When I lived in Houston I would have my hair cut at a place called Bob's Barbershop, by a guy named Bob. I first went into Bob's because it was literally ``within spittin' distance'' of my house; this later turned out to be a drawback because many of the patrons practiced said vice. I returned time and time again to Bob's because it was a classic barbershop, not only in the archetypal sense, but also in the definitive sense. I know most of you have your hair cut at places like ``Mr. Maurice's New Euro-York Salon,'' by a guy named Mr. Chad, but I think you would agree.
The first thing anyone would have noticed about Bob's was Bob, if he wasn't in the back chugging a beer. He was a frightening guy, not because he was huge or had weird tattoos, but because he looked insane and held sharp tools. His clothing was of the slickest polyester, and the shirt (``only nine fuckin' dollars at KMart!'') stretched taut across his gut. His yellowish white hair was combed up and back over his head and held in place mercilessly by a substance known only to barbers. There was a weird orange tint to Bob's skin; its color was somehow in spiritual alignment with the shirt's. There were disturbing French Foreign Lesions bivouacking on his lips and hands. Let's just skip the teeth. His eyes, though, were really unsettling. These eyes had viewed the abyss, been unimpressed, and showered it with urine instead of tears.
I came to know and love and fear the shop itself. Being there was like visiting the 1950's without Michael J. Fox. There were three chrome-and-cracked-vinyl barber's chairs, but since Bob was the only person working, the other two served as recliners for regulars. The walls behind and facing the barber's chairs had long mirrors that bounced images back and forth across the room; each image was farther away and more distorted than the previous one, but they never ended. I could worry about what Bob's reflection was doing to my hair, and what his reflection's reflection was doing, and so on. The Popular Mechanics magazines were from the 1950's. Even the calendar was from that era, but it was only used to cover a racy swimsuit poster during rare emergencies. (That's not to say that those swimsuits were worn in races; I think they would have dissolved in water.)
The wall furthest from the entrance had the complete set of Dogs-Acting-Like-Humans paintings, including Playing Poker, At The Track, Fishin', Playing Pool, and Pissing on a Tree. The At The Track print attracted me, trying to figure out if the dogs were at a horse track or a dog track. If they were at a horse track, were humans or dogs riding the horses? If they were at a dog track, would the entire dog crowd bolt for the mechanical rabbit when it was released? Near the dog prints was a barbershop altar with various hair sprays, tonics, and restoratives. They had archaic lettering, and no one had disturbed them for years. A vacuum tube radio hummed from the top of the altar; the radio was permanently tuned to a station that existed not in present time, but in the period of its construction. Further in the back was a Spartan bathroom containing a seatless toilet, a bare light bulb, and a waist-high Styrofoam snowman frieze from some Christmas past.
Bob revered the tools of his trade in a manner befitting jihad accoutrements. There were electric clippers that reportedly cost thousands of dollars and whose scalp-guides reached scalp-searing temperatures. Since sharpening cost so much, they worked through a mixed process of melting and pulling one's hair off. He held his sterilizing box, which contained an ultraviolet light, in veneration; the box had the perfect aura of technology rendered as witchcraft. Bob's Daddy had given him the straight razor. The air compressor, though, was a unique barber tool. Instead of the standard vacuum system, Bob had settled on the air compressor and machine shop nozzle as a superior hair removal system. When he reached a point of prickly discomfort, he would grab the nozzle and blast himself from hair to toe, taking care not to blow out his lit cigarette. A split second after he said ``close your eyes,'' the full force of the storm would be upon me. Unmoored hair would go sailing across the room, and my clothes, ears, eyelids, and lips would flap in the gale. Another sadistic use for the compressed air was ``The Refresher.'' This unrequested treat involved applying volatile organic solvents to a freshly shaved neck, then forcing painfully rapid evaporation with the jet of air.
I would go to Bob's on Saturdays around noon. This was also the time that the Bob's Barbershop Crew would roll out of bed, put on the same crusty flannel shirts and baseball hats from the previous night's binge, roll into Bob's, and start drinking again. The Crew would have been considered ``scurvy'' even in pirate circles. Many of them, in fact, would have been labeled ``as scurvy a dog 'ere I've laid eye 'pon, to be sharrr. Argh.'' During the week, they worked punishing manual labor jobs like tearing the testicles off bulls or installing track lighting in homes of baby boomers. Saturday afternoon, however, their job was to drink beer and badger Bob while he cut hair. They attacked these tasks with a verve that no bull or baby boomer had to endure.
On my first visit, I wasn't comfortable with the Crew. They were taunting a man who was chain smoking, drinking beer, complaining about back pains, hacking in the sink, and shaving around my ears with a straight razor. Things got better, though, after one of them squinted to read my shirt and yelled at me, ``Hey, Dart Mouth, ya want a beer?'' Several rounds later, I was sent on a sortie to the corner store for another twelve-pack. When I returned with a case instead, I was exalted on high. (In the interim, things had gotten ugly. One of the Crew had jokingly brandished a razor, and Bob had temporarily blinded him with ``The Refresher.'')
When the Crew was too sick to make it in or too rowdy to stay inside, Bob and I had some more personal discussions. He gave me updates on the health of his parents, which was failing. The warmth that shone through when he talked about his daughter was touching. He always asked about my brother, who had come to the shop once and damaged one of the waiting chairs by tilting back in it. Sometimes there were brief glimpses into his home life: ``You know what I like the most? Gettin' a big ol' plastic cup, filling it up to the top with ice and milk, and watching porno movies with my old lady.'' There was some fluctuating and complex existential philosophy: ``There're two kinds of drunks. You got your sad drunk, your happy drunk, and your mean drunk. That Slicer, I've seen him so drunk, he couldn't say his name.'' I never found out how many kinds of drunks there really were, or what kind of drunk Slicer was.
The fly in the hair ointment was that Bob was a racist bastard. This wasn't apparent at first, but crept into his conversation over the course of months. There was no sophisticated philosophy in this realm; he would just add a ``goddam [person of color]'' to stories he told, or send a ``fuckin' [ethnic]'' flying out the door after anyone who walked by. When I would question these comments, he would acquiesce slightly, saying, ``Well, I guess not all of 'em.''
I tried to really talk to him about this, but I couldn't think of anything to say. (``So, Bob, why are you a racist bastard?'') I thought about killing him (``Hold his head in the sterilizing box? That might take hours.''). I considered boycotting the shop, but I doubted that would do more good than my feeble dissension.
So I would sit there, trying to dispense positive and negative reinforcement in a manner that would do more good than harm. He blasted my head with the compressor; I drank his beer; he shaved around my ears; I told him his daughter sounded like she was very nice. And every time he said something I would tense up, bracing myself for the various epithets It was actually a relief when I moved away.
Now I live in Boston, and I haven't been able to settle on a new barbershop. I've thought about just shaving my head, but I'm afraid that there might be strange structures or markings on my skull. Or that I'll be mistaken for some Nazi Skinhead in serious need of a beating. As a compromise, I've opted for a five-millimeter-burr home haircut. Now I look like a monkey, a big Curious George without The Man With The Yellow Hat chasing me. Even with this solution there's still something missing.
I guess I might crave the tension of spending time with someone I both like and hate. Maybe it's the weirdness I crave. Maybe just the beer.