I got my hair cut today. I hate getting my hair cut. If life is a cycle, then I have completed it, because I hated getting my hair cut as a kid, too. But there was a time between then and now when it was one of my favorite things to do.
Until I was maybe thirteen, my mother cut my hair. The plastic shower curtain on the floor, the white electric clippers from the “Home Barber” set that she probably bought in 1959 and the dull scissors (likely from that same set) that pulled more hair than they cut. My mother wasn’t the greatest cook in the world, but I much preferred our kitchen when she was cooking in it than when she was using it to cut my hair.
I have written about my best friend Dan, whom I met at the beginning of seventh grade. Dan went to a barber, and I soon started going to Dan’s barber too. It was then that I realized that getting my hair cut could be a wonderful experience.
Dan’s barber (who became my barber) was a guy named Gene Glass. Gene was a man about my parents’ age who ran a little solo barbershop across from Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne. I had been to a barbershop or two where I felt like an interloper, someone who had crashed a party or who was applying for entry to a club that would never accept me as a member. Gene’s barbershop was different.
Gene was one of the best conversationalists I have ever had the pleasure to be around. He was a bright guy who could converse on almost any topic. Sports, music, home improvement, gardening and politics. At least as long as it was conservative politics. This was Fort Wayne, after all. And jokes. Gene was one of the funniest guys I had ever met, and a bottomless fountain of jokes. It was a little deflating that he had heard every joke I ever tried to tell him, but it was alright because I heard so many new ones from him. I don’t think I ever heard him repeat a joke in all the years I went there.
But one day, I knew that I had become a part of an elite club. Dan and I were maybe 18 or 19 and had the last two appointments of a Friday afternoon. Dan was in the chair and Gene looked at me and said “go next door to Hall’s [restaurant] and bring back three cups of ice.” I had no idea what he needed with three cups of ice, but I went next door and got them. As soon as I was back, he asked “so, what do you want? I have scotch, some bourbon, vodka and a little gin, I think.” I don’t remember what I chose, but I will never forget sitting in a barber chair, listening to joke after joke while we all sipped on a cocktails in plastic cups. I did not know it at that point in my young life, but I had reached the absolute peak of an entire lifetime of barbershop experiences.
Through my education and afterwards, my life’s mission (well one of them) has been to find another Gene. But I never have. I have had some decent barbers through the years. But one by one, they retired or left the business as their shops got priced out of their neighborhoods. There was Bob at 49th and Penn in Indianapolis who cut hair in a little shop that looked like something out of a movie set in 1946. Then there was Whit in Broadripple whose shop was at least as old.
Things went downhill when I tried a barbershop across from my office in the ’90s. The vibe was completely different. As cool as those 1940s era shops were, this one screamed “1971.” Which was not a good thing in my book. Then, I got snagged by barbershop etiquette. When I called to make an appointment, Patty answered. I was expecting Don, but I learned that he and Patty took turns answering the telephone. So it was Patty.
I have no issue with a woman cutting my hair. But after having been spoiled by years and years of Gene, it just wasn’t the same. The conversation was dull, always about her family and always involving some kind of complaint. It wasn’t fun, but it was convenient. And having drawn Patty in the barber lottery, I was not about to defect to Don. In my book, that just wasn’t done.
Don eventually retired and closed the shop and I followed Patty to a womens’ salon for a haircut or two. But I just couldn’t do it. Once you have experienced barbershop nirvana, the atmosphere of a beauty shop just doesn’t cut it. I don’t think they are called “beauty shops” any more, but my mother’s term for a hair salon has never left me. Anyway, my office had moved again and I tried another shop. I got Debbie. Debbie was better at conversation, but always seemed to be in a small scale war with one of the other barbers for whom she had a serious dislike. And then one day Patty came there. Awkward. I finally gave up, which was made easier because the Mrs. never liked the haircuts I got from Debby anyway.
As of about a year ago, I determined that barbershops like those of my youth are about as common as a Studebaker in a parking garage. I tried one not far from my house, but it was just more than I could take. First, no appointments, which made scheduling tough. And for atmosphere, it was back to that private clique that I would never be a part of. Then, the Mrs. absolutely hated the haircuts that came from two out of the three barbers there. The last one, in fact, even had me agreeing with her. So, that was that.
I have finally given up and, at least for the short term, am patronizing one of those Great Sport League Clip Chain places. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Last month it was a young woman who got more hair down my back than any time since Mom’s haircuts. Today it was a heavily tattooed and pierced woman who talked about her unhelpful teenaged children. The experience is seldom better than average. My hair is shorter when I leave, so I guess that is something.
You may notice that in all of this talk of barbers, the quality of the haircut has not really come up. That is because I am a guy. It’s. Just. Friggin. Hair. It grows back. Every time. With few exceptions, the only difference in my book between a bad haircut and a good haircut is two weeks. What cannot be duplicated is a good barber, the kind of guy who you look forward to visiting for a pleasant twenty minute chat. A cool shop would be a plus, but is less essential. There has to be one out there, there just has to be. But at least as of today, I have another month to look.