I have great respect for barbers –I mean you have to, eh? Who else is going to do it? Animals groom each other for a reason –stuff gets stuck in there. Unpleasant things that, except in times of starvation or mental illness, should probably not be examined. Should not be itemized.
All this makes barbers special, of course. Throughout history, they have had a special role to play in society -nobody wants messy, flyaway hair; nobody wants it hanging in their soup. So whoever could stomach the life was accorded special status; everybody from priests to surgeons signed up to cut hair -or was it the other way around…? I forget.
Anyway, hair –or the lack of it- has always been important to us, probably because, as well as clothes and length of sword, it revealed a lot about the person wearing it. Hair is usually pretty evident as soon as someone walks in the room: it’s either displayed, peacock-like, or disguised beneath a helmet with horns or something. These are important signs that people have learned to watch for over the years. Just by looking, you can learn a lot about other things, too: religion, social status, cleanliness… And barbers have to know all this stuff before they start.
But I mention all of this as a prelude to a momentous discovery that is likely only possible after Retirement: you can cut your own hair –assuming, of course, that you still have some thick enough to see.
I used to go to a barber, near my office. Admittedly, I was an infrequent visitor, and only when specifically forced to by my secretary, but nonetheless, it was convenient. Rain or snow, I could walk proudly into the shop after work with Mick Jagger curls and sneak home looking like I was about to hand out religious pamphlets door to door. Like Samson shorn, I felt vulnerable. Noticeable. Socially cubby-holed. And I knew that I would continually be the object of scrutiny for weeks until it had grown sufficiently that women wouldn’t shield their children’s faces from me and drivers wouldn’t point and honk as they passed.
And yet Retirement piled still another impediment on that humiliation: distance. I live no where near the barber shop, nor do I have any excuse, desire, or motivation to visit it again as a tourist. But I see it as a cruel irony that, despite the abysmal shearing, I have grown to trust them, much as one might trust, say, the leash on the dog not to break as it growls past on the street. Life is so different now…
First, there are few people who would dare criticize an older man with hair –no matter what it’s doing. I can wear it with pride in any weather. I’ve also found that we seniors are expected to deviate, however slightly, from accepted norms; it’s what we do; it’s who we are. So, even if the light was flickering over the mirror, and a slight tremor afflicted me au moment critique, the ragged edges and eccentric contours are excused –welcomed, even, as fitting into the expected stereotype. It seems to me there is nothing more disturbing to an younger man, than seeing an elder disguising himself as someone he is not. Or at least should not be.
But there is one group that does not hold back its criticism –a group from whom I would have expected unconditional support and understanding: my own.
“Cut your own hair again, eh?” Jeff said, as I sat down at his table at the local MacDonald’s.
At first I thought he was impressed at the job, because I mistook his expression for a smile. “Yeah, it was getting a bit unruly around the sides,” I replied, a little surprised that he had noticed. I’d taken particular care to avoid nicking my ears this time, and was quite proud of the way I’d left a tuft on each side to curl around them. Actually, I wasn’t sure where my ears were hiding, so I didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances.
“Ever thought of trying a barber?” he said, with an earnest expression stapled firmly on his face. I think he assumed he was being helpful.
“Used to use one,” I said with feigned levity -Jeff really seemed concerned as he scanned my head with eyes that seemed to flit from curl to curl like sparrows in a tree. “But they never did a very good job. Took almost a month for it to grow back enough to seem natural…”
He nodded thoughtfully, as he continued his inspection. “How long do you figure this time?” he said, his eyebrows marking the lower edge of a series of furrows above.
I took a sip of my rapidly cooling coffee and carefully placed the cup on the table as if there were a specifically mandated spot for it. “Does it really look that bad?” I almost hated to ask.
He shrugged and attacked his own cup to dampen the tension. “No…” he said, choosing his word very carefully. “Just… noticeable, that’s all.”
I hate it when people use audible italics. “I thought it looked okay,” I said, in a brave attempt to save face.
A faint, and exculpatory grin managed to crawl unwillingly onto his lips. “Sometimes it’s the mirror,” he said, although I could tell he didn’t for a moment believe what he was saying.
I wasn’t sure where to go with this; I was beginning to feel embarrassed. It was almost like the first time I’d heard my recorded voice played back to me on a phone and hadn’t recognized it –myself as others hear me. Now it was a visible estrangement… “So… You think I should go to a barber?”
He stared at me for a moment and then chuckled. “Well it’ll even out eventually… I guess after all these years I just notice things…” But he didn’t really sound convinced.
I think I blushed. At any rate, I tried to cover it by sipping at my coffee again and peering at him over the rim. I’d only known him for a few months, and we always met here, so I wondered if his judgment had been clouded by an otherwise-disguised cognitive decline. I pretended to sigh, but actually I was wondering how many other people had noticed and been too polite to say anything. “No,” I said, “I think you’re right. It’s not as easy as I thought… Hard to see around the back.”
He smiled benevolently but I got the impression I was just digging myself into a deeper hole.
“Know any good barbers around here? Good ones, I mean -I don’t trust a lot of them, do you…?” Might as well ask.
The smile grew on his face like a flower opening. “My shop’s just next door,” he said, shaking his head and winking at me. “I’ll give you a deal if you let me finish my coffee,” he added, chuckling merrily at something.