I've a lifetime ticket to the 'Barber of Severe'

My seven-year-old son has thick brown hair that forms a deep, soft tangle of curls. He defends his coiffure against barbers with the ferocity of a muskrat guarding its musk. Now that summer is over and school has begun, the battle is joined anew.

When I went to Ukraine two years ago to find a child to adopt, I was shown a photo of Anton, then 5. His hair was massive, unkempt, and out of control, as if it had been groomed with a weed whacker. But by the time I got to the orphanage he was sporting the standard cut, short enough to let his scalp show through. I realize now that he must have put up a withering fight.

When I was growing up in urban New Jersey, a haircut was also reason for low spirits. It seemed to us kids that all the barbers were in cahoots. Their raison d'être was to sculpt us into their image of the clean-cut American boy. I clearly remember several of the enemy.

Gene the Barber was a real man's hair cutter. It is clear, in retrospect, that his modus operandi was to listen to my request, or plea ("Just a trim, Gene!"), and then blithely ignore it as he went about making me look like my father: short on the top, short on the sides, and short in the back. I recall once promptly putting on my ball cap as I left - to hide my humiliation - with Gene calling after me, "What? You ashamed or something?"

I was a young teen before I found the courage to change barbers. (Gene the Barber on the phone to my father: "What? He don't like the way I cut his hair no more?") I wandered far out of my neighborhood into the shop of Mr. Fiore, a white-haired, older man who spoke only halting English. His place of business was alive with elderly men playing checkers and chatting in Italian. When I walked in they all looked at me, gesticulated, and fell into animated conversation.

I climbed into the chair, awash with second thoughts. "Just a trim, Mr. Fiore!" I begged.

"Short?" he responded.

"No! Not short. Just a trim. A trim!" I emphasized, gesturing with my thumb and forefinger.

Mr. Fiore - and all his paisans along the wall - nodded their comprehension. To no avail. I kept my eyes shut as Mr. Fiore ran what felt like a harrow over my head, after which he slapped on handfuls of scalp tonic with the sting of raw alcohol. As he withdrew the barbering smock he announced, "Nice and short!" while the other men sang their approval. I opened my eyes, looked in the mirror, and my heart could find no bottom. I had been shorn like a prize lamb.

There were others, including the youngish Chick the Barber, who was struggling to compete with the long-established Gene and Mr. Fiore. (Chick had a hand-lettered sign in his window: "Please patronize this store.) I went to him out of pity and desperation. To my joy, he gave me a decent trim. But when I returned a month later he was out of business - a victim, I suspect, of some anti-long hair conspiracy among the veteran barbers.

Between barbers I would sometimes turn to my father, who in a pinch would sit me on a step ladder in the kitchen and give me a crew cut, apparently the only style described in the pamphlet that came with his home hair-cutting kit. "Dad, just a trim!" I would intone futilely as the electric shear moaned over my scalp. At least my father didn't take offense when I pulled my ball cap over my head and slunk away to seethe.

I am grateful that Anton's hair grows slowly, for this means our visits to the barber are few and far between. However, after the sartorial laxness of summer the back-to-school cut was a must. I dragged him to a new barber - one who had lollipops - against his will. By the time we got there he had softened a bit, seemingly resigned to the inevitable. When we entered the shop the barber brushed off the chair and asked, rhetorically, "Well, whose hair are we cutting today?" Without missing a beat, Anton pointed at me and said, "Daddy's hair!"

It was impossible, simply impossible, to get Anton into that chair, and I wasn't willing to make a scene. So, embarrassed at having made an appointment for an uncooperative child, I crawled into the chair and endured an unnecessary haircut while Anton sat by the door, sedately enjoying his sucker. "Dad," he gleefully erupted as the barber did his work, "he's cutting it all off!"

Gazing in the mirror I saw that the barber was, indeed, going a bit overboard. "Just a trim!" I pleaded. "Just a trim!"

In the end, Anton wasn't all mischief: he was kind enough to fetch my ball cap from the car. I am wearing it as I write this.

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