“You look terrible. In fact, this is the worst I’ve seen your hair look. You should really take a picture for one of your blog posts.”
This was how my wife greeted me a couple of weeks ago. To be fair, I had just rolled out of bed and was standing in the kitchen, still in my pyjama bottoms and t-shirt from the night before. When my hair gets longish it gets curly, and lord only knows what kind of tossing and turning went on to whip my hair up into this follically sculpted mess. I didn’t bother with a picture, I didn’t see the point. I shuffled out of the kitchen and into the bathroom to see the damage. It wasn’t as bad as she said. I’ve seen worse. Sure, my hair was every which way and I was stubbly, but what do you expect? Nothing that a quick shower and shave couldn’t cure right?
Well my wife saw it differently. “It looks like you’re growing a mullet out the back by mistake and your sideburns are all uneven. This couldn’t have just happened overnight. You’ve been neglecting it for a long time.”
What she really meant was that I hadn’t used my gift certificate from Christmas yet. It is a bit of a sore point between the two of us. As I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to float from cheap “walk in” salon to another, never going to the same place twice in a row. I have about three or four regular spots, but I never know until that very moment whether I’m going to want to get a haircut, so I’ve never been good at making appointments. Keep them guessing, change your routine, OR ELSE THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON, right? The result, according to my wife, is that I always end up with terrible haircuts, and she’s not wrong. But up til now, I’ve thought of haircuts as necessary evils, minor inconveniences, not as something to be anticipated fondly or enjoyed.
So my wife’s plan was to buy me a gift certificate at a proper barber shop and then I wouldn’t have any excuse. It was a gift as much for her as it was for me. I knew what her game was all about. But she sweetened the deal when she said she also got me a hot shave. A hot shave! I don’t know about you, but I’d never had one of those and I was always a little curious. The time had come to make the call.
The “gift certificate” was weird looking. Nowhere on it did it say the name of the Barber Shop. In fact, it said nothing. It was one of those generic lined receipts that had a place at the bottom for tax and total, and on the top line in a spidery crawl it just said ‘Cut and Shave’. I mean I could have written that.
“Are you sure this is the gift certificate?” I asked my wife. “Are you sure you didn’t get a card or something with it?” That was met with a glare which meant “Stop talking and go call.”
I called up the website at work and saw a list of barber’s names and numbers. No general line. “Well, I guess I’ll just start with the first one and work my way down”, I thought. I got the first guy’s voice mail. First impressions mean a lot, and I got a pretty big douchy vibe off of this guy. His message was all “I’m all booked up this week and next week but maybe if you’re lucky I might be able to get you in earlier, blah blah blah.” Oh great. This is exactly why I don’t go to places like this. He made me feel like he’d be doing me a HUGE favour. No thanks. I went on to the next guy. Mason. I actually got through to him right away, and he said that this was his last day and he’d be off on vacation for the next couple of weeks. I was about to hang up and forget the whole thing when he said, “I could probably get you in to see Walter”. The appointment wasn’t for another week or so, but it was on my Wednesday off, so I took it. I think I made a good choice, because out of all the names listed, “Walter” sounded like an older name and you want someone with experience if they are going to be taking a straight razor to your neck. I mentioned this to Rémi, my coworker who is familiar with the place and he said, “You want an older guy? I think the oldest guy that works there is in his mid 30’s. I know a couple of people that go there and they always get Walter, though.” Okay, I felt good about this. Walter may not be the silver headed old-timey barber I had in my head, but if Rémi’s friends can vouch for him, that bodes well. And also, Stephen King fans will remember that “The Dark Man” from the Dark Tower series was called Walter, so that’s cool, right?
The day came. I got down there in good time and stepped through the door. My first thought was that I wasn’t cool enough to be in here. It wasn’t a “stylish cool” vibe, but more of a “we’re cooler than you in a casual hipster kind of feeling” vibe. There was a hi-fi in the corner which played only vinyl records. At a table in the centre was a bearded, flanneled dude with more tattoos and piercings that I thought were possible on his face who looked up as a I came in. Was this Walter?
