Wednesday, September 07, 2005
The Unkindest Cut of all
I hate haircuts. I mean I really HATE them. Every time my hair grows long I go into denial. I keep assuring myself that I don't really need a haircut yet, even after it gets to the stage where the simple acting of brushing the hair out of my face requires two pulleys, half a dozen counter-weights and a recorded announcement requesting patrons to please take their seats as the curtain is about to go up. It's only when the street cleaners association starts complaining that my long tresses are sweeping them out of a job, or when volunteers from the Sierra Club begin to hold pickets around me, loudly demanding that my hair be declared a national habitat, that I actually consider going to a hairdresser.
This is a mistake. The minute I walk into the shop a look of astonishment creeps over the faces of the staff. It never fails. It's like they're thinking - you actually expect us to make THAT look good? There'll be this brief moment of indecision while each one of them tries to fob me off on the others. Finally, one guy will be singled out (usually based on maximum youth and minimum experience) and he'll come over with a resigned air. Sidling up to me he'll whisper "You want a haircut, eh?" with a leer on his face like this is some kind of dirty secret. As though by admitting to wanting my hair cut I was establishing some sort of illicit bond between us. I feel like I've entered a brothel. I glance around to make sure no one is watching, then nod. Apparently haircuts are something polite people don't talk about.
Wouldn't it be nice if, just once, I could walk into a barber shop and ask anxiously, "isn't Leslie here yet? What about Keith, when is Keith going to come in? Oh dear. I have a showing tomorrow and I just HAVE to look my best." Or if I had the kind of hair that can be 'done' rather than just 'cut'.
Meanwhile my tormentor is leading me to The Chair. I loath barbershop chairs. They always make me think of the chairs you see in documentaries on capital punishment. You know, the kind where they strap you in and send about a thousand volts through you. The fact that the hairdresser then proceeds to drape a sheet around you and tie it up at your neck only makes this worse. I wonder if I should ask for a blindfold. I keep hoping that at the last minute there'll be a message from the Governor and I'll be free to go, all my hair still intact. I wonder if Halle Berry's on the other side of the two way mirror, watching my hair through its final moments.
The part that I dread the most about the whole operation, though, is the Question. This is the point where the hairdresser asks you how you want your hair cut, usually in some annoyingly cheerful way ("so what are we doing today?" "I'm having an endoscopy right after this to cheer myself up. What about you?"). I don't understand this. I mean look, they're the professionals right? Do brain surgeons ask you how you want your tumour cut? Does the laundry consult with you on how exactly you want your clothes cleaned? Then why can't these guys just get on with it?
The trouble is, of course, that most people have a pat answer to this. They want the back done with shears in the shape of a rectangular hyperbola, the sideburns cut in the shape of the Madonna's nose, the sides sauteed till they're the texture of the first grass of spring (before the snow has completely melted, not after). Oh, and a little off the top. I on the other hand, just want it cut SHORT. But how do you explain to someone whose entire vocation is cutting hair that you think of hair as entirely vestigial, consider haircuts a waste of time, and don't really care how your hair looks as long as it's comfortable and you don't have to bother about it for the next four months. It's like going to a Van Gogh exhibition and wondering why they don't just use photographs.
So, of course, I end up mumbling something vague like "err...um...I want it short" (imagine that - a haircut where you hair is shorter afterwards than before. what a revolutionary concept). At which point the hairdresser looks at me with disgust, decides he's dealing with a mental incompetent, and just gets on with it.
After this point, things are more or less downhill. From now on, I just sit there, eyes tightly shut to keep hair from falling into them, letting this guy reposition my head in all sorts of crazy ways, rather like a drunk trying to adjust his rearview mirror (I feel so used), trying to be patient, trying not to worry that he's secretly carving the words "I love Lucy" in the back of my head with his scissors. Trying not to imagine some Sleeping Beauty scenario where the guy pricks me with his scissor and I fall over in a hundred years sleep, only to be broken when a beautiful princess kisses me, which (let's face it) there's little chance of, specially with my haircut half done.
Oh, and the scissors. Why is it that hairdressers always have a whole array of scissors and combs in front of them - like a surgical tray? I mean it's just cutting hair, for God's sake, not some incredibly complex medical procedure. Do they even know what all those different combs and scissors are for? I have a vision of three men in surgical masks standing around:
Man 1: Oh, my God! Something's gone wrong, he's losing lustre fast. Get me a number 3 comb, stat.
Man 2: Here you are, doctor.
Man 3: No, no, Gottfried, you poor fool. Number 3 combs are for follicular infarctions. This looks more like a scalp embolism. You need to use a Wilson-Owens shunt along with a No. 6 shearing scissor. Didn't they teach you anything at hairdressing school?
By this point, the haircut is winding down. The hairdresser's trying to trim around my ears, pulling them with a presumption unknown since my second grade teacher caught me eating chewing gum in class. (More evidence that haircuts are unnatural. If God had meant man to have haircuts, wouldn't He have made the ear a more convenient shape?)
But wait. I'd almost forgotten. There's one really bad part still to go. This is the Inspection. This is the point where the guy hands you back your glasses and asks you if it's all right, often raising a mirror behind you so you can see the cut at the back. This doesn't work for me for two reasons. First, while I recognise that this double mirror thing is a neat trick, I have enough trouble relating to my face in a single mirror to be able to identify with the back of my own head. I'm usually sitting there thinking - who's that guy? Sheesh, he sure has a terrible haircut. Wonder what it's like on the front?
The other reason this inspection thing doesn't work is that I have no idea what I'm supposed to be looking for. I stare blankly at my own face. I'm comforted to find that contrary to what he seemed to be doing the guy has not raised my hair into the shape of a three layer cake complete with a little bride and groom on top. Do I like how this looks? Not really, but that's got nothing to do with the haircut - it would take some serious plastic surgery to fix that. Invariably, I'll just nod and say it's fine. At which point the guy will triumphantly pull out his scissors and make a few precise little snips, with the air of a disappointed professor. I feel like I've failed some important test. I stagger out of my chair. I can feel every eye in the place watching me, weighing me up. There's a chorus of voices in my head saying, "Right, there you go. That's one person who's never going to have sex again." I pay. As I'm going out I notice the mess my hair has made scattered all over the floor. I wonder if I should stay and offer to clean it up. I finally get out of there and begin to breathe again.
When I get back home I'll discover that my hair is still longer in front than I'd have liked it to be. This always happens. A few times early on I tried asking that it be cut shorter, only to be told (in the tone of voice one uses when addressing difficult child) that if my hair were cut any shorter it wouldn't stay. This is apparently a mathematical axiom, well known to everyone since the time of the ancient greeks. Complex physics is involved - quantum dynamics and theories of jet prepulsion play a role. I, as a mere economist, couldn't possibly comprehend it. I wonder idly what would happen if my hair decided not to stay. Would it catch the Greyhound and move to Memphis? Would I get to keep my beard or would the courts award it custody?
The final problem with haircuts, of course, is that your hair never, ever looks as good again as it did at the hairdressers. I call this the second hand car syndrome. At the barbershop you'll stare at yourself in the mirror and see someone all suave and dignified, someone who could easily pull off a bit part in Scorsese picture. Get home and you're Herbert the Hedgehog.
Oh, well. At least I won't have to do this again for the next three months.