Barbershop bonding

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LAST month, unconscionably and without warning, my barber retired. Having cut my hair from September 1963 until this past Christmas and without an aye, yes, or no, he quit me. I walked over from my office, peered through the window, and he was gone, along with his razors and his chair. Vince and I - I've never known his last name - used to talk about gardening, especially in the winter. And he would tell me about the vacations he and his wife took in Sicily, where everyone seemed to be standing on street corners pensioned off.

Now he himself was pensioned off, and my hair was getting longer and longer, until a man who hadn't seen me in a while said, ``What are you doing to your hair?''

``Nothing,'' I said. ``That's the trouble.''

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So then I began to think seriously of someone else. But for the male of our species, selecting a barber is a good bit like pair-bonding. It jangles the nerves and tends to last for life - or retirement. Yet this sort of bond is one of the things I like about being male: a formal relationship in which you can be as friendly as you like as long as you stick to certain conversational subjects and allow yourself only a certain range of attitude and opinion.

Only how do you go about finding a new barber? The Yellow Pages?

I knew of a shop on my daily walk, though it had a sign in its window which read, ``Hair Styling,'' and I wasn't sure what that meant or how much it cost. Was it something with a shampoo and blow dry? I'd wear a braid first. And what did the fellow charge? I was used to Vince's seven bucks, no tip, yet my wife told me she paid 25, and even then she sometimes comes home in tears.

I'm not as sensitive, yet I'm not an easy customer, either. When I was a kid our barber told me I had the worst hair to cut in the neighborhood, a double cowlick, I think he called it. The darn stuff has always stood straight up in back like tail feathers, so that the best haircut I ever had was in the Army. But that was long ago, even before September 1963.

Well, last Saturday I walked over to the place I had already scouted, and of course the whole thing turned out to be absurdly simple. Because the barber had just decided to remodel, we had a chair and four walls and some old magazines - no sign in the window or any other evidence of ``Styling.'' He didn't even remark on my cowlicks, but going straight to work, chatted about the Celtics and blacks in athletics and Jimmy the Greek in a fairly unprejudiced way.

Soon this new fellow and I were conversing with the punctiliousness of two people dancing a minuet - never running afoul of each other, never intruding, with me putting my two cents in here and there until he took off the cloth and said, ``There you are, sir.''

The charge was seven bucks.

Now that's settled. My hair doesn't look the same as before, but my fan of feathers in back would ruin anybody's work. At least I am free from anxiety and beginning to feel like part of the community again. For without such relationships I am cut off and alone. I need restrained formal acquaintances: my first employers, a few restaurant owners, teachers along the way. I've had one or two close friends too, of course, but that is different. In its intimacy, real friendship produces as much pain as joy. As I grow older, I prefer the minuet.

I have colleagues, for instance, with whom I have taught for nearly as long as I've had my hair cut by Vince. I've rarely been in their homes, or they in mine; I barely know they have children, let alone their names; and we almost never speak of anything very personal or important, outside our work. We respect each other's craft, however - perhaps for just those qualities lacking in our own. We depend on each other.

That's the way Vince and I used to be. Our relationship was very civilized, and when broken it had at all costs to be re-created. I was used to his hands, he was used to my head.

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