The unkindest cut of all

"Why can't I have a regular haircut?" I asked the barber. "Is there a law against it?" I explained that I had, over the years, allowed my hair to be singed, razored, and styled, more or less willingly, but that now I wanted to return to the basic short haircut.

The barber looked down at me sternly. She was a specialist, surrounded by stainless steel implements and prepared for delicate surgery, and I was asking for the services of an intern. "Your hair is an acme of perfection," the barber said. "If I cut it as short as you say, it would undo the labor of months." She made grandiose gestures with her hands. She explained that, to destroy the balances, stresses, and curves of my hairstyle with an ordinary short haircut would be "criminal," would be "barbaric." She said she would not want to be responsible for what might follow such a complete erasing of my coiffure -- indeed, of my former self.

Usually at this point I had given in and let the barber have his/her way. Afterward, I'd walk out looking and feeling slightly absurd, but in style. I breathed deeply several times. "No," I said, defiantly. "Cut it short."

I decided not to got into how I hated to feel my hair up there, wiggling, knowing it looked like sculpture, feeling owned by it -- as though it was something I didn't really deserve, and couldn't live up to. And then one day I remembered, like a bright light shining in a dark, cobwebby place, how it used to be. You went to a barber, and he got out the old scissors and clippers, and clipped and cut away, and you walked out of the barbershop with the sensation that something had actually been done. You could enjoy the wind around your ears. Something significant had happened; you had a fresh start in life.

The barber set down her implements on the operating table and, after another futile attempt to get me to come to my senses, raised my chair to the sitting position. She studied me grimly, her hand on the point of her chin. "Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm," she said. She went into consultation with the other barbers in the clinic. The barbers, with trembling countenances, talked for several minutes, their voices ofter squealing in dismay. Clients, waiting impatiently in various stages of completion, eyed me severely. Having reached a decision on the matter, my barber dragged herself to the receptionist and talked with her in low, serious tones. The receptionist turned and looked at me and shook her head sideways, slowly. I think she had tears in her eyes. The receptionist gave my barber some important-looking papers, and my barber brought them to me.

"If you insist on going through with this madness," my barber said, solemnly, "we here at 'Eight Happy Barbers' need to be legally protected. We will need some information, in case there are . . ." (she paused and looked away briefly) ". . . complications."

I was given a lap-desk to write on, and then the papers were placed before me on the desk and I was given a pen. Panic almost set in and I nearly jumped out of the chair and ran out the door with the tissue paper around my neck and the apron hanging down to my ankles. The notion passed. What good would it do? The next barber, or the next, would do the same. And so I began to answer the questions: "Name the next of kin. Mother's maiden name. How long have you lived at your address" In case of hair-catastrophe, whom shall we notify? How long has it been since your last hairstyle?" And then the final question, or request: "Please state, in 500 words or less, why you do not want your hair styled, and sign your full name after it." I did so. The papers were snatched away and locked in a vault.

With mixed emotions I felt the hair fall from my head as the electric clippers moved coldly over my scalp. Eventually the barber finished, and there was an oppressive silence in the room. All the barbers and patients were looking at me, some merely open-mouthed, some weeping unashamedly. I got up from my chair, paid a smaller bill than I had been used to, and walked out into the world with a cool head, ready to begin in a new life.

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