I Need a New Barber
Like any college student, I have a few things I enjoy doing when I visit home. Sleeping in my own bed is nice, except when I forget to bring my second pillow and feel, all night, like I’m sleeping on a decline. I love seeing my friends and having access to drinks besides water and milk. Don’t get me wrong; I love water and milk. But juice is nice.
For whatever reason, I always get my hair cut when I go home. Since I moved to Grants Pass in third grade, I’ve had exactly one haircut not at the OK Barber Shop on the corner of Sixth and D. Last semester I’d forgotten to have my hair cut during spring break, and I was beginning to look rather haggard (actually, I didn’t forget – I was just too lazy to get up at a reasonable hour. Plus, you have to shower twice, before and after, and that’s just exhausting). Deciding the English sheepdog look wasn’t for me, I went down to the Great Clips in the strip mall close to campus. The lady (Stylist? Hairdresser? Flamboyant Hair Re-arranger?) didn’t speak English particularly well, which made conversation rather difficult.
“I’d like three-fourths on top,” I ask her, my preferred length of buzz cut. “And a quarter-inch on the sides.”
“Yes, yes,” she replies, with a glaze of incomprehension which concerned me. “Three-fourths-quarters.”
Despite my apprehension, I figure she’s a professional and can manage a simple buzz. But as she wets my hair and snips and preens, instead of hauling out the razor and mowing down great swaths of my hair, I grow more agitated. Finally, she finishes with a flourish; I doubt I lose more than a few dozen strands.
“Here we go!” She spins me around to face the mirror with great enthusiasm, but the reveal is lackluster. My hair remains, and the top is gelled into some great monstrosity, a monolithic pillar of hair, and the sides are slicked back so sharply I look like I’ve made out with a wind tunnel. I’m horrified. My hair looks like a drunken impression of Macklemore.
I know austerity measures are required, but you need tact and delicacy when critiquing someone who not only wields sharp objects near your throat, but also (and more importantly) styles your hair.
“I…was expecting a buzz cut…like, super short,” I stammer.
“Oh!” She seems legitimately surprised. “You want just buzz? So simple?” Apparently, my choice of hairstyle was so plain, she hadn’t even considered it as an option. I see my beloved buzzing razor come out, and my hair sighs in relief.
All that to say, I prefer my OK Barber Shop, whose name is either very poor marketing or a statement of severe modesty. In a world of megasales and superdeals, I suppose there’s something refreshing about a barbershop that owns its mediocrity. Yeah, it seems to say, we’re not great. But, damn it, we’re okay.
When I was in grade school, the OK was owned by Don, a cheerful man with a thick, 70s-era mustache. He was a good friend of my grandfather, and by deer heads and racks of antlers in his shop, the basis of their friendship was evident. Behind the barber’s chair of cracked green leather and dull chrome sat an old-fashioned mason jar filled with candy. After my haircut, he’d dust me off with his brush that always tickled the back of my neck. He never used the vacuum – the roar frightened me. Then he’d throw back my green smock theatrically, and I’d hop down and receive my candy, beaming. I loved the barbershop.
But, when I was in high school, cancer took Don. The shop passed to his partner, Bill, but he was old and his eyes were listless and soon a much younger barber took over. There were rumors he’d muscled Bill out, and from the beginning I disliked him. He was broad-shouldered and muscular, and he gave a sense of poorly-controlled rawness, a wild power. A few tattoos snaked up his upper arms, and his angular jaw was always bristling with stubble. In his conversations with customers he was coarse and brash, and soon the hunting trophies and logging paraphernalia gave way to pop posters, skin magazines, and a flatscreen TV with accompanying Xbox. He was everything kind Don wasn’t. He was a stranger to me, encroaching on sacred, if hair-covered, ground. I learned to cope, but I never liked him.
Each visit is an exhausting bout of self-control.
I walk in and he greets me, to my great surprise, with my name.
“Hey, Ryan! How’s it going?”
We’ve always had a friendship of circumstance, and I think we’ve settled into the stage where the lack of familiarity was so awkward it actually ceased to be awkward. I have no clue he knows my name. I can’t place his name for a thousand dollars. I nod, a little sheepishly.
I sit for a few minutes in an overstuffed green chair and listen to the barber and a balding, expansive man voice their discontent with the government.
“These taxes are ridiculous,” one says. “Damned Obama’s got us slaving away like Europeans, payin’ all our money to the government.”
The other voices his agreement. “Exactly. It’s criminal.”
