Main | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Usual

Even though I've lived on the Upper East Side for the last year and a half, I've been continuing to go all the way down to the West Village every other Saturday to get my hair cut. It's not convenient at all. I have to take three trains, and end to end, it takes me about three hours. But I like the convivial atmosphere at the gay barbershop, even though I don't have a particular barber that I regularly patronize there. I usually try to justify the journey by wandering around the shops on Christopher Street or having lunch downtown.

Last Saturday, running out of time to get ready for our bar hop, I decided to make a quick visit to the barbershop that is less than a block from my apartment, a place that I walk past twice a day yet have never patronized. I was the only customer, there was only one barber on duty. The place was dead quiet. As I sat there in the chair in the window, watching the snow pelt down, I realized what a different experience I was having. There was no disco music playing, no mirror-to-mirror cruising of other patrons. I was having a quick, quiet, skillful haircut from a barber who didn't needle me with endless chit-chat about dance parties or music. And I ...liked that. How odd. I had been thinking that it was for those things that I liked to go down to the Village.

I examined the barber's certificate on the wall. His first name was 17 letters long and contained no vowels. He was apparently from one of those former Soviet central Asian republics where everybody's name sounds like a book hitting the floor. Then I stared into the angled overhead mirror and, with a start, I noticed my barber's hair. He had one of the worst haircuts I've ever seen. His part started about halfway behind his left ear, and from there his stringy black hair embarked on a long, winding journey, leaving thin tracks in concentric circles around his skull before finally collapsing, exhausted, in an aggrieved pile on his crown. It had a sort of car-wreck fascination to it and my eyes were repeatedly drawn to the mirror for another drive-by.

I began to wonder, what other skilled job is out there where you could ignore the personal failings of the professional you had hired, yet still expect them to provide you with good service? Would you hire a flabby personal trainer? A mechanic whose car belched black smoke? Would you visit a dentist with missing teeth? I've had bald barbers in my life, and I suppose they could have had bad hair, back when they had hair, but this was the first time I could recall being in this situation.

My barber continued with his quiet, skillful haircut. He asked questions twice, maybe three times, reconfirming my desires. And I'd have to say, I was impressed. Part of the reason I'd always visited gay barbershops, is that gay barbers are familiar with my preferred hairstyle, something I call "disco boot camp", which is not quite a "high-n-tight", as straight barbers would give, which often leaves me looking more like an aged punk with a thinning mohawk. This Upper East Side barber grokked my style, totally. He didn't even try to shave my beard, unlike the Village barbers.

I stood up and waited by the register while he rang me up. I checked myself in the mirror and thought, "This is a great haircut. I don't have to go all the way downtown anymore. I don't have to make nonsense small talk with gabby barbers. This guy hardly speaks English. He followed instructions, he did a great job, he shut up and he didn't hit on me. I'm gonna use him from now on." I paid the man, gave him a good tip, walked to the coatrack and started putting on my hat and gloves.

Then the barber walked over, and casting a sly eye towards the front door, asked me for my phone number.

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