Haircuts And Mindfulness In The Barbershop

My patient wait over, I rise to take my turn, ready to exchange a few pleasantries and then sink into silence. It is time for my haircut. Very soon, I will close my eyes and let myself be taken over: by the sounds of battery-powered clippers that cut my hair down to the scalp, of scissors that click away next to my ears, trimming and shaping, of the pop music emanating from the ‘light FM station’ that is always playing in my barber shop, of the Italian and Spanish and Russian spoken in my neighborhood; by the touch and feel of hairs being tugged, falling around my shoulders, ears, and on my shirt front, of hands gently moving my head one way or the other, of razors scraping my skin. I am not disturbed or distracted, no one calls for my attention or help. My phone occasionally quivers with messages being delivered, but it is far away, in my backpack, and I cannot reach it–deliberately. Occasionally, the barber will check in to see if I want some amendment to my cut, to check to see if things look ‘OK’; I reassure him quickly so that he can get back to work–and I can get back to being silent, with my eyes closed. This is a genuinely self-indulgent state of being, a retreat from ‘the madding crowd,’ one to be savored. (A few days ago, I heard a friend say that he actively discourages his barber from speaking to him during his haircut just so he can enjoy this rare moment of solitude. I do not have to issue any such warnings; my barber is a taciturn Ukrainian gentleman who is only curious about when my semester begins and ends. And my satisfaction with the haircut and/or beard trim he has just given me.)

The haircut in the barber shop is, truth be told, a genuinely meditative moment. It offers opportunities  to be genuinely mindful; sit straight, close your eyes, and yield. Curious trances, sometimes accompanied by time dilation, result. So do naps, obviously. (The haircut is worth its price in gold just for that deliverance–as indeed, is the afternoon meditation sit that turns into an extended head-nodding session.) We have taken time out for ourselves, an act of self-directed kindness, to attend to our ‘needs’ in the midst of a busy daily schedule; and we know it. We have stepped out into a diversion; here, at the ‘tender mercies’ of our tonsurers, we sit, losing hair, but gaining considerable peace of mind. The shedding of hair is a crucial part of the experience; our hair, a symbol of indolence and disorganization, represents a burden we are here to rid ourselves of, and here we are, setting things right, casting off its baggage, ready to move on. Skinheads took this sensation to the extreme; the shaved head represented a cutting loose, a ‘getting closer to the bone,’ to the unmediated reality that lurks beneath all the cover-ups. Sitting quietly with eyes closed in a barber’s chair is the right way to think about what that entails.

A Seinfeldian Encounter In My Barbershop

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.