It’s amazing how much a bad haircut will knock you off your perch, if only for awhile. I haven’t had a really bad one for years … until yesterday.
Allow me to preface this by saying I’m no stranger to bad haircuts. God bless Leo the barber – he was a kind old man. But when Mom used to drag me into his barbershop in Ashland, it was always a bad trip. She was in the habit of letting my hair get long as a kid – not hippie long, but definitely shaggy. And Leo specialized in one thing and one thing only: crew cuts. You could sit there and give him five minutes of detailed instructions. Didn’t matter. You’d always end up with the same box-headed crew cut. He cut hair like The Ramones made music – two minutes, electricity buzzing, and you were gone. The only difference was Leo didn't count off, "One - Two - Three - Faw" before dive-bombing in with his clippers.
His son who worked with him was a bit better, but it was always a gamble which chair would come open first. When I see small kids crying nowadays over what I recognize as very reasonable, longish haircuts, I have to laugh. Because Leo would give a kid reason to cry – it was like joining the army. It was that radical a departure from what you had previously seen in the mirror, just a total sheep-shearing experience that would leave most kids either wet-eyed or blubbering. The apologetic, post-haircut sucker was poor solace in that situation. You could have given me a complete set of Phillies baseball cards, and I still would have felt like shit afterwards.
This didn’t end at childhood – it went on well into my teen years, although I was relieved when Leo retired and left the business to his son, who always gave much more reasonable haircuts. And after that, I started going to a woman in my neighborhood with a chair in her basement who always gave great haircuts, which went on well through college.
New York City has always been a weird mix of barbers for me, sticking with Manhattan when I first moved here as barbers in the Bronx were geared to black and latin hair. The longest I stayed with was a Russian guy with his sons down by the gym I went to on Saturdays at 23rd and 8th. He and his sons were pretty good, but the price kept inching closer to $20 a cut, which is just too much for me.
Eventually, when I moved to Astoria, I settled on another Saturday barber on my way to the gym in the neighborhood, just walked in by chance, an old Russian guy and his son, and have stayed with him ever since. As time went on, his son stopped showing up, and the old man always seems to have a different barber working with him on Saturdays. Once, he had what was clearly a family relation, probably a nephew, and the kid made the mistake of giving me a haircut without buzzing the sides and back (which I like short … they grow in faster than the top). I should have sat there and made him do this at the end, but the kid also seemed a bit emotional, like he would be offended if I asked, and would do a bad job, so I just went to another local barber that Sunday and had him polish up the longish job the kid did on me.
Still, that wasn’t a really bad haircut. Too long, sure, but too long can be corrected. Yesterday, day before Easter, I walked in mid-afternoon, and the place was dead. The old man was sleeping. I’d have much preferred if he had snapped awake, cried out, “Hello, alt friend” and got me in his chair, because he knows my head by now and what I like. But he had a new Saturday helper, a younger guy with one of those “balding guy/closely-cropped hair” cuts who seemed real eager to cut my hair. I’m assuming he was bored out of his skull if business was so slow that the old man had been dozing.
This guy’s Russian, too, asks me what I want, I tell him #2 on the back and sides, but leave a little more on top, I like it longer on top. Da. He starts in on the sides, and man, he’s shearing me, which is good. I’m perfectly fine with the back and sides being short as I know they’ll grow in so fast, and the biggest mistake most barbers make with me is leaving them too long.
Before I know it, and without telling me, this prick runs the electric clippers over the top of my head, knocking off a huge plume of full hair.
“Hold on, buddy, hold on,” I yelled out, “I said leave it long on top.”
“But I thought you said #4 on top.”
Number 4 must be a buzz cut. I didn’t say #4 on top!
But right there, I asked myself, what does it matter now? This guy just took an alarming chunk of hair off the top of my head … it’s not like he can pick it up off the floor and glue it back on. The old man sees all this going on and cries out, “Oh, vat are you doink to my alt friend, he no like it that short!” But, again … what the fuck can you do when the guy has just made an uncorrectable error?
So, at this point, I resign myself to the fact that I’m about to get a buzz cut that would have old Leo beaming down from his cloud in heaven. There is no choice now. The guy runs the electric clippers over the top of my head … and I’m now left with the shortest haircut I’ve had since the early 70s, shorter than the one referenced above, I mean down to the nub all around, which I really don’t like, it’s just too fucking short for comfort, accents the shape of my skull, and I just don’t have one of those skull shapes that’s good for this kind of closely-cropped hair.
After he made that initial cut, the guy kept saying, “You don’t look happy.” No shit! I should have picked up on that assholish vibe the guy put out when I first walked in, that sort of brash cockiness I’ve come to associate with people who really don’t know what they’re doing, but think they can cover it up with an attitude. I’m assuming this guy must have spent some time in a barber school, getting his license and should know what he’s doing, in theory. But, as I find so much in my life, most people just don’t know how to listen. Not so much just don’t know how, they choose not to acknowledge what people tell them. Which normally doesn’t matter, but when you’re giving someone instructions on how to cut your hair …
So I’m resigned to the fact that I’m going to look like a mental patient for the next two or three weeks. Am steeling myself for going to work tomorrow, when coworkers take one look at me and ask what the hell happened. Worst of all, just feeling out of sorts and off kilter every time I look in the mirror. That's one place you should be able to look and like what you see. So I'll be avoiding mirrors for the next few weeks - really won't have any need as my hair is now so short I can't even comb it.
I’ll go back there again, probably late June or early July before I need it cut again, but that son of a bitch is never touching my head again. Hopefully he’ll be one in a series of Saturday barbers the old man has been employing, although I’m getting kind of tired of the quality of these guys coming and going. He had an Asian guy in there for a long time who was pretty good, but haven’t seen him the past two times. All I know is if I walk in, that guy is there, and the old man is there cutting someone else’s hair, I’m getting my hair cut elsewhere that rotation and trying him again in two months. I want to give this guy my business because I like him, but if his hired hands remain this incompetent and indifferent to customers, I just can’t do it. Something tells me I’m not the only one looking in the mirror after this guy got done with them and asking what the hell happened.