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April, 2010

Give Me an Old-fashioned Barber

by Larry

When I was a young lad and chanced to be taken for a haircut, the shop had a revolving "candy-striped" barber pole out front and was full of interesting smells, like Old Spice aftershave and the sweet scent of colored hair oil to be slicked on after the man was through using his electric clippers. There was a little board for me to sit on. It fit over the arms of the big barber chair. Bits of other people's hair flew about the fan-cooled air and all too soon would tickle the tip of my nose. The radio was on to a happy, probably live commercial station broadcast of a baseball game or else to a disc jockey's homespun views between 1940s crooning by Frank Sinatra and others. Likely as not, in the next chair over somebody was getting his face warmed up for straight razor shaving with an almost but not quite unbearably hot white wet towel. And it seemed like the barber had all the time in the world for talking or gossip about anything or anyone in and around town. Sometimes a man was on hand to shine up the customers' shoes, which he did with flash and efficiency, knowing if he could whip his buffing cloth right snappily an extra dime or nickel tip might be flipped his way when he was done with a gentleman's leather footwear. As I grew older, I did not understand why this man, who worked even harder than the barber, got only a few small coins for all his efforts and mostly stayed in a corner, while the man cutting the hair and whiskers owned his place and hardly even looked at the shoeshine man.

But these days everything is different. I go to "cash only" Fast Freddy's for the very cheap "styling" I prefer, but even there, chances are the barbers, or hairdressers as they call themselves now, are all women. With a few casual buzzes about my head with the clippers, the job is done. No baseball game. No crooning. The prominent wide-screen TV is tuned to a food channel or a daytime drama. The lady wielding the electric razor and comb can barely speak in my language but does her task adequately and in half the time my childhood barbers took. All too soon, I am on my way out the door. Nobody offers to shine up my Velcro-topped clod-hoppers.

The other day, though, I happened to notice, driving down the road from a different direction than usual, another Fast Freddy's shop, about a block and a half farther north than the one I normally frequent. Since there were few cars in front, I parked there and went in. Instead of the typical six or eight barbers in my regular shop, only one lady was standing there and at a single chair. While finishing up her trim job, she was conversing in Spanish with a patron who looked to be about ninety, yet still strong with thickly muscled brown arms. She kissed him gently on the cheek when finished and caressed his face as if he were her grandfather or lover.

He left, I took my turn in the chair, and we commenced. Here there was neither radio nor television to break our intimacy. No other customers were waiting. Maria, it turned out, was my barber's name. She was not shy to put herself forward and called me her "Dearie" and "Sweetie." She pressed her chest up against me as she concentrated on just the right ways to sculpt these silvered locks. As if memorizing thereby a prized form, she carelessly slid her hands here and there, perhaps to prepare the way for her art. And she did not rush the job. Leaving her place, I felt both refreshed and well groomed. In short, hers was a much more personal style of the barberly trade than I had known before. Unlike after my brief stops at the more democratic Fast Freddy's establishment, following this visit there was no need for my wife, Valerie, to touch up what had been done with a belated shearing of offensive stray hairs that would not remain in place but hung far down on the wrong side of a part.

Later, I took my better half for the first time to Jalisco's, a not unpopular Mexican food eatery close to Maria's special branch of the Fast Freddy's chain. Why were we going here, Val wanted to know. So I told her it was a recommendation of my hairstylist, who had said it served the finest of true interior Mexico cuisine, not the gringo trash we call "Tex-Mex." Yet the atmosphere at this restaurant was hardly the best. The noise level precluded ordinary conversation. Service was slow, disinterested, and unreliable. The food, when it came, tasted like it had come out of a can.

Maybe, I speculated, Maria had meant another Jalisco's than the one we had gone to. It was curious. And I told Valerie about her styling attentions and how I would not be going back there.

"Why not?" she said. "Her haircuts are good."

Indeed, they are, but I do not wish such exclusive care from my "coiffeuristas." I'd rather just sit in my chair and drift off with thoughts of old-fashioned barbers, flattops, burr cuts, Mohawks, and hot wet towels on the men's faces, the strop of a straight razor being sharpened for a coarse beard, the tension high in the ninth inning with bases loaded, and Old Blue Eyes in the background singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Maria had told me she cannot keep boyfriends. For some reason, they always get jealous of her customers. Still, I bet she gets good tips.

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