I need a haircut. I’ve been overdue to go and get one for quite some time now, probably a couple weeks anyway. It seems to me that since I have grown a few gray hairs, it’s easier to tell when I need a haircut. It used to be that I would grow my hair long, and then “match it” with equally long and ugly sideburns… and I looked kind of cool. But, no more! Now, instead of being in style, I am almost always dead-set against it, and my gray tinted locks do not help the situation. They only magnify an already downhill spiral. So, off I go to the barber shop–happily!
Here lately, I’ve been going to Rudy and Dick’s barber shop, its close by, and I know both “Rudy”, and “Dick”… They’ve also got one of those spinning barber poles, the red and white one, and for me, that’s a big part of it. One last thing: no appointments. If you have to make an appointment, your hair is probably too long, or you could be a girl. Either way, it’s not for me.
The great American barber ship is a grand institution, but it seems to me that it could be in a state of decline. I don’t think that there are as many around as there used to be. Maybe folks are just in too big a hurry to sit around a barber shop, shooting the breeze with other guys, and waiting for a haircut. I don’t think that they’re going in for a shave; in the days before HIV and other incurable diseases, I suppose a fella could go down to his barber and get a shave so close… well, it was close. I received my first shave, the only barber shop shave that I was lucky enough to ever get, from Dorrell James, the barber who also sat me up on a booster board, and gave me my first haircut. Sadly, he’s gone now–passed away back in ’96 I think… I don’t remember that first haircut, but it’s supposed to be a pretty big deal. My mom took a picture, it’s in my scrapbook.
Let’s see here… uh, okay, shaving. I had shaved myself before, I mean, I’m not exactly sure when it was that I first “needed” to shave my mug, but it’s definitely been a while, and is a rite of passage, so I was experienced. But, I always got my hair cut at Dorrell’s, and I knew that people got shaved in there too, so I was curious about that. I think that one day, years after it was commonplace, I must’ve wandered into his shop, and asked him for a shave. If I remember correctly, Dorrell said something about it being against a State law, but to go ahead and have a seat. Like I said before, this USED to be commonplace; after the experience, I’m sad that this is no longer an everyday occurrence. Too put it mildly, it’s an AWESOME experience…
Anyhow, he sat me down, and then leaned me ALL THE WAY back in that old barber chair. Next, a steaming hot towel, pressed into my face for several minutes. Ahh…. Some hot lather, and he massaged this into my face. Very nice. Next, the man picked up his weapon, after having already honed it on his leather strap, the “razor strop”, and stretched my skin with one hand and began shaving with the other.
So, here’s Dorrell, and he’s shaving my face and neck, but he didn’t do it like I was used to, and mind you, I thought I was an expert. He would take a big swipe of lather up with that knife, and all you could see, or feel, was the quickness of the blade. This guy was fast, yet careful (he’d better be careful)! I have to admit, when he first started, and you feel that steel against your neck, I was a little scared–at the very least, somewhat uneasy. However, as we progressed, I was always conscious of his one hand hold my head steady, while stretching the skin, and at the same time, tilting my head back and forth, up and down. He was placing me against the razor, and keeping me within the confines of safety, all at once. I realized, Dorrell was in control, and the best defense… was to have no defense. Quit tensing up, and relax.
The next 5 minutes or so were the most relaxing I have had thus far.
When he had finished his work, Dorrell wiped the excess lather away, and then finished with another hot towel, he let that towel sit for a while, and I slowly re-entered the world which I left behind only a few minutes ago. As I relaxed in the chair, I was instantly aware of my space and situation.
First and foremost, I was now part of something… something that was on the way out, for the most part, at this point in time. At the time of my shave, “the shave” as it came to be known… many shops wouldn’t give a shave anymore. I know now that certain and select shops will shave you, and they apparently do so in a historically accurate way, which is cool. But, at that time, the practice was waning. At the very least, shops were shaving with safety razors, and “real” shave cream… from a can. To say that it was a watered down version of the real deal would be an understatement and I’m not interested in the watered down version.
As I sat in the chair, after Dorrell removed the steamed towel, he began cleaning his work area. The shop was empty, save for he and I, though that would change for sure, at any moment, another customer would walk in, to see his barber. I thought about that relationship. It is true that Dorrell was my barber. He was also my Dad’s, and my Grand-Dad’s barber. When I walked into his shop, there was no need to tell him what kind of haircut I wanted; I got the haircut that Dorrell gave me, whether I needed it or not. The on, lone exception to that rule was the summer when everyone was getting flat-tops, the ugliest hair cut a boy can get. I asked him for a flat-top, and I got a flat-top. The ole guy even sent me home with a tub of “Butch Wax”. Remember that stuff? It made your hair into a portrait… a sculpture! I’m pretty sure that mechanics used it for their hair, as well as an assist to rebuild transmissions. I know for a fact that it’s not allowed to be dumped in, or around, storm drains.
But I was sitting there, thinking of this kind of stuff, and it may sound goofy; but I was proud to be sitting there. There was, and still is, a part of me that joined the collective history of nostalgic Americana with that shave. I had the feeling that I was doing something that I wasn’t supposed to do, that I wasn’t allowed to do–that I was catching a glimpse of a great ship, just before it escaped its moorings, and headed to sea… presumably never to return. Go ahead and call me overly emotional, I don’t care, I know what I felt… and I still feel it today. I as now a member of a club, a fraternity of brothers, men who have a barber, and who go to a barber shop.
I mentioned earlier that I had been going to Rudy and Dick’s. I enjoy it, and a I also know that it is not the only “real” barber shop left in these United States, so don’t nobody get upset with me for badmouthing your shop… it’s just the one that I go to. I go, sit in there, make small talk, and wait for my turn in the chair. I get my hair cut, pay and leave. Tell everyone “see ya later” on the way out. My new thing is to tell Rudy that if he cuts my hair too short, not to worry, it’ll probably grow back… it does grow, but slower now than it used to. I also said a minute or two ago that barber shops, or at least barber shop shaves, were probably in decline these days. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but Rudy and Dick’s is an O.K. little shop, and they’ve got the spinning pole.
Dorrell James was MY barber. Of course, he’s gone now–nearly 20 years ago now. I miss going by to see him. He did so much more for me than to only cut my hair. He taught me the ins and outs of barber shop etiquette; wait in line, and drop a quarter in the cup for the can(s) of pop you drink. Hold still, and don’t move your head so much. Get a couple pieces of bubble gum on the way out, and I’ll see you next time. Take it easy, and tell your Dad “hello”.
And then I walked out… forever.
Dorrell finished with the hot towel treatment, and took the now damp towel away. Then he walked over, and took down a bottle of shave tonic, shook it… and splashed some on my face, patting and rubbing it in. Then he grabbed another steaming towel, and wiped and cleaned my face. “There we are now”, he said, “We’re finished”.
I rose from the chair and offered the man $5 I think, I’m sure that’s what the cost of the shave was, but whatever the cost, he refused to accept not even a dime from me. He just crossed his arms, smiled, and shook his head. No, this was to be a gift… from him to me; from a barber to his loyal customer; from one friend to another. With everything involved, from my point of view–what a priceless gift! I have to believe, at least to try and believe, especially after all these years that have passed, that Dorrell knew the value of his extraordinary gift to me. Surely he had to know that it was so much more… so much more–than just a shave.