“Um, I have an appointment with Walter at 3?” I said it more like a question than as a fact, but the guy smiled (a grotesque sight, considering all the ink and metal involved) and told me to have a seat. In the other corner was a little lounge area with a leather couch and a couple of easy chairs. A coffee table in the middle held a pile of magazines. My eye was immediately drawn to a collected volume, (in what we call in the comics business, prestige format) entitled Playboy’s Playmates: The First 15 Years. I instinctively reached for it but stopped in mid-air. A deep-seated, almost presbyterian ethic came over me and the one thought that came into my mind was “What if my Mom walked in right now?” My immediate second thought was, “What if this was a test? What if that mag was put there to see which ones of the clients were pervs? Was it a hipster test to see which ones were not cool enough to leave it alone?” My hand landed on a recent issue of Rolling Stone instead and I began flipping.
There was an article featuring the top 50 hip-hop songs and I was immediately reminded how uncool I really was. I went through the list to see how many songs I actually knew. (Reader, I knew about 10. What is that? 20%? Fail!) I began to play a game with myself to see if I knew the difference between the song title and the group. It was harder than it looked. For example, “Audio Two. Top Billin'”. Is the group “Audio Two” or is that the song name? It’s a little like, “Is it Channing Tatum, or Tatum Channing?” Nobody knows.
I was so engrossed in the article, I almost jumped when I heard my name called. It was Walter.
Walter looked like he might have been in his mid 20’s. He had a sort of “Tim Lincecum” thing going on, but with a beard and the requisite flannel. I handed over the gift certificate right away so there wouldn’t be any weirdness at the end. He took one look at it and said, “Cool” and put it in a drawer, no questions asked.
“So, it’s going to be a hair cut and a shave today. Have you ever had a hot shave?” When I told him I didn’t, he just smiled and said mysteriously, “It’s a good time”. I remembered mentioning to my dentist last week I was going for a hot shave and he said, “Spa Day!”. I never really thought of this is like a spa day for dudes, but I sat back and thought I might as well try to enjoy this.
He started with the hair cut and he asked me what I had on for the rest of the day. I told him that I was going out to this Salvadorian restaurant later and I was looking forward to drinking horchatas. A minute later Walter went over to the hi-fi and put a record on. I recognized it and said, “Vampire Weekend. Horchata!” and he smiled and said “I was wondering if you would get the reference.” I was impressed that Walter was able to make that connection so fast, and I think he was impressed that I got the reference. Another test! (and again I think I passed. Let’s just hope he doesn’t start asking me about hip hop). I ventured another comment and I said that I thought the second track on the album sounded like a Paul Simon song and Walter nodded his head. Score! Walter went on to tell me that he really likes Vampire Weekend and he went down to Chicago to see them play. Well, I started gushing about Chicago and I thought I’d risk a little something about myself. I told him that I went to see a Cubs game when we were down there. Was baseball cool? Do hipsters like sports? Did I scupper the whole encounter? Walter’s eyes lit up and said he saw a Cubs game too when he was down there. Walter likes baseball. We were hitting it off!
A minute later the hair cut was done and it was time for the main event. The shave.
Everything was slightly “old timey” in this place, including the barber’s chairs. He had to attach this weird head rest and then tilted me slightly back, until I could only see the ceiling. He asked if I was comfortable, and I sort of was, but not really. I mean, it wasn’t like I was in my recliner at home, but I was comfortable enough. “You’ll be like that for about a half an hour, so I hope you’re all right.”
He started off by putting this warm oil all over my face. “To loosen things up!”.
It was an odd sensation, having another dude oil up my face, but I guess this is part of the process. I kind of nervously asked him how many shaves he’s done, and he said when the place opened last summer he went down to L.A. and spent a weekend with an old barber who showed him all the tricks. Walter candidly told me that when he was still in barber’s school he was shaving an older guy and actually took off a skin tag with his razor. It was bleeding profusely, but he said he kept dabbing it with towels and went really slow and by the time he was done the bleeding stopped and he didn’t think the guy even noticed. At that point I told him about a mole I have on my chin, and he said he’d give it a wide berth. I noticed he side-stepped my question about how many shaves he’s actually done, but I wasn’t going to push it. No need to rattle the man with the razor, right?
