When I was first married, I walked to Tom and Jerry’s barber shop located several blocks from where we lived, and after patronizing the business for several months, I gave my wife strict instructions never to go in. Tom and Jerry’s was quintessential barber shop material. The waiting area was a mess with Archie Comic books and severely outdated deer hunting magazines. The bathroom had a small supply of Playboys. The proprietors had been in the same location for twenty-five years and knew all the neighborhood gossip. They were friendly and hard on the verbal barbs. On a Saturday morning, Bob sat in the chair, getting the traditional gentleman’s cut complete with a sharp shave, hot towels. His girlfriend came in to pick him up. Told him she’d be down the street at the bookstore. Tom and Jerry were chivalrous and courteous to her—nothing but respect. But the minute she left, the barbers laid right into Bob. “What, you needed to get her approval or something? Make sure we were doing our jobs right?”
Yep, that was the day I told Mary never to go inside that barbershop.
The first barbershop I remember getting my hair cut at was in Botkins, Ohio. I was twelve. Two blonde girls covered head to toe in pink and gray sweats jogged past the picture plate glass window. I saw their reflection in the mirror and didn’t think anything of them, but the memory sticks in my mind because the barber stopped trimming my neck, turned, and stared at the girls.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Well, you seemed so interested in them, I thought I needed to see what all the fuss was about.”
My father was thrilled with this exchange. He had deep-seated fears I was gay. I, on the other hand, was simply embarrassed. I hated that barber. He worked hard to embarrass all of his young customers and played nothing but public radio classical music. But, I didn’t really get “it” when I was that young. I thought all barbers were pretentious pricks.
So when I received my driver’s license, I got haircuts on a regular clockwork basis every Saturday morning at a hair salon. I always had the same stylist, and she was pretty and that is why I went, and plus my hair looked good. Eventually, the salon closed and I bopped between places—mainly franchises like Great Clips. But I was always unhappy with how my hair turned out at franchised salons. In and out in ten minutes, cut with clippers, and the more customers the stylists had, the more money they made. The art form seemed to have been somehow lost.
I remember Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America film and thought maybe I needed to change my game plan and started going to an African American barber. He was old military and only knew flat top classic, short all over buzz, and throwbacks to World War One with combed over tops and tapered lower halfs. This is where I perfected my look: short, off the ears, blended with the beard, and boxed in the back.
I took my friend there once. He actually was gay, and not to stereotype but was obsessed with his feathered 1980s styled hair. Took him two hours to primp and prep to go anywhere, and he brought in magazines with how he wanted his hair to look. When he pointed at a picture and told the barber that was the kind of hair he wanted, he was laughed at. He got a buzz cut and I laughed so hard.
Tom and Jerry’s spoiled me. They were no nonsense old school. The haircuts were thirty minutes punctuated by thoughts on how much rain we had the night before, how the Cleveland Indians were doing that season. They listened to boxing on the radio, talked about weddings and funerals, always a strong pot of coffee brewed in the background.
In Nebraska a bison rancher cut my hair. He sold hand carved walking canes out of his shop and used clippers. Our move to Iowa saw me back in the salon. When we returned to Ohio, we were so broke I often shaved my head bald. But in Laramie, Wyoming there was a barber—an old dog lounged in the corner and the barber complained how the city disliked the dog, had it in for the dog. The waits here were long. Cars lined up before he opened. And though welcomed, my community revolved around the university. I felt like an outsider looking in, eavesdropping on conversations about who bought land and newly passed city ordinances. Four hours for a haircut was usual. I found myself relegated back to the franchises.
Last summer, we moved to Dover, New Hampshire and I happened upon Garrison City Barbershop. And what a such cool place with beer on tap and a wide selection of artisan pomade. Hot towels, neck shaves, beard trims no frills, affordable. I was in love. Reminded me of an edgier Tom and Jerry’s.
Several weekends past, my hair had gotten long and shaggy. My hair curling in the back, I walked to Garrison City and the storefront was empty. A hollow shell missing the tattooed owner, the beer tap, the pomade all was gone. A white sheet of paper hung in the window with a handwritten note: “moved to Rollinsford, new location opening June-ish. Sorry about any inconvenience.”
They even changed their name: Independence Barber Shop.
The business of life sometimes gets in the way of a good haircut which is the antithesis to hurried. It’s a moment to slow down and take stock, a time to count the deaths as well as the births; the barbershop is where joys and sorrows mingle.