I’m considering trying to find a new barber. It’s got nothing to do with the price, or with the quality of the haircuts I get, either. At this point, it’s more of a compassionate move on my part—I just don’t think my barber likes me very much. Which is a shame, because we’ve only recently reached the point in our barber-barbee relationship where I have a “usual.” (I’m not positive, mind you—maybe “terse disinterest” is just his default facial expression.) It hurts to know that the two of us might be falling apart, but I suppose that sometimes that’s what being an adult is: shitty.
My barber’s name is Arlo. He’s about forty-five, with curly, silver hair that’s pulled into a neat ponytail so shiny that it always looks like it’s been freshly shampooed with Turtle Wax. He’s got gentle hands, and some of his scissors are made of that weird metal that’s the colour of oil spilled on water, sort of shiny-wet-rainbow. Something about that makes him more trustworthy in my eyes, as though a man with whimsical scissors would never intentionally give a person a lousy haircut.
Arlo’s shop is tiny: a couple of chairs and a big mirror, with a sink in one corner and benches along the opposite walls to sit on while waiting your turn. It’s like a storage unit with a barber’s pole mounted outside. I’ve been going there for six months now, ever since getting back to Toronto, but I’m starting to think that I’m not really Arlo’s target audience.
The shop is right smack-dab in the heart of Greektown, and it seems to function as much as a Greek community centre as it does a barbershop. There are always at least one or two old Greek men on the benches, impeccably dressed and noticeably not in need of haircuts. They sit there, stalwart, sipping tiny cups of black coffee and making the kind of sputtering conversation in Greek with Arlo that only seniors seem to be able to manage: lively but intermittent, more silence than actual words. This never fails to make me feel like I’ve walked into a party to which I wasn’t invited, but once I’ve entered I can’t ever think of a way to exit again that wouldn’t look stupid, so I stay. I haven’t been turned down for a haircut yet, at least, which is a good sign.
Arlo switches into English when I come in, which I appreciate. I suspect that it may be part of the reason he isn’t fond of me, however. For a guy who’s a waiter, a job which requires an exceptional amount of superficial banter (if I had a nickel for every fucking time I’ve asked someone “so, any big plans for tonight?”…), I am weirdly bad at smalltalk. Once we get past the “How are you?” and “Boy, what strange/bad/great weather we’re having, eh?” phase, I am completely devoid of material. And when I try to keep the ol’ conversational volleyball airborne, I just wind up convincing people I’m a few squirtles short of a pokedex.
BARBER: Why yes, this weather has been quite strange/bad/great recently.
ME: Do… do you ever think about hiring, like, two or three more barbers and starting a quartet?
ME: ha ha.
ME: Like not singing though I guess. Unless you wanted to.
In order to head that idiocy off at the pass, my strategy is normally just to pretend to be really interested in the different clipper attachments on the counter in front of me, and not to break my silence except in extenuating cases, such as alerting the barber to the fact that I am having the top of my ear snipped off.
I used to be so shy that I wouldn’t get my hair cut in order to avoid putting myself in the barber’s chair. You’re essentially voluntarily held hostage for whatever amount of time and awkward questioning it takes to finish—you can’t just leave halfway through a haircut. I guess I could have come to terms with my own shyness and learned how to talk to strangers more effectively, but the stare-at-clipper-heads technique hasn’t steered me wrong thus far. I worry that me being a conversationally-stilted weirdo doesn’t translate so well because of the language barrier, though, and that Arlo takes my inability to be a functioning adult as some sort of insult rather than just a personality flaw.
It’s all very complicated. I saw an ad for one of those personal head-trimmers on TV not long ago, one of those gadgets meant to give people the ability to buzz their own hair in the comfort of their proper backyard or bathroom. I don’t look good with short hair; my head is huge and lumpy as oatmeal. But the thought of avoiding barber-talk is appealing. I bet that if I got a couple of tattoos on my face, nobody would even notice my dumb-looking hair.
My mother handled my hair until I was sixteen, and she was diligent, but she just wasn’t cut out to be a hairdresser—I remember one trim in particular that left me with a half-inch of hair on one side of my head, and twice that on the other. It was still a step up from my grandfather’s infamous career as the family barber, though: my father laughs when he remembers sitting on a stool in their childhood garage, my grandfather setting a bowl on his head and snipping off anything that stuck out.
It wasn’t until I moved out that I understood why women in particular seemed so stressed about finding the right hairdresser. My attitude as a younger man was closer to “how bad could it be? It’ll grow back.” Now, in my mid-twenties, looking back on barbers is like thinking about ex-girlfriends. There’s an intimacy you develop, a security that comes with someone knowing how you like your hair to look. And after being promiscuous in my haircuts for so many years, it was the hair equivalent of catching the clap that finally turned me on to the other side.
Yet again, I had let myself grow closer to Shaggy than Fred, and I was desperate for a trim. It was late, and I had worked that morning, so after a quick meal, I stopped by a Topcuts to have my roof re-shingled, as it were. There was only one stylist there: just on the far side of middle age, rough-looking skin, and—tellingly—not such a great hairstyle. It would be a quick cut, I thought, nobody would have to know. I was young and daring. A furtive exchange of cash, late at night, and—well, you get the belaboured metaphor.
I think she must have been on some sort of illegal drug, or maybe just ignored the “suggested dose” portion of her bottle of cough syrup. I had asked for a basic trim, quick and painless, but wound up with nineties-era spikes and a huge amount of gel. She seemed continuously surprised by what her hands were doing to my hair, maybe even more so than I was. Her mom actually came in near the end and the two of them started to have a loud conversation about substance abuse over the top of my head. It lasted forever, and I left feeling absolutely taken advantage of. I did learn one key lesson, though: I realized that there is quite literally nothing a hairdresser could do to my hair that I would openly object to.
Now, I try to be more monogamous in my haircuts. Jacques, out in New Brunswick, the surly French Canadian who got good mileage with his clippers and who loved the Montreal Canadiens. Joanne, the stylist in the salon across the street from my house, who I began to see after I could no longer handle Jacques’ glowering, and who always offered to shampoo my hair (I never did take her up on that—the only thing more nerve-wracking than the thought of being a captive audience in the barber’s chair is the thought of being a captive audience while partially submerged in a sink). Ryan, on Yonge street, with the aggressively blond dye job and the equally-aggressive opinions on everything.
I miss them all in their own way—except for the Topcuts woman. She can go fly a kite.
I had my hair cut last week, Arlo again, so I’m good for another month or so. I know I’m going to be spending a big part of that time considering ways out of getting a haircut—“grow it out” is a common thought, but quickly kiboshed as I remember how dumb I look with long hair. “Do it yourself” is another good one, but I’ve tried that—and I’d sooner go back to Topcuts. Whether or not it looked anything like what I had asked for, at least that woman didn’t make me look like I’d had my hair cut with a live shark instead of scissors.
Maybe I’ll just have to consider what this relationship means to me. There have been so many good times. I’ll miss Arlo’s fine touch if I leave; miss the way he makes my head look relatively normal-sized and trims my sideburns down with a straight razor like I’m a millionaire. I don’t know if I can handle a full breakup—but the other option is just as frightening: I might have sit down in the chair, strap on the apron, and talk it out.