The next step was this warm (again with the warm!) shaving lotion. I thought he was about to start right in, but then he surprised me by covering my entire face with a warm towel. I sort of panicked when it went on, because initially I couldn’t breathe. Was this how those Gitmo detainees felt? Luckily, Walter pushed the towel down to free my nostrils and it was actually quite pleasant. The towel stayed on until it was room temperature, and another round of warm shaving cream was applied.
Next came the razor. If you can imagine what having a straight, sharp blade pressed against your skin and dragged feels like, that is exactly how it felt! It was not like having a store-bought five-blade razor glide over your skin. This was a hand blade, that could easily slit your throat, taking hair (and the top layer of skin, I found out later) off with it. “Try not to think about Sweeney Todd, try not to think about Sweeney Todd, try not to think about Sweeney Todd….” was my mantra. It didn’t work.
I didn’t mind it on my cheeks, (that’s what SHE said), but when he got up around my nose, I could actually feel the hairs getting pulled out of their pores and I teared up a bit, I’m not afraid to admit. I could actually feel tears sliding down both cheeks, and I’m sure Walter noticed, but he didn’t stop or say anything, and I appreciated that. He did stop for a moment when someone came in and wanted to get a gift certificate, so I took that moment to wipe away the tears and get sorted.
I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between getting shaved and going to the dentist. You’re reclined in chairs for prolonged periods of time, you’re literally putting your life in another person’s hands, and traditionally both dentists and barbers wear white. (That last one is a bit of a stretch, as Walter was in jeans and plaid, but I thought I needed three comparisons to make the point).
Next came the neck, the most vulnerable part. This is the part in every Western or gangster movie where someone bursts into the barber shop and shoots the guy in the chair. I was braced for some shit to go down, but instead a strange sort of calm came over me. I trusted Walter. I had just met him, and yet he gave me no reason to doubt his ability. As I felt the blade slide over my neck, I made sure I didn’t move or even swallow. I realized that this was one of the more intimate things that could be done to you in public. I have been shaving since about grade 9, and think this is the FIRST time it’s been someone other than me doing it. Not even my wife, (although she did help me when I shaved my beard for that whole Magnum P.I. costume last year).
Before I knew it, it was over. The best was yet to come. He went over to his table and splashed some methyl aftershave on me. I’m telling you, I smelled like a candy cane and I couldn’t have been happier! The final thing was a cold towel, in stark contrast to the warm one that started the whole event. I’m glad Walter warned me that it was going to be cold, because even with that knowledge I nearly jumped out of the chair with the bracing shock of it. The towel stayed on for quite some time (until it was room temperature) and then it came off and I was returned to my upright position.
I jokingly asked if I was missing any skin tags, and Walter said, “Nah, but you’ll be red for a couple of days. You’ll be fine.” I liked that he didn’t apologize for anything; that he was just stating a fact. There was no squaring up to be done. I thought about tipping, but since it was a gift certificate, I wasn’t sure of the protocol. I didn’t have any cash on me. That was dumb, and I didn’t want to use the debit machine for just the tip, so I kind of just remained quiet. I liked this place. I could actually see this place becoming my barber shop. Hell, I make appointments to take my car in for oil changes. It’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but I’ve gotten used to it. Why couldn’t I do the same here? Just plan ahead for a few days, and then make a little outing of it, maybe go out for a wee treat afterwards or something. It’s close enough to my favourite bookstore and bakery that I could do a little loop on haircut day. My mind was racing and I had to bring it back to Earth but reminding it that there was no guarantee that they even would want me back. I mean, they were humouring me because I had a gift certificate which they had to honour and fulfill, but nothing said that I passed any tests, real or imagined. If I went out through those doors, would I be welcome again?
Just as I was about to get up and leave, Walter pressed his business card into my hand. “Just text me, and I”ll get you in next time.”
I made it! I was in! I played it cool, but I was pretty stoked. I put my jacket on and was outside in the cool air. In the mirror, the haircut looked fine, but my face was bruised and cut and I loved it. It sort of looked like I was in a fight, and I imagined people meeting me on the street thinking, “I’m not going to fuck with this guy, he looks like he just kicked the shit out of someone”. It was like my own personal “Fight Club”, and you remember what the first rule of “Fight Club” is right?
Oh……right. And I’ve got almost 3000 words to the contrary. Um, awkward. Just ignore all this, okay? It was written by my alter-ego, @tylerdurdenlibrarian anyway.