Another Bad Hair Day
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.
Being in dire need of a haircut myself, this article sounds so familiar – but without the cocktails.
My mother cut my hair for a while as a child until she sliced my ear open. She was barred from touching it again. Another haircut involved her taking me (and my tag-along sister) to a new barbershop in Cape Girardeau. This was around 1980; the magazines for waiting customers were Playboy and Penthouse. While it got my resounding pre-pubescent vote of approval, I never saw that place again.
In college I did find a really good barber. Later, Mrs. Jason cut my hair for a while and despite her ongoing anxiety about doing so, she did a great job. Plus, like you say, it always grows back.
Nowadays, after being excited to find a barber who has been in business for sixty years but who made me resemble Moe Howard, I am going to a Great Clips within walking distance of where I work and next to a grocery store popular with Mrs. Jason.
Love the Moe Howard picture that you put into my mind. “Hello, Pal. How do you want it? The big bowl or the small one?” 🙂
You made me remember another of my barbers – Everett, whose shop I found in Muncie while going to college. He was in the second half of his 80s when I started going there and was still proudly smoking unfiltered Camels. He was actually pretty good.
When I was a kid, mom would give me $5 ($4 for the cut and $1 for the tip) and send me to Broadmoor Barber Shop, maybe a mile away. I hated the barber shop — crusty old men who talked down to me, the place smelling of strange antiseptics. And I was seldom happy with the cuts I got.
I wore my hair long in the mid-late 80s and again in the mid-late 90s and that is when I discovered that a good salon is worth its weight in gold. You’d think that all you have to do is *quit* getting haircuts to have long hair, but it’s not quite true. I mean, that’s a method for achieving it, but it will have no shape. A good stylist with a vision and an understanding of your hair’s growth patterns can make you look like you were born to have long hair.
I’ve seen some of the modern barber shops, years ago while on business trips to Boston and Baltimore, and more recently I saw one somewhere Downtown. They are all about the experience, and I’m very curious to try it. But a fellow named Michael at a salon near 86th and Township Line has cut my hair for … I forget how many years, and all I have to do is sit down and shut up and I get pretty much exactly the same cut. I go every five weeks. Because the one major place where I have some vanity is around my hair, and I want it to look just so.
Yes, I have heard of some place downtown that is supposed to be a “classic barber shop.” But I wonder if it is just a “artisinal” version of a Great Clips, where they offer shaves and hot towels and charge you $50 for the experience. Maybe I’ll have to try it at least once.
I certainly don’t begrudge a guy a good hair stylist. My father was always very particular about his hair too. And I suppose if I had both of your good looks, I might be as well. 🙂
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In the early days of being married, I used to walk around the corner to Joe the Portuguese Barber, who cut hair for $9. He was very Portuguese and although I was never a member of the club it was an interesting world to get a glimpse into.
We moved, and I had the same issues with trying to find someone to cut my hair. After having to return to a franchise-type hair shop the day after to get some warranty work on my stubborn cowlick we decided that was it. We bought a Wahl clipper set and Mrs DougD has cut my hair since. I’ll have to try some Scotch during my next haircut, good idea….
I still recall some of Gene’s bon mots. The Pilgrim Square Barbershop on Market Street in west Akron is the other place I’ve encountered that could compare – a place where guys would loiter after their haircut.
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