It always begins with me.
A gradually mounting discomfort, constant sweating, perhaps a pimple or two. It becomes harder and harder to leave the house in the morning, takes longer and longer. I begin to dress differently. I wear hats, hoods. There is a brief, defiant period. Let them look. I’ve never been one to bury the ugly parts of myself. I bear my suffering for the world to see. Finally, inevitably, I am my first attacker. Standing in the breakroom at work, or chatting in the office of a respected professor, I run my hand involuntarily through the Einstein mop on my head and say it: “I need a haircut.” The self conscious comment hangs between us like a faulty toss. We’re both unsure if it’s in play. Then the other person — friend, coworker, classmate, though usually either my mother or girlfriend — says, “Yeah.”
I tell myself that I don’t avoid haircuts. I don’t feel like I do. I just feel too busy to be bothered with the pomp and circumstance, the too-specific chair and all the gadgets. It seems superfluous. I may go three or four months putting it off. At last, when I’m losing track of my ears, when I need to let my snapback baseball caps out a peg, when I realize to my dismay that I look like a lazy college kid, not a crazed creative genius, I find my way to the barber shop.
It’s actually nice at first. I don’t know why I wait so long between appointments, I think. It’s a fun place to hang out, actually. There’s one TV with sports on and one with talk shows. There’s an X-Box where kids play racing games while their dads get shaved with straight razors. If you arrive on certain days, with certain staff, they have a mini fridge full of beer from the local brewery while you wait.
I think of my coworkers at the warehouse — most of them five or ten years older than me. They brag about the frequency of their haircuts, stress about their constant need for an edge-up. “Two weeks,” they often say, clucking their tongues at themselves. “I’m looking bummy.” I have always chalked this up to an expression of insecurity — socio-economically victimized men finding this one acceptable ways to take pride in their appearance without threatening their masculinity. These same men catcall the few women at the warehouse on a daily basis, and talk for hours about the one night they’d been able to afford to go out to the casino in the past year. They never seem to rationalize their bimonthly haircuts with their late rent checks and missed child support payments in the same thought. “When we getting overtime?!” they cry out to anyone who will listen.
Still, sitting in the waiting area of the barber shop, I can see why they’d be drawn to this place. There’s something to be said for style. I can’t knock style. Style for it’s own sake is, in some ways, subversive. It excludes the upper class because it’s organic, it’s a moving target. They can’t afford to be up to date with it. They’ll always be cutting their hair the way we were cutting it last month. “We,” I say, as if I’m not the odd man out among my warehouse coworkers. I live with my upper-middle class parents, I always have. I’m the only employee there who works forty hours a week, then crams a full University class schedule into every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — what comprises my “weekend” on this waterfall schedule. I’ll always be alienated from my coworkers, who take this mid-week reprieve in stride — getting together for a brutal paintball game since the course is cheaper on Tuesdays, then drinking half their checks away at Dave & Busters. At the same time, I’ll always be alienated from my classmates, who go straight from Medieval Lit class to Blarney’s Pub on Thursday nights. My classmates who spend Sunday mornings recovering from hangovers while I’m at the warehouse by 7AM. My classmates — at worst, wannabe hicks — would never talk about their haircuts the way my coworkers do. I can’t identify either group as more or less insecure than the other, but the white college kids in Bass Pro Shop hats and flannels would be much more afraid to spend too much time in those spinning leather chairs, admiring themselves in the mirror, than the guys at the warehouse. I have a foot in each of these doomed worlds, and I’m a part of neither. The bright side, so far as I can tell, is that I’m allowed to get a haircut as often or as infrequently as I want.
The barbershop I visit is closer to the world of the warehouse than the University. Here, I’m bearing witness to something effortlessly cool. There’s no shame in wanting to look a certain way here — even on purpose. The men in the chairs small talk with the men holding blades. The regulars hassle them. Everyone accuses everyone of going bald and being gay. Except for JR, who is bald, and Tomas, who is gay.
If there is a wait, I am already discouraged. It’s so rare for me to have the time for a haircut during normal business hours. At the warehouse, I work four twelve hour days, Friday through Monday. The rest of the week is just enough time for classes, papers, exams, and stress. If I had more time, I’d squander it. Still, it would be nice to have a day off here and there for things like haircuts. Instead, I must plan a week or more in advance. I can’t stop for a haircut after work — I leave there drenched in sweat and too sore for conversation. I’d never subject a stylist to that greasy mess. If the stars align, if I don’t need to stop for gas, if I read my annotated Chaucer over breakfast, I can sometimes stop on my way to school on Wednesday morning.
