while he rang it up with a zinnng! on the big silver cash register whose drawer always stuck. Then Floyd would return to the chair (one of three in the shop, but the only one he ever used), pump it all the way down, snap the seat with a flick of his towel, and look at me with a lecherous smile over his half-moon glasses. Please, not yet, I’d say to myself, looking around, hoping by some miracle there would be someone ahead of me, someone who had been hiding there all that time, dreading the barber as much as I did.
I get up and go sit in the chair, and Floyd pumps it back up again. Then he flaps out the striped smock, filling it with air, ridding it of the last customer’s dead hair, and lets it come billowing down on me gentle and soft like a parachute. He tucks it in with tissue behind my neck. I feel his fingers tucking, tickling, giving my neck an inadvertent massage. He glides a skinny black comb through my frizzy brown hair, not saying a word, not asking how I “want it,” tugging out the stiff hairs as if to let them know who’s boss, seeing how long and reprobate they have grown, sighing and going tut-tut-tut with his tongue against his tiny teeth as if to say, ‘Well now, it should never have come to this.’ He yanks my hair so hard with his comb my head jerks from side to side. It’s all I can do not to cry “ouch,” but I don’t; I refuse to show him my pain. I stare dead ahead into the cracked mirror, which Floyd has tried to fix with masking tape, past gleaming green and gold bottles and the tall blue jar of Barbicide with combs floating like pickles there. My eyes well with tears.
Suddenly, with a neat flick of his wrist, from the breast pocket of Floyd’s white jacket the scissors emerge and snippety-snip-snip he starts cutting, sending gouges of frizzy brown hair to the floor like envoys from atop my head, tufts thick as Brillo pads, swick-switcka-swick, rolling down the front of the striped smock onto the tiles: my hair, once, no longer. When a half-dozen clumps have fallen, Floyd’s heretofore sealed lips part and he starts talking, as if to find his tongue he had to snip through so much hair that blocked his way. Then his bad breath oozes all over me. Don’t ask me what he says; I have no idea; I’m not listening. I’m too busy being horror-stricken by what’s happening to the top of my head, counting the frizzy gobs that like downed birds shot from the sky, my arms pinned under the striped smock, wanting to catch them, to take them to my lips and kiss them goodbye.
Talk-talk, snip-snip, talk-talk.
After a while I can’t bear any more. I close my eyes, squeeze them shut, wait for the torture to end, opening them only when he holds the mirror behind my head. No matter how much I hate what the mirror says, I nod, since there’s nothing Floyd can do but cut off more hair, right? He can’t put it back, can he now? Besides, I just want to get out of here. The barbershop is a ghoulish place, the place where I go to have my hair amputated by a foul-breathed Romanian spy-pervert.
But Floyd isn’t finished. It’s the old fakeroo! He flaps out the parachute smock then puts it back on again with a fresh tissue. It will never end. He will go on cutting my hair forever, for the rest of my life.
But after a few more zwickety-zwicks Floyd takes the smock off again. He sweeps the back of my neck with a big brush dipped in talcum powder (which I have to admit feels good). Then he wets his fingers with cold fluid from a tall green bottle and drags them against the side of my head, leaving it slick and shiny and smelling of lemons, ocean air, pine trees, limes and vinegar—which I confess also feels good. A few more last-minute zwick-zwicks. With a decisive snap of his towel and a squeeze of my shoulder, that’s it, I’m done. Floyd’s finished.
I hand him the two crumpled one-dollar bills my mother gave me and that I’ve been holding the whole time. She meets me at the door. It’s all over. I can breathe again. For another month or so.
Ahead of me, down the block, a barber’s pole swirls, blending red blood, blue skies, and white surrender, drawing me to it like a ship in a stormy sea to a lighthouse. I stand before the plate glass, watching the barber at work, a man no older than me, but his hair is gray and so he’ll do. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or I’m just getting old, but for some reason today I long to sit in one of those big white complicated chairs with flat filigreed iron plates for the soles of my shoes. I long for the phalanx of colored bottles lined up before a cracked mirror mended with masking tape.
A tinkle of doorbells announces my entry, the same bells I heard as a kid, only I’m an adult now, motioned by the barber toward his chair. No sooner do I sit than I’m thrown back to a time when the scariest thing in the world was going to the barber. I feel the barber’s firm yet supple fingers adjusting the tissue around my neck, tucking the smock, giving my shoulder a paternal squeeze before getting down to business. The same fingers touch my head lightly here and there, making minuscule adjustments, coaxing me ever so gently, precisely. The barber knows just how much pressure to apply, doesn’t need to ask, doesn’t need to say a word. I can sit and daydream, nod toward sleep without ever actually arriving there, exist for a half hour or so in that blissful state between dreams and reality, the gentle swick-swick of scissors forming a minimalist percussive soundtrack to my reveries.
These days I love the barber. He is my father, my white-frocked priest, my secular father confessor, a thin black comb and a pair of swift scissors his crosier and thurible. I trust him with something as fragile as my soul: my scalp. In his hands I’m a kid again, an innocent kid wearing P.F. Flyers (“run faster; jump higher”), a boy among all boys whose worst sin is that of having let his hair grow out too long.