Back to a four-chair barbershop

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EIGHT years had passed since I had my last real barbershop haircut. During that time, I was a faithful patron of styling salons in three cities. Like an anthropologist on foreign assignment, I immersed myself in styling-salon culture. Always located in fashionable shopping malls and on trendy streets, these establishments were interior design showcases where customers sipped international coffees, herbal teas, or Perrier while they waited. My ``appearance consultant'' concerned her-self with the pH balance of my hair-care products. Sales personnel hawked shampoo gel, nonaerosol hair spray, and styling mousse. A wide range of services complemented the product line -- manicures, facials, sessions on the tanning table, and wardrobe/color consultations.

A crisis broke my styling salon perfect-attendance record. My stylist had recently married and moved to another city. An impending two-week business trip forced me to act promptly. I was a person without a stylist in need of a haircut. Because of trip preparations, I did not want to take the time to research, locate, and make an appointment with a new stylist.

So, under the circumstances, I went to a barbershop just minutes from where I live.

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Located on the backside of a strip mall in need of a face-lift, this shop is a four-chair shop -- not counting the shoeshine chair. Signs indicating the barber's first name and his day off hang behind each chair. An auto supply company's calendar and a handmade ``NO CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED'' sign are prominently displayed.

The context had changed little in my eight-year absence. Appropriate beha-viors returned without bringing attention to themselves. I hung my jacket on a hook on the wall, nodded my head, and said, ``Mornin'.'' I noted the three men waiting for a vacant chair -- all reading sections of the morning newspaper.

In search of something of my own to read, I turned to a card table piled high with magazines. Selections included Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, and Outdoor Life. Gentlemen's Quarterly, Esquire, and M were conspicuously absent.

Just as I settled down to browse through a four-month-old copy of Field and Stream, the barber in chair No. 2 (Warren/Off Tues.) looked at me and said, ``Next.'' I halfheartedly pointed to the three men reading the newspaper and shrugged. He said, ``No, you're up.''

During the next several minutes, I discovered that these men were not customers at all. They were refugees who had fled their wives' ``Honey-Do Lists,'' searching for fellowship with other men and the latest neighborhood news and gossip.

Warren draped the protective white cloth over my shoulders. A sanitized strip of tissue paper encircled my neck. Cloth and collar clipped in place, I twisted my head, chafing against the tightness.

My hair was in its just-waked-up state. Warren ran a comb through it with no apparent effect. I grabbed a handful on the back of my neck and said. ``This is getting just a little shabby.''

``Um-hum,'' he replied.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

Rapidly and with no apparent plan, comb and scissors navigated my scalp. Hair began to fall onto the cloth in chunks.

Other customers trickled in. All were 20 years my senior. Not one appeared to need a haircut. One customer entered, walked to the phone that hung on the wall behind chair No. 4, made a call, and sat down.

``I didn't hear the quarter fall in the slot,'' Warren said.

``I didn't see the slot,'' the customer replied.

Pulling out his pocket, Warren said, ``Here it is.''

Snip. Snip. Snip.

Pointing with his scissors at the cutomer who had used the telephone, Warren said: ``You see that guy right there? He's a builder and builders cut corners every chance they get. Now take that guy sitting next to him in the aqua shirt. Would you call that aqua?''

This customer had entered earlier. Warren greeted him by putting his arms to his sides and shaking his head slowly ... a ``look-what-just-dragged-in-here'' kind of greeting.

``Now don't start on me,'' said the customer in the aqua shirt. ``I came in here and have been nice to you, hoping that for the first time in 12 years I could get a decent haircut.''

The three noncustomers peered over their newspapers and joined in the laughter.

``Don't get him riled,'' I said. (I was becoming one of the guys now.) ``He's shaving my neck!'' (Yes, Warren was using a straight razor honed on a leather strop and rich creamy lather from a hot-lather machine.)

Like a preschool child who moves from toy to toy, playing with one, becoming bored and choosing another, so the conversation flitted from one subject to another: the baseball playoffs, college football, a local television weatherman's brush with the law.

Another barber and his customer were overheard talking quietly about their kids' SAT scores, a daughter's first date, and a mother-in-law's coping with the passing of her husband (a longtime customer of this shop).

A familiar ritual told me the haircut was nearly finished. The clip was released, the cloth loosened, and the paper collar removed. A freshly powdered brush began at my left ear and went around the back of my neck to my right ear. Talcum powder clouded the air about me.

The sweet smell reminded me of when, as a young boy, I sat on a board braced on the arms of the chair. My barber always concluded by ceremoniously administering a splash of after-shave lotion. It made me feel grown-up. In a room filled with men, it said, ``You're one of us.'' On this Saturday, I waited for the after-shave but it never came. My relationship with these men was not dependent on such things.

Prices were not posted. I handed Warren a $20 bill -- not wanting to break the rapport that had been established by asking, ``How much?'' Counting the change told me that this haircut (a decent one, too) cost less than one-third of what I had been paying my stylist. Plus I had the added pleasure of catching up on the day's important news and meeting some interesting neighbors.

I've received several compliments on my new ``style.'' When I return from my business trip, I just might get another haircut -- whether I need one or not. And if my Saturday ``to do'' list becomes burdensome, you might find me sitting across from Warren's chair hiding behind the sports page.

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