But then — lo and behold — I walk into the barbershop on Wednesday morning five minutes after a parade of men who are decidedly not in a hurry. I sit waiting, examining my class notes on my phone, keeping careful track of who got here before and after me, so that I am not skipped. The tension mounts. I may have to leave. If I’m not in the chair in five minutes, I think, there won’t be time. I’ll have to come back next week. I’ll have to wear that hat again for a week. It looks fine, but by the end of the workday it pinches my temples. And it’s beginning to smell. Is it machine washable? Oh, God, maybe I should just go for a ponytail.
At last, I am summoned to a chair. I greet the barber — he has cut my hair before but neither of us is sure the other remembers. We don’t do names. He has knuckle tattoos and some kind of special barber shirt. His tools are meticulously laid out. His mirror is stickered with carefully chosen insignias of local businesses and independent tattoo artists. He spins his chair and offers it to me with a flourish. I take my seat, and at this moment, I always remember precisely why I haven’t been here in four months: I dread haircuts the way most people dread the dentist.
It starts, of course, with the smock. He unfurls the neoprene poncho and whips it around my front without words. Then he velcroes it tightly around my throat, as if any precaution will keep me from being covered in my own hair for the next two or three showers. Here, I must tell you, for whatever pity it’s worth, that I was an asthmatic child. It was the kind of asthma you outgrow around puberty, and I can hardly say it stopped me from enjoying anything, but it was inextricably linked to panic attacks. I’d stop dead in the middle of gym class, clasp my throat and wheeze like a guppy, then spend the rest of the day in pure mortal shock. Now, this isn’t a traumatic experience, or an uncommon one. This is all simply to say: I don’t like things touching my throat. It gives me anxiety. It’s a small compulsion which barely affects my day to day life — I don’t wear necklaces and all my shirts fit loosely. I sleep on my side with my shoulders shrugged — the blanket either resting under my armpit or above my chin. I may yank a seatbelt down from time to time. Other than that, the old throat grasping panic alludes me almost everywhere — except, of course, at the barbershop.
But really — and this is not a rhetorical question — what am I to do? Please email me if you know. I’ll tell you exactly what I am not going to do: I am not, under any circumstances, going to ask the barber to loosen the useless smock he has draped across me. I can’t. Because, as I’ve clearly demonstrated, the barbershop is the domain of the unapologetically hyper-masculine. Despite the obvious parallel of the salon, despite the tender caress of one man’s finger on the nape of another man’s neck, despite the self-indulgence and self-obsession, the barbershop is not a place to show the slightest sensitivity. Make no mistake, it would be punished, swiftly and permanently. I’ve played the scene out, I always play the scene out in my head, as I sit for those first few heart-pounding seconds, trying not to feel my pulse against the collar I’ve been shackled with.
Me: Hey — sorry — could you, uh, could I loosen this?
Barber: Too tight?
[I loosen the smock to the degree that would make me comfortable.]
Barber: You’re gonna get hair on you, man.
Me: That’s alright.
Barber: You wanna try a different smock?
Me: No, no.
Adjacent Barber: What’s wrong?
Barber: My smock is too tight for him, you got one?
Me: No —
Customer of Adjacent Barber: You got a fat neck, man.
Barber: Hold on, let me get the gauze wrap–
Me: I just don’t really like stuff touching my neck, okay?
Someone on the other side of the room: What’s wrong?
Barber: He doesn’t like stuff touching his neck.
It sounds okay. Not too much to go through, especially when you average four haircuts a year. Except that the rest of that twenty-five minute haircut would consist entirely of discussion about my neck. My throat. And, inevitably, some ingenious prank of tickling my neck with a comb or a swatch of severed hair. I don’t know the barber too well, but it’s a safe bet he falls somewhere on the spectrum from “Bass Pro Shops hat undergrad” to “Man I need an edge-up warehouse guy,” and either way I’m the one who will be punished for having a weak spot between my face and my chest.
Of course, we’re not really through yet. I’ve merely set the scene. Me, in a vulnerable state of sensory-memory anxiety, with the overpowering social pressure to not deal with it. Now the haircut begins. Like Chinese water torture. I watch in the mirror as the barber takes his time. Considers his plan of attack. He wants to give me my money’s worth. He doesn’t want to appear rushed. I wish he would. I know I’m getting the same haircut as the three guys before me. I am counting my breaths involuntarily. Three long, drawn out breaths for every one snip of his chrome scissors. Then, at last, on the fifth snip, he speaks.
