For Reginald Schroeder, haircuts are more than just a few minutes in a chair with scissors and clippers.
I had never been to a “professional barber” until I turned 16. I was let down as the “paid-for haircut” did not transform me into the confident man I knew I was within my skin. I thought it was my “down home” haircuts that kept my self-image small.
I was not at ease becoming so personal with a complete stranger. For 16 years I only let my father become so close as to touch my head. I felt as if I was betraying my relationship with him. Those once-a-month sittings on that high swivel no backed stool were intimate. As a child I would climb to get on that stool and once seated my father would drape the apron over me and I was king and all attention was on me. I felt important and loved.
These were the times when my father would gently “grill” my brothers and I. Dad would coax conversation. He had a way of working his will into each word we shared. No matter where a conversation started it always had a “no smoking” reference weaved into it that always included “I hope none of my boys ever smoke.” Then my father/barber would tell me about his smoking days and how he quit when the price went to 25 cents a pack. He became a former smoker, which allowed him to plant seeds of guilt in our fertile souls. Once a month he would nourish these seeds along with other moral teachings as we sat confined to that back aching stool. He always made time for my questions when I asked, “Why do poor people drive Cadillacs?” or “Why does mom cry so much?” My barber never ducked a question.
My dad was a surrogate father/barber to fatherless boys also. These boys would open up to his gentle prodding, often revealing things better left unspoken. I felt sad for them and guilty too as many of their confessions were familiar to me also. These were times that dad would set bounderies in our lives with fences laced with his morality. Dad would tweak his approach depending on personalities and what he would suspect needing the most attention. Of course he would weave the smoking issue into every child who sat on that stool.
Stranded on the stool we were trapped with a tight collar and long fall to the floor. His tools always in the same box. Sharp scissors, thinning shears, fine combs, electric clippers, an apron and the best tool of all ,a long round soft brush to remove the needle sharp hairs that fall down your neck.
Dad cut my brothers’ and my hair on the same night and when we were done we would go and get another brother who would transform from a hyper little kid to sitting perfectly still with head erect and a knot that forms in the back from sitting upright in a backless stool.
Once a month my father/barber would cut a neighbor’s hair who was wheelchair bound from a severe stroke. I would accompany Dad through the back yards to their house. This man could not talk or walk and was without contact but for his wife and Dad. The house smelled of spice and medicine. My father would tease him and treat him like he was not an invalid and that man would smile and make grunting noises in approval. Dad talked to him the entire time he cut his unruly hair and thinned his thick eyebrows. And when we were done, he would take his hand and make him promise to be kind to his wife. He would grunt and smile as we left the house and return to his motionless life confined in frustration, unable to swear or yell or slam a door.
The flat top cut was the style of the day and I wanted one badly. My father/barber was game to give it a try and bought me Butch Wax to prop up the cut and show his good faith. After that I always felt like I was the kid with the “homemade haircut” and I envied those boys with the perfect professional flat tops. I often wonder if he ever felt any guilt as he looked at his mistakes from his amateur barbering.
So, when is a haircut only a haircut? When it is impersonal and without communication? Having a comb run through your hair, hearing the snap of sharp scissors, feeling the razor cutting the fur from your neck or the electric clippers vibrating a pleasant frequency throughout your head? All these sensations can come from a complete stranger with capable hands. The importance of a touch (even if from a stranger) can be healing and keep us connected with others.
As an adult I have always sought barbering from those who I know personally. I have been fortunate to know so many with the skills that would make home visits.
Phil was a man born the same year as me, 1953. He spoke through his nose and was never married. This made him suspected to be homosexual. We became great friends and along with so many other skills, he had once been a teacher of cosmotology. He began to cut my hair and part of our monthly meetings was to have dinner at my house. Phil had lost most of his hearing (from hairdryers and tractors), so speaking was futile. I so enjoyed those haircuts where never a word was spoken but so much love was expressed through those capable hands. He was always grateful for an awesome dinner and any awkward moments of silence was the cost of being friends.
Ironically, Phil was a long time Winston smoker. That never escaped me as I sat in my director’s chair with him, remembering my haircuts with my father.
Now I sit and remember my friend Phil. 10 years my barber, 10 years my friend dead at 59.
Goddamned lung cancer.