Thursday, June 07, 2007

Paul's Barber Shop---The Hair of the Dog of Memory


Recently I woke up and decided to cut my hair radically short from my past length. I am not sure what prompted such a rash decision, but I made it with all of the resolve of a Caesar on the banks of the Rubicon. I knew my usual hair stylist (a woman) loved my long hair and never cut it short enough, so I would have to go to another practitioner of the hair arts. I knew where I had to go.

Being gay, I usually avoided those barbershops with twisting barber poles out front with names like Hank’s, Joe’s and (name the town) Barbershop as they always seemed like bastions of heterosexual male culture. I gathered this from my experience as a child when my Mom took me to Mr. Blaker at the St. Albans Barbershop in West Virginia.

It was a stark white room with a geometrical mosaic tile floor which made it seem almost surgical to me. It had three chairs that had ironwork with fancy foot rests on them which reminded me of a New Orleans balcony. My memory includes barbers in white smocks, hair tonics and cologne’s of different colors in long necked glass bottles, combs soaking in blue solution, a price-list which included only two procedures “Haircut” and “Shave” (no highlights or shampooing) and the distinct scent of Pinaud talc and cologne. Leather seats (some with black tape repair on the leather) with chrome arms and legs which surrounded the vast open area between these waiting area seats and the barber chairs. Mismatched coffee tables were between these chairs with copies of the Charleston Gazette (the local daily paper) and The Sporting News piled onto them. Old guys (at least they seemed old to me) were seated in these chairs and in the corner a black and white TV with a snowy picture with an aluminum foil antenna and the current Cincinnati Reds game playing.

Mr. Blaker was somewhat sullen and after placing a board across the seat to elevate my young head higher invited me to scamper up and sit. He gave my head the once over walking around the chair working a big chaw of tobacco which made his cheek protrude. He then proceeded to wrap a piece of paper around my neck so tight I could feel the pulse of the blood in my jugular vein and secured it. A large cape came next and I, the hapless victim with mother looking on, was ready for the procedure. It took forever it seemed considering I was having a crew cut. But Mr. Blaker carefully clipped and sheared and clipped again. Hair always was down my shirt and he would slap the back of my neck with a horsehair brush full of talc every so often (I assume to whisk away some of the hair which thankfully did not get through the tight paper collar and cape and find its way down my shirt. After it was over Mr. Blaker always gave me a “cake” (we call it a “stick” now) of Juicy Fruit chewing gum for being a good boy. And I left in glee that this was over---scratching my torso on the way out due to all the hair which made it into my shirt.

In June of 2007 I decided to go into “Paul’s” Barber Shop which has been here in an almost imperceptible location on 4th Street near Five Points since I moved here in 1989. I also fugured that "Paul's" was a sign from God for an Episcopal Priest like me to patronize this barber shop. I walked into the same stark shop I remember from my childhood, stark white, mosaic tile floor and fancy ironwork on two Barber Chairs. Paul was a shorter man than Mr. Blaker and didn’t chew. He was friendly and put down his newspaper and greeted me when I walked in (no appointments, walk-ins only). This time he motioned me to the first chair and I sat down without the benefit of an elevation board. He asked me what I wanted.

Hmmm. I had not considered what kind of hair I wanted until that moment. Visions of South Pacific and Flying Leathernecks appeared in my mind and I blurted out “A Flattop”. “Do you like it high and tight on the sides?” he queried. And knowing what “high and tight” meant from gay hair cultures I said yes. At that moment I thanked God for my friendships and conversations with leather men, uniform fetishists and other over masculinized groups in gay society. They taught me “butch” hair slang.

Paul then proceeded to wrap that same piece of paper around my neck as tight as ever and securing it. A cloth cape went over me and away we went.
Paul was amazing. With scissors, an electric clipper and a razor he transformed my head from the haircut I have had since I was in High School to a new and bold military look. The hair flew and at my age I always wonder which dark ones will be replaced by lighter ones. There is a certain nostalgia that some of us with hair have when getting it cut at the half century mark. But I always sigh and secretly thank God that I still have a full head of hair and don’t have to fret over “Hair Club for Men” ads. At least I am saved that from that aspect of male vanity.

Paul whacked my neck with the horsehair brush and the full line of the green packaged Pinaud products lined his work-shelf. I reflected to him that Pinaud men’s grooming products had been around as long as I could recall and he chuckled and said something about it being “French”. Paul asked if I was from here and I said I lived only a few blocks away. I asked him about his life and career (which began in Allentown at a Hair Salon after he graduated from Beauty School in Philadelphia after returning from World War II) but decided to just do men’s hair which he has been doing for 40 years. A couple of other “older” gentlemen came in and proceeded to bury their noses in newspapers. Paul introduced me to them as two guys that have been coming to him for decades. He also told me his delight when four generations of males came in for haircuts bringing in a toddler grandson for his first haircut in this obviously patriarchal initiation into the masculine traditions of the family.

When he was nearing completion he filled his hand with hot shave cream from a little stainless steel machine and dabbed from behind one ear, down around my back hairline and up behind the opposite ear. Out came a sinister looking straight razor which he scraped back and forth across the leather “strop” which hung from the side of the chair. And in quick, surgical “chips” he made a perfect line using the razor around the base of my hair and up behind my ears. He spun the chair around and “Voila!” I seemed to be peering at a new person! Paul had given me a killer (and classic) flattop.

I gave Paul his $9.50 for the haircut and some extra for a tip and asked “You don’t have a stick of Juicy Fruit gum do you?” He smiled and said he didn’t. I said goodbye to Paul and his customers and stepped back into the reality of my own life with shorter hair but with a nostalgic flashback to my childhood to warm the journey.



At 1:38 PM, Blogger Lydia said...

No before shot of the flowing tresses?

At 1:28 PM, Blogger T. Scott Allen said...

OK Lydia, I posted a "before" shot just for you!


At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. I'm so glad you spontaneously put an end to your flowing tresses. Next time, have the barber skin the sides and back for a truly masculine look.


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