For the past few years, I’ve had my hair cut at a local barbershop, a few blocks down from where I live. It is an old-fashioned family establishment, owned and manned by a father and son pair (Italian), backed up by a Ukranian gentleman. (A classic Brooklyn institution, to be sure.) Initially, I would get my hair cut by any member of this trio, but then, eventually, I gravitated to the Ukranian barber, who seemed to have got my preferred style–a military-flavored crew cut, with a very close cut on the sides–just right. Nothing too complicated, but still. This establishment of a ‘favored’ barber brought with it, for the first time, a certain awkwardness to my visits to the barbershop.
For on occasion, when one of the father and son pair were done with their customers, they would turn to me and indicate they were unoccupied–at which point, I would say that I was going to wait for my friend to finish with his current engagement. After the first couple of times, they stopped asking me, moving on to the next waiting customer. My preference had been indicated, and matters soon found a new equilibrium. I would walk in, stake out a spot, wave on other customers while I waited for ‘my man.’ ‘P’ is a taciturn man, and my haircutting sessions with him only included a few conversational exchanges; a few pleasantries, and then, both he and I would lapse into silence while ‘P’ went about his work, competently and efficiently. (On my left, the barber’s son cut his customers’ hair in rather more conventional style: a free-wheeling conversation about sports, family, television, music–the whole nine yards.)
Then, a few weeks ago, awkwardness returned. I was due a for a haircut–badly. Unkempt and rough around the edges, I was dying to get cleaned up. My busy schedule meant that very few times in the week would allow me to visit the barbershop. One opportunity went by after another; finally, on a Friday morning, I resolved to reduce my hirsuteness before I went to work. Haircut or bust. I walked in only to find ‘P’ missing. On asking where he was, I was reassured–by the younger owner– he would be at work soon: “he shows up around this time; grab a seat.” I did so, and opened up a book to read. The minutes ticked by; my Friday could not wait for too long. As I read, I noticed that I was the only customer waiting in the shop. Once the haircut currently underway was completed, I would have the floor to myself. A previously unthinkable option had presented itself: betraying ‘P.’
And so it came to pass. As the customer ahead of me was cleaned up, I stood up and removed my jacket. I could not wait any longer. If I was lucky, my haircut would be complete before ‘P’ walked in and caught me cheating on him.
But as the white sheet went on, and as the clippers began their work, ‘P” walked in. We exchanged pleasantries; I cringed. My treachery was now a public matter. I could only hope that while my haircut proceeded another customer would engage him and distract him. But it was not to be. Bizarrely enough, for the next twenty minutes, while I received my haircut, the barbershop remained pristinely empty, even as ‘P,’ standing by his station next to me, stared moodily–and perhaps darkly and grimly–at the street outside.
That was one long haircut. It was made even more so by the fact that my barber kept up his usual stream of friendly chatter, to which I, with guilt racking every fibre of my being, reciprocated as best as I could (the Yankees, the Mets, local schools.)
Finally, the time came. I handed over my payment, included a tip, and then, as I headed out, bade everyone goodbye. Thankfully, ‘P’ squeezed out a smile–it looked like one–for me. So did the beaming young man who had just cut my hair.
I have no idea who is going to cut my hair the next time I walk through the doors of my barbershop. Stay tuned. I’m rough around the edges again.