“Cold out there?” Or: “See the game?” Or, gesturing out the window: “That your truck?” In any case, and in any variation of these, I want to get up and run out screaming right then and there. Why is it a mandate of masculinity to be boring? I refuse to believe that any adult is interested in my 1997 Ford Ranger. They simply don’t know how else to begin a conversation without compromising the veneer of aloof, post-macho manliness.
Still, I sit in repressed panic, answering politely as my conversation with my barber inevitably peters off. I can’t maintain that kind of stoic meaninglessness. I’m not equipped for it. I went to art school and I dropped out of art school. I’m not proud of it, and I don’t think I’m better than anyone, but I never learned the language they use, and they can hear me faking it. It strikes the ear wrong. So my barber turns to the adjacent barber. They talk to his customer. Maybe an even larger group discussion crops up. But I never have any part in it. I have nothing to say about Steph Curry, about this season of Survivor, about whether or not Andy should get an F150 or a Tundra. Even if I have something to say, it never feels worth it to interject with them. When they’re two scandals behind on Donald Trump, or when the latest shooting of an unarmed black man comes up, I can sense how unproductive my participation in these musings would be. How much further my words would push me into alienation. How it would increase the likelihood of me leaving with a crooked patch on the back of my head.
After twenty five minutes I burst from the smock like a phoenix from the ashes. I toss cash at the barber and don’t wait for change. In the parking lot, I am alive again. I have survived. I have paid my debt to the mundane world. They won’t be collecting for four months at least, if I have anything to say about it.
I arrive at school later than usual, take a bad spot on the top of the parking garage. In the student center bathroom, I try to rinse the pomade I didn’t ask for out of my hair. Then I rush to English 202, where I’m a Teacher’s Assistant. “Nice haircut, Mike,” says the professor. I thank her, run my fingers along the prickly edge where the barber insisted on adjusting my hairline with a straight razor. The students stare at me — they can’t help it, their chairs face the front. But I know in my heart that they’re all either thinking that my hair looks dumb now, or else remembering how dumb it looked before. Either way, it’s never a University haircut, or an upper-middle class haircut, or a Bass Pro Shops hat. It’s a low-maintenance haircut, with no bed head. It’s a long lasting haircut, that can grow out for months without looking sloppy. It’s the haircut of someone who sweats a lot, who can’t have hair in his eyes slowing down his production rates at the warehouse.
And then I’m back at the warehouse. The jokes aren’t malicious. I recognize them as an invitation into the fold. We make fun of each other, it’s how we show that we’re thinking about one another without risking the dreaded diagnosis of “gay or somethin’.” But my differences are causing me a lot more loneliness than theirs are. I seem like an easy target, an elephant in the room. The fact is that I’m getting hit from all sides — especially by myself. I’m in a freight truck at noon, stacking boxes to the ceiling for shipment. Every bead of sweat that rolls over the razor burn on my hairline makes me irritable. I’ve got one bluetooth headphone that I snuck in past security, I’m wearing it in the ear that faces away from the entrance, listening to an audiobook version of The Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man. It’s terrible. Really, it’s just a bad book. I’m perfectly comfortable implying that I could write a better one. I plan to suggest just that in the response paper that’s due next week. But I can’t write a better book right now, because I’ve got four more trucks to load today to hit my quota. Then I’ll need a big bowl of chicken and rice, and a long hot shower. After that, I may just be able to stay up long enough to review some papers for my students in English 202 before I load more trucks tomorrow.
That’s what my coworker asks me, for the hundredth time, when he comes into my truck and drops a snide comment about my haircut, and I tell him to fuck off, and it looks like I’ve hurt his feelings, so I apologize and drop all of the above paragraph on him.
Why do you need to work here and there? If your parents are doing well enough to own a house in that neighborhood? And you don’t really have that many bills? Why not work a few hours at the grocery store? Why not drop to part time classes? Why torture yourself like this?
Obviously, I don’t answer him. The answer is that it start with me. It always starts with me. I don’t fit in here or there, so I split my time between both without every really going into either. I can’t wander down to Blarney’s and gossip about who blew whom in which dorm, while student loan payments loom ever closer, like a demonic storm cloud. Likewise, I can’t rinse the sweat off after work and bet on fantasy football with the guys from the warehouse. And what I’m really afraid of, is that behind either of those, I won’t be able to do what I keep claiming I want — to head home and sit alone with my laptop, writing something to blow James Joyce out of the water. Because I won’t fail if I don’t try, but I know I’ll fail, because there’s one thing James Joyce was certainly better at than me — one thing a writer has no excuse to be bad at: making small talk in the barber shop.