A hair-raising, hair-lowering history

We live in an age of heightened hair awareness. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the rules were plain: women went to beauty salons, men went to barbershops. In the summer, boys lined up for their crew cuts, and girls got "summer cuts."

But it's no longer so straightforward. Hair, like sneakers and breakfast cereal, has become a complex issue. My teenage son, Alyosha, has, in the last year, become something he never was before: a primper.

In the morning he pivots and weaves in front of the mirror as he manipulates his hair with brush and comb, jelling here, teasing there. This eats up 20 minutes (at least), after which, if I instinctively reach out to pat his head in a fatherly gesture of greeting, he ducks away with hands aflutter, exclaiming, "Watch the hair! The hair!"

This, to me, is burdensome. I don't recall hair being such an issue in my teenagerhood, and certainly not in my early childhood. I grew up in a family of modest means, where even the $2.50 for a haircut could compromise my parents' delicately balanced household budget. The solution, of course, was my father's "Home Haircutting Kit."

I still remember the big yellow cardboard box that sat on the top shelf of the linen closet. In it lay an electric hair clipper, a pair of ("Professional!") scissors, a brush, and a long, tapered black comb. Every four weeks or so, my father would take out the stepladder and I and my younger brother would take turns climbing aboard for our "trim."

My father was very ceremonious about the job, throwing a white bed sheet around our necks with the aplomb of a Parisian coiffeur. During the school year he'd leave a reasonable thatch of coverage on top of our heads; but at summer's advent he'd turn on the electric shears and mow, mow, mow until, five minutes later, our scalps were glistening beneath the barest stubble.

"Nice and short," he'd remark as we disembarked from the stepladder and shuffled off through a small blond sea of curly locks.

When I reached my mid-teens, long hair had come in, but it was simply hair that had been allowed to grow out in whatever direction it chose. The idea of styling men's hair had not yet arrived, and the idea of a guy going to a salon was not even on the horizon.

When I went off to the Navy, hair once again became a nonissue. We had a barber on the ship whose job was to cut Navy hair to regulation length ("regulation shortness" would be a better description). I think it was during that four-year period that everything about hair in the "outside" world changed.

Upon my discharge, I took up the life I now lead in Maine. I recall, after a few weeks, searching for a barbershop for my first "civvie" haircut in quite some time. Only I had trouble finding the kind of barbershop I had always known: red-and-white striped barber pole, owner in white smock, vinyl waiting chairs, stack of sports magazines.

What I did find was any number of hair "salons," "parlors," and "pavilions" with names like "The Hair Hut," "Kute Kutters," and "Hair-o-Plane." All of them were staffed with young women who moved sprightly about with clippers and comb while rock 'n' roll blared from speakers. And the prices were, well, hair-raising.

Looking for any port in a storm, I entered one such salon with great trepidation. A woman named Candy invited me to have a seat. "The usual?" she asked.

"Sure," I said. "A little off the top and a little off the sides."

Candy went to work with great self-assurance, talking to me as if she had known me all her life, taking pains to discuss the structure and physiology of my hair as she worked it and poured various sticky substances into it.

The process seemed to take forever, and I felt my hair being urged in directions that seemed contrary to its nature. So much fuss for something that is, after all, dead.

When Candy was done, she spun me about to face the mirror. Aieee! She had sculpted my hair into a puffy, hatlike crown - the kind of odd haircut one associates with East European communist leaders of the '50s. This, for $16?

I sealed my baseball cap over my head and skulked away as quickly as I could. I realized then and there that, when it came to hair, I felt much as Calvin Coolidge did when he remarked, "I do not fit into these times." In this light, I redoubled my efforts to locate an old-fashioned barbershop and eventually found one in Bangor.

Don, the proprietor, played no rock 'n' roll, dispensed no goos, and engaged in no discussions of hair-o-dynamics. He was just a reasonably articulate barber in a collared shirt who cut hair for a fair price but would, under duress, style it as a sort of nod to modern tastes.

When I first took Alyosha to Don, my son hesitated to go in because the shop looked so minimalist, so like someplace his father would go for a haircut.

But when I pointed out the little sign that read "style cuts," he relaxed and now won't think of going anywhere else. Alyosha keeps his hair quite short, so in his case one can't easily tell the difference between a regular and a style cut. This blurred distinction has kept both of us - and my wallet - content.

If only Don would put on a white smock, my happiness would be complete.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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