My life came full circle last week. I was in desperate need of a hair-trimming, and I happened to duck into the same barbershop where I received my first haircut as a child during the days when barbers cut hair with dull axes and knives and were specialists in "bleeding."
I remember so well when my mother first brought me to this place of sharp scissors and buzzing clippers and long black combs dipped in a mysterious blue liquid. I squirmed and cried as if I were about to be tortured, despite the frantic reassurances from my distraught mother — and I was only 26 years old.
As I grew older, I requested, "Just a little off the top, and hold the leeches." My barber was Marvin Kennington, who had a tattoo on his arm which read, "I Love Ya Wanda." I always asked him about her, but he was vague as to Wanda's destiny. Marvin cut my hair until I was a teenager, when he became a professional wrestling referee under the name of Randy Roper and worked the matches on both TV studio wrestling and the Monday night main events at the Coliseum. We were good pals, and I always enjoyed entertaining the notion that Marvin might have borrowed my name for his nomme de guerre. It's possible.
The strange thing is that the barbershop, located in a tiny space in High Point Terrace, looks almost exactly the same as it did decades ago. I sat in the very chair I remembered as a child, and when I looked down at the footrest and saw the name "Koken," I was flooded with memories. I became wistful, as if in a personal "Rosebud" moment. I knew it was the exact same chair, even before the barber had a chance to tell me how the gears and hand pump had been refurbished and the seats reupholstered. I chose the oldest barber there, since I trust a man persistent in his trade, and also he was the only guy available. I regaled him with boyhood tales of bicycle rides and visits to the soda fountain in the drugstore that no longer existed next door. I believe the name was Farrell's, and the long-submerged memories came bursting forth, like the smell of the bubble gum that came in a pack of baseball cards, the taste of a real fountain Coke, or the challenge of a jaw-breaker.
When I was through reminiscing, I realized I had been in the chair over 45 minutes and the barber was still snipping. Although it took him awhile, my wife Melody said it was among the best haircuts I've had lately. The problem is, there's just not that much to cut anymore. I'm not looking for topiary spirals in the horseshoe fringe. Just clean me up so I don't look like Howard Hughes, and I'm good for another few months.
The only reason I went to the barber shop to begin with is that my wife won't do it. I have the beard trimmer with the hair-clipping attachment. It would take five minutes. Melody will pick my clothes, prepare my food, listen to my complaints, laugh at my bad jokes, and cuddle with me at night, but she refuses to cut my hair. She accused me of being a cheap bastard, but in truth, I've never enjoyed the barbershop experience. That's why I've had so few barbers in life.
In all my years in the Bluff City, I've had five barbers: the aforementioned Marvin Kennington, Bobby Rye, Hector Flores, Jackie Ayers, and George Perry. With Marvin it was pretty simple: buzz cut in the summer; Elvis in the winter. Bobby Rye was a bespectacled flat-top specialist with a shop on Poplar Avenue. He was a bit intense and not very talkative, but the man was an artist. Your hair would be as flat as a sidewalk, but he always left a small patch in the front to be propped up straight with a dab of Butch Wax. Bobby saw me from young adulthood until I reached the age of 18, when I stopped getting haircuts altogether. Because I was a musician and I could, my long-haired days ultimately turned into 10 years. Upon returning to semi-normalcy, my barber was Hector Flores, mainly because he was also my landlord.
When I was 19, my hair fell out. Other men's hairlines recede; mine retreated. I first noticed it in the shower when the water level rose above my ankles because the drain was clogged with ringlets of my hair. I was traumatized and pondered what could be the cause of this hair avalanche. Was it because I had let it grow and the weight was pulling it out? Was it the pot? Was it my cheeseburger diet? I finally decided that it was karma for spending too much time looking at my hair in the mirror when I thought I was a teen rock star. Now there was more on the towel and the pillowcase than on my head.
Other men begin to lose a little hair; I was shedding like a collie. I became morbidly self-conscious, which will sound familiar to any man whose hair is prematurely thin, because everyone has sport with the bald man. You can't call someone ugly or joke about anybody's weight, but the bald man is still fair game. It's improper to refer to a little person as a midget, but it's fine to call a bald man "slickhead," "chrome-dome," or "cue-ball." At high school reunions, they give funny awards for the shiniest pate. In a panic, I began to execute the comb-over to present the illusion of hair, until one night, some woman in a club exclaimed, "Hey! You're all bald on the top." In my show-biz desperation, I opted for the "hair-weave," which needed periodic maintenance for which I found Jackie Ayers. She remained my barber for the next 30 years until her retirement.
By this time, the pesky weave had been replaced by an off-the-rack, standard hairpiece. It was nothing for an old pro like George Perry to cut my hair and trim my beard in 15 minutes, but he closed his shop too, which is why I ducked into High Point in the first place. I had a public event to attend, and Melody declined to accompany me as long as I looked like a homeless vagabond. It was Melody who finally talked me out of the hairpiece. I knew I was reaching the age when I wasn't cute anymore, and the synthetic hair wasn't helping. My sympathies remain with the frustrated hairless, but it's been liberating to free myself from hairpiece bondage and all the accessories that go with it.
Today, a balding man can shave it clean, and everyone calls him sexy. Years ago, everyone would just assume he had alopecia. Although it was a nostalgic jaunt through boyhood memory, one thing about the old barbershop has changed: Men's haircuts cost $20 and beard trimming is $15. I told Melody if she thinks I'm such a cheap bastard, I'll give her the $35, drape a towel around my shoulders, and let her hack away. However, it seems more professional haircuts are in my future. I may even return to my childhood barbershop once again, except they forgot to give me my lollipop.
Randy Haspel writes the Born-Again Hippies blog, where a version of this column first appeared.