Sep 15, 2007
The Barbershop: A Tale of Two Haircuts
The Barbershop by Jacob Lawrence
As a general rule guys don't indulge in much, especially in the area of personal grooming. But for most men--especially, I have found, black men--the barber is an exception. There is something truly luxurious about letting an expert pamper you in the barber's chair. It's probably how women feel about manicures and such.
At the end of April I had my first haircut in two years, a horrible ordeal that took more than two hours and required my longsuffering wife to use every tool short of a chainsaw to hack through the dreadlocks. From there on out, a regular haircut would once again be a necessesity. And so a month after that first haircut, I was ready for another one. We figured Babs would do it, like she had in recent years but it quickly became apparent that this was not going to work. The clippers had been pretty much ruined by the last haircut and would barely cut at all. My head was a patchwork mess, when Babs finally gave up and suggested I find a barber. She told me about a sign for a four dollar barber she'd seen not too far from our house and I set off in search of it. Even a four buck haircut had to be better than the weedeater-chic look I was sporting.
What I found was a small marvel.
The Violet Barbershop
The place, oddly named, Violet Barbershop, was literally no more than a room--Chinese language DVDs for sale in one corner, a single barber's chair in the other. When I entered, another customer, a trendy-looking South Asian,was already in the chair and so I sat down to wait and to watch, as it turned out, a master at work. The diminutive Chinese barber wearing a wife-beater and a tattoo was a true craftsman. He moved with lightning speed and laser-like precision, but with an artist's grace. He switched between the comb, the electric clippers, the barber's shears like a juggler, making multiple tiny clips that added up to a sharp looking haircut. I was literally mesmerized watching him. And just when you thought he was done, he sprayed the guys neck and sideburns with a few bursts from a plastic spray bottle and pulled out the straight-edge razor! He whetted the razor on an old-fashioned leather strop hanging from the chair and then began the final touches to the masterpiece that was this Bangledeshi man's head. To be honest, I couldn't wait for him to work his magic on me.
I was not disappointed. The confident handling of the clippers, the attention to details at the hairline, the sideburns, the nape of the neck, the puff of cool mist from the spray bottle, the scratch of the straight edge, the talcum powder, and for the finish, the gentle whisper of the soft-bristle brush sweeping any stray hairs. I knew, as I walked out of the little Chinese barbershop, that I would be back again. Could I get a new pair of clippers and go back to home haircuts? Sure, but for a few moments of masculine pampering, for ten minutes in the presence of genuine talent and skill,four dollars was an unbelievable bargain. There is truly something inspiring about someone who has developed their chosen skill to the highest degree, even when it's something as simple as cutting hair.
My next haircut was not with the Chinese Master, but it too was a remarkable and memorable experience. I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota with Babs and her parents, visiting my sister-in-law Jenny and her husband Matt. My hair was beginning to look well-groomed by 1986 standards and it was time for another haircut. I'd seen a barbershop just a few blocks from Jenny's house, and so on a late Friday afternoon, on the spur of moment, I decided to stroll over and get myself a trim.
A scene from the movie I was "in" briefly, Barbershop, starring Ice Cube.
When I walked in the door to this shop, the experience couldn't have been more different from that at Violet Barber in Saipan. I felt like I'd walked into a movie, the movie Barbershop, to be exact. Have you ever seen it? Ice Cube is the protagonist, the owner of a barbershop in the 'hood. In this film, the barbershop is what the local watering hole is to white folks, "the place where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came." Well, this place was just like that movie. Four guys, each with their own chair, a couple customers waiting their turn, all of them African American (well, with the exception of this one vaguely Latino looking guy--just like the movie!). The conversation was loud, as it only can be when brothers get together and start debating. The topic was the Iraq war and the arguments flew back and forth, on the surface sounding heated, but underneath suffused with friendliness and warmth. Believe it or not, the atmosphere was so remarkable that I didn't say a word (and that's saying quite a lot for someone who is ordinarily opinionated as I am). Who was I, the stranger in town to barge in with my white accent and bold opinions. No, I would stay quiet, listen, and bask in a feeling I hadn't realized I'd missed--that of being at home among the brothers.
When my turn came to sit in the chair, I found that there was one thing my barber had in common with the Chinese Master. He too was artist, and the feeling of being tended to by an expert was very much the same as I'd experienced in Saipan. Though the price was four times as high, I found that this unique experience was also worth every penny.
When I came back to Saipan, I went back to the Chinese Master once more, and I would still be stopping by once a month if I could only find him. Last Friday when I went for my latest trim, his shop was locked up and a map was posted directing me to a new location. I tried to find it but couldn't. I did stumble upon a $3 place, and I got a very speedy and completely adequate haircut from a friendly Chinese Korean lady there. But it wasn't the same. Maybe it was that she didn't use the straight edge? Or that she asked me a lot of questions? I don't know. . .in any case, the magic just wasn't there.
I hope I can find the Chinese Master again. And the next time I'm in Minneapolis, I'll be sure to stop in at the local barbershop near Jenny's house, even if I don't really need the cut (maybe I'll even put my two cents into whatever the topic of debate is that day). After all, there is real value in being in the hands of someone who takes pride in what they do, value in the camraderie of the clippers.
This photo was taken a few days after my most recent haircut (which unfortunately, was NOT done by the Chinese Master. Still, it looks pretty good, huh!)
A brief history of my haircuts:
1973-1992: My mom cuts my hair in the way that only a mother can. With lots of love and only a casual nod to the current styles. My hair during this period could generally by typed as "shaggy", as was typical of most people's hair during the mid-to-late seventies and eighties (though in high school I did have the famous "ledge", a box-top cut with an awning that jutted out over my forehead like a sort natural sun visor).
1992-1998: My pal Elliot cuts my hair every three weeks (except for two brief interludes, once during my student missionary days in Chuuk when my best friend J gave me a basic buzz and again for 11 months in 96-97, when I let my hair grow out into a curly afro.) He's a professional with the clippers and I have sharp looking "fade" that looks deceptively easy to create.
1998-2001: My hair is cut by the pre-school directors at our school, first by Jana Gatchet, and then by Sheri Rodman.
2001-2005: Babs becomes the Official Barbar. . .er Barber.
2005-2007: The wild years. The clippers stop working. I'm too cheap to buy another pair, and instead grow my hair out, first to a 'fro and finally to shoulder-length dreds. My mother is not pleased. I suspect my mission supervisors in Guam aren't exactly thrilled either.