“Hail Caesar,” I replied with a shallow laugh.
“As you wish, sir.”
And with that, a steady stream of salt and pepper cuttings began their brief flight to the cracked linoleum floor accompanied by the clatter of decades-worn scissors.
I wanted a new look. Change of job, new city—why stop there? I’d even sold the car. Walking to work, I had come across a red-and-white striped pole at the top of a winding stairway that lead to the barbershop below. But as I descended, I recalled with horror my first and last salon cut just a month ago where both the steps and price had been steep.
“And monsieur can change behind the Chinese screen?”
I’d never had to strip for a haircut, but when in Rome…. I gamely tried to cover my too-white torso with the slippery silk smock that shared the same designer as hospital gowns. With my glasses lying uselessly on the counter, I was lead flapping to the cushioned sink where my scalp was first scalded then pummelled by a young female assistant whose nicotine-scented fingers seemed intent on squeezing my brains out through my ears.
The actual styling required less than ten minutes during which “Antoine” warbled along, a semi-tone sharp and with deplorable diction, as Mimi coughed and gasped her way into soprano heaven during the “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” radio broadcast. If she could have heard my “Rodolfo,” she would have expired far sooner.
“Never heard a ’Butterfly’ quite like that,” he remarked as the applause burst forth through the theatre-in-the-round speakers.
I had to agree, then quickly nodded my satisfaction with the gelled result, got dressed, emptied my wallet and departed. I wondered if this was how a backroom table-dance felt.
Now, three weeks later, the strains of a country and western ballad crackling out of badly split woofers were welcome sounds. No one sang along.
I confess to being somewhat nervous at the prospect of losing my right-side, life-long part that this regal cut required. It reminded me of the reckless purchase of my first pair of denim jeans in celebration of my twenty-first year then actually wearing them in public three months later. Now—nearly two conservative decades later—my repressed rebel tendencies had suddenly returned.
John the Barber guided my head with great skill and a knowing touch. He would leave no fingerprints or cranial bruises. Our conversation consisted of his short commands and my subservient grunts. I wondered how many other heads his grizzled hands had held in this neighbourhood institution, which was securely nestled into the aging architectural fabric on one of the city’s busiest streets.
At the chair to my left, a steady monologue poured from an octogenarian client, whose needs could easily have been fulfilled with an eyebrow trim, into the patient ears of the junior cutter (a young man not much past 50—definitely No. 2—he did the sweeping). Clearly it was the retelling of favourite bygone stories that brought this pair together—no broom was ever needed after his visits.
As my pile of droppings grew larger, I worried that my Caesar was in danger of becoming a Skinhead. Without glasses, my furtive glances at the mirror could neither confirm nor deny my fears. Undaunted, I pushed back my apprehension and, instead, focused on the new me. This time, I’d have to share the results with others—a haircut couldn’t be left in a drawer.
In just forty-five minutes it was my turn to lead the bi-weekly staff meeting. There I’d be: centre stage, chairing, in full view of eleven colleagues. Nowhere to hide. My stomach tightened.
But as John unleashed his gleaming straight razor from its safety covering, my undivided attention returned to the present. This ancient tool required great skill but also held real danger. What if John slipped and took a deep east-west slice rather than a gentle north-south scrape? Even though we were strangers, my trust in him would reach a level that most relationships never found.
The ritual began. The hot, rich cream was placed deftly on my neck, above my ears and below my sideburns. Then, for a moment, it was left to sink in to my skin’s thirsty pores, relaxing the wayward hairs prior to their eradication. The “schlap, schlap, schlap” of tempered steel striking smooth polished leather further increased the tension. John completed the prelude by carefully testing the blade on his own finger—like blood brothers sealing a pact. Satisfied, he raised the glimmering blade to the foam.
Every request for head movement either tactile or spoken I obeyed without comment or hesitation. I could hear him work and could feel a layer of skin being torn away with the innocent stubs left drowning in the cream. The sideburns were tricky. A couple of misguided moles had sprouted some years ago and grown to the point that only world-class finger dexterity would ensure safe, bloodless navigation. John accepted the challenge but betrayed his own anxiety by quietly whistling the chorus from a song of my chairmate’s era, which was all but drowned out by the shop’s sputtering radio. His airy melody ended abruptly; cut off by the clink of the razor hitting bottom after it plopped into the tall green disinfectant jar. Then I relaxed: No damage done.
What followed was like an extended coda: the wiping away of unused soap, the generous application of a tart after-shave balm (his choice, my opinion was not sought), the blow drying of my undivided scalp, the defrocking of my neck, the satisfactory snap following the matador-like removal of the plastic-coated gown, and a final few snips of stubborn locks. He slid my glasses into place then perfectly positioned the chipped-edge, hand-held mirror to afford back and front views.
“There you are, sir.”
More than my part was gone. I found myself smiling, and liking it. My head had never been so exposed. The back of my skull was smooth and glistened in its now predominant silver. It was certainly different, yet my new “look” had always been there, just hidden under a bigger pile. Delighted, I offered my thanks.
The total was rung up on a till that required no power. I refused John’s attempt to return my change, said good day to the rest (“eyebrows” was just arriving at Normandy) and made my way up to the street.
Outside, nothing had changed: cars honked and their drivers ran lights; people J-walked or skirmished to get ahead on the sidewalks. Everyone was frantically hurrying to be somewhere else; the dank, polluted air hung thick.
I stepped carefully into the pedestrian flow and almost got sucked into the race, but then slowed down and walked with confidence to my meeting, thrilled at the prospect of showing and being myself. JWR