When I was a child, haircuts were perpetrated at Joe's Barber Shop on Coney Island Avenue. It was a pleasant place: there were wall-to-wall mirrors on either side of Joe Montuori's shop, and a boy sitting in the chair could lose himself in the series of infinitely-regressing images. Joe always had a friend or two in the shop with whom he spoke incomprehensible rapid-fire Italian. The haircutting itself was an ordeal. Joe charged 75 cents a head, but my mother had driven a bargain: three haircuts (myself and my two brothers) for $1.80. Joe revenged himself on me by a) working the electric buzzer as rapidly as possible, and b) frequently re-arranging the angle of my head with a blow from the heel of his hand. Back home, my mother would sigh and say, "Turn around. Let's see what he did to you this time."
I'm not big on personal adornment, and, perhaps because of my early hair-chopping experiences, I've never been comfortable in the barber's seat. As soon as the cloth is fastened around my neck I feel hogtied and hopeless. "What are they going to do to me today?" Once, on the west side of Manhattan, in the late 1960s, when my hair was rather long (it seems absurd that you could signal your opposition to the war in Vietnam by letting your hair grow, but such was the case), I walked into a shop and asked the barber to "leave it long." He immediately transformed me into a rabid supporter of carpet-bombing. Also in New York: when I naively wandered into a shop with a specialized clientele, a hair technician employing a razor and a variety of gels and lotions turned me into someone whose hair was giving off signals with which the rest of his body was not in accord. In Hanover, New Hampshire, in an upstairs 'salon,' the barber suddenly stopped work, drew back, studied me for fifteen or twenty seconds, and asked, "Are you Jewish." I mumbled something about not really wanting to discuss my ethnicity with him, whereupon he launched into a disquisition of which I understood not much and remember less, except that that it involved prophecy, the Book of Isaiah, and The Hatching of the Egg. He hauled out his heavily annotated King James Version and pointed me to various passages underlined in coded colors. As it happens, I'm more conversant than most people with scripture, and so I can assert with moderate authority that his reading of the Bible was -- how shall I say -- original. It took me an hour to extricate myself from his insistent and wayward scholarship: fifteen minutes of hair-cutting and forty-five minutes of exegetical enthusiasm.
For a decade or so, when our finances were perilous, my wife cut my hair. There were some benefits (a guy could cop a feel while being ministered to) but I must admit that although my good woman was earnest and effective, she never fully mastered tonsorial technique. She had the habit of yanking upwards on the strands with the scissors, with the result that each snip produced a stab of pain -- although nothing more intense than might have been alleviated by the injection of a dozen or score shots of novocaine directly into the scalp. And then there were the ear nicks.
After a while, I returned hair responsibility to the world of commerce. I had success for many years with Liz of Chicago Hair across town. Liz was good at her work and respected my multiple cowlicks. But then she started to raise her prices. When she reached $20, I would just hand her the Visa and ask her not to tell me what she charged. When she went to $30, I retaliated by spacing the haircuts further and further apart in order to keep my annual cost constant. But when she broached the $40 barrier, the puritan in me rebelled. I started to patronize the cheap ($14) barbershop across the street from the college. There's a rotating staff and it's hit-and-miss: sometimes the results are acceptable, sometimes disastrous.
When I come home from the expedition, my wife says, "Let's see what they've done to you today."
And then she sighs.