I cringe inside and continue to wait. I catch an offhand remark, my barber saying he should charge Asians more for haircuts because “their thick hair just eats up my clippers.” I wonder if he has any idea that I’m half-Korean.
Finally he calls me up and proceeds to ask me the question he always asks:
“So, you still a virgin?”
I don’t flinch. I’m desensitized. I’ve heard the question from him untold times – at this point, it’s a prerequisite, a terribly personal questionnaire: Name, Birthdate, Occupation, Virginity. But it’s not a question you ever want to hear from anyone, especially not your unnameable barber who, now that he knows your name, wants to hear, once again, all about your sex life. In fact, there are few people I’d like to discuss it with less. My grandmother, I suppose.
As I sit down and he drapes the smock over me, a middle-aged man walks in with two kids. He is dressed in an absurdly baggy tank top streaked with stains of indeterminate color and unlaced white Nikes. His kids, too, are dressed loosely, like they’re wearing clothes bought to fit them years from now. As he says hello (or, rather, “‘Sup”) to the barber, I see his nicotine-stained teeth and crooked smile. The barber has left his video game paused, and he flips one of the kids the controller.
“When one of you dies, give it to the other one,” he instructs, and the dad nods in agreement.
And so two preadolescents begin controlling a character running through a zombie-infested mall, killing and maiming undead and innocents alike in a variety of gruesome ways. I sit stewing in my own disapproval as the clippers come out and my hair, thankfully, falls away.
“So, where do you go again?” He asks, breaking the comfortable silence but graciously drowning out the moans of the dead and dying mall shoppers.
“George Fox. It’s small, up in Newberg.”
“Is that a trade school, or what?”
I’m used to people recognizing George Fox immediately, and I’ve never had anyone mistake it for a trade school. “No, it’s a little Quaker liberal arts school. I study English.”
“Liberal arts? You’re not one of them liberals, are you?”
I’m both taken aback and a little amused. Surely he can’t be serious, but his face registers shock, even betrayal. I want so badly to reply that I most certainly am a liberal. I’m a feminist and a supporter of marriage equality and a borderline socialist. I want to lambast him.
But I don’t. “Ah, no. Just a student.” Because students, obviously, can’t be liberal.
He looks relieved. “Oh, good. So, what do they teach? Do you have, like, science and stuff?” I explain that Fox offers a variety of programs. “You said Quaker? You’re a Christian, right?” This sounds less question and more threat – he doesn’t want an answer, but a confirmation. I imagine the Inquisition adopted a similar tone.
I reply in the affirmative, and he looks relieved again. “Good, as long as you’re not one of them Islams or Muslims. You’re going to heaven. You and me, we’re good.”
I think I shut off, just cease to think, respond in monosyllables. More hair falls and the kids revel in their bloody game to the great pleasure of their father. The barber finishes, and I get up and pay.
“Thanks, Ryan. Looking forward to seeing you again.”
At first I think I can’t say the same. But the look in his eyes is authentic and kind. He actually is looking forward to seeing me again, and his eyes aren’t judgmental or sardonic. I’ve been chastising him mentally the whole time, for years, and he’s attempting to bridge that terrible chasm of consciousness, actually trying to connect to another person. If his beliefs throw up barriers between us, my haughty contempt does, too – at least his beliefs are vivid. Contempt is gray and lazy.
I’d love a tolerant, liberal, educated barber with whom I could talk about college and politics and sports without wanting to, alternatively, despair for the human race or hurl bricks at things. But that dream barber could just as easily be a jerk, and my barber isn’t a jerk. He’s racist and close-minded and xenophobic and homophobic and ignorant, but behind all his distastefulness he likes his customers – he likes me – because we’re people, others with whom he can connect. The kindness he shows me is real, and while his views are backwards, they emerge from a passion as intense and human as my own. As long as baldness doesn’t encroach, I keep coming, and he keeps cutting, and we get along. And I can support that, even if it costs me ten bucks.
Maybe I’ll even learn his name.
Ryan Lackey is a sophomore double-majoring in English and journalism at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. He works as the sports editor for the George Fox campus newspaper, The Crescent, and as a writing consultant for fellow students. He is a member of Sigma Tau Delta and publishes poetry in student collections. When not writing – or trying with desperation to think of things to write about – he enjoys soccer, running, and rummaging online for pictures of adorable cats. He blogs at farbetterrest.wordpress.com, tweets @rlackey15, and wears his hair short.