Finally after too many weeks, I had time today to get a hair cut. It is not one of favorite things to do; it used to be, but not anymore. For a man with straight hair combed to the right (and yes I had to check that as I wrote this, my perspective of my hair comes from visits to the mirror which always leaves me turned around), I don’t need a salon to wash and rinse, style and set, massage tight shoulders, or even a latte while being primped by professionals. I just want my hair cut. Too many places are around that offer too many options; I am a man of simple needs.
As a little guy in Orangeburg, my mom took me and my brothers to Mr. Boyds Barber Shop. It was a small shop at the old Orangeburg Mall with two chairs equipped with leather strops; hair strewn warped linoleum floor, big mirrors, and the smell of talc. I remember going there from when I was little, and Mr. Boyd would slap down a board across the arm rests to raise me to cuttin’ height, slip the bib around me, and start cutting, talking all the while.
When I went away to Clemson for college, I found several barbers within easy walking distance of campus. I quickly learned on my only visit to Clint’s to tell the barber that I am not ROTC before he starts in with the clippers. It did not take me long to settle on Charles and Al’s as my regular barbers. They were happy men with sure scissors. They were also only two doors down from my favorite bar, and the meeting place for the Outta Control Track Club.
On my own; adult male at large, I moved to Colorado and engaged in a long and at times desperate search for a proper barber. After seven years, I stumbled upon Tom’s. Tom will always be the barber by which all other barbers are measured by for me. He was a round, congenial Hispanic man in his late sixties with thick graying hair and an infectious smile. I don’t think there was ever a time that I didn't go into Tom’s and find the visitor chairs populated by a few old men jawing among themselves and with Tom. They weren't waiting for haircuts, they were just there to gab and play checkers. Walking into Tom’s past the striped barber’s pole was like stepping not back into time, but outside of it, away from the world into a nexus of manly peace. As he cut my hair over the years, he talked, Tom loved to talk. I learned he was a divorced man whose girlfriend was his ex-wife – he said things worked better that way. He talked of the blizzard of ’62, of his first wife dying from an asthma attack, of how when he was a young man, he and his brother brought a cousin across the border and up to Colorado where they hid him in a barn. The capper was that this jolly man was also a motorcycle enthusiast who rode with great pride and as often as possible a blue Harley. Seeing Tom, I felt as if I was being groomed by history in thirty minute increments. He passed fifteen years ago, and I am sure he is missed by more people than just me.
In Tom’s wake, I have found no one. I tried a barber downtown but he was soulless and worked by appointment. Most other shops I try are operated by immigrant women who cut hair with acceptable skill, but the atmosphere is more foreign to me than their accents. My hair has now become a whore for sale to the cheapest bidder - $12 at Fantastic Sams, $15 at Cost Cutters, $8 at the shop I went to today (ten minutes start to finish by a stoic and somewhat rough Korean woman).
When I think of barber shops, I think of Floyd’s on the old Andy Griffith Show. It was not a caricature or an ideal, it was how barber shops were. I grew up with one version or another of it, following the form well into my adulthood until the trail went cold. How do I share this with my grandson? How do I even convey to him that at one time manhood began not with football, sports cars, or the latest Nikes, but with a kindly man placing a board with grey chipped paint across the armrests of his chair to trim your hair and tell you a story?