The Haircut

And Dignity in the Details

This piece is dedicated to Jose in Turkey. Let’s have a Mediterranean rendezvous soon, Jose!

You have to let people do what they do. I went out for a haircut last week. I hadn't trimmed my hair or my face for about six weeks and so was beginning to look like a castaway. Usually, I just use a trimmer to put my beard and my head at the same length. When your hair situation starts moving into Andre Agassi territory—during the wig era—you have to make some hard choices about how you're going to accept yourself.

I never knew that I liked my hair until it started to thin. You don't usually notice a thing until it begins to breakdown. Anyway, I think I was in Berlin in 2015 when a barber told me that it'd probably be the last time I could grow my hair out. That was news to me. But I looked in the mirror ahead of me to see the mirror behind my head, and he was right. When I got back to the States I started shaving my head; it's much easier, no fuss, and also cheaper. 

I'm always measuring things by books, coffee, and airplane tickets. A $35 haircut can equal about seven lattes, or about three books. It can also be equivalent to about 1/7th of a $250 plane ticket. However, you can buy an electric razor that will last for quite a while for just under $20. Doing this math has allowed me to feel justified buying one more coffee, or one more book here and there. 

I had a Braun shaver that I used every few weeks until we flew  over to Israel in August. I didn't pack it because I was trying to save weight in my luggage. I didn’t want to bring anything with me that I thought I could get over here. The trouble is that Jerusalem does not have many general stores. Over here, most shops sell one thing only: A kitchen supply store, a store that sells bedding, a store that sells appliances, a store that sells hardware, a store that sells cleaning supplies. This is good, I think. Many small businesses, instead of just a few super-stores, allow for healthy competition, and provide the necessary ingredients for a wider middle class. I haven't found the store that sells razors yet.

Because I haven't found the men's grooming shop I have been to two barbers here. The first one was up Jaffa, I found it on Google and got a pretty good deal by American standards. 40 shekels, which is just over $11. But that was when we were staying further up the road toward the Shuk. Now we are closer to the Old City. So for this most recent haircut I visited a place Reagan and I had walked by called Nashville Barbershop. 

I went in the afternoon, and it was Wednesday——last Wednesday. Nashville Barbershop on the corner of some streets I don't know the names of, which is another funny thing I've noticed about myself while we've been here. I don't know the names of any of the cafes or restaurants or grocery stores or bakeries, but I can tell you where they are. Learning how to read Hebrew has actually started to reverse this a little bit, but I'm still very much a landmark navigator for now. 

So, Nashville Barbershop. Gold cursive English lettering on the glass windows outside. I open the door and a bell rings as I walk in. There’s a slow blues by Stevie Ray Vaughan playing over the speakers. Two barbers in the shop. One behind a chair, and the other behind the counter. "Do you have an appointment?" the one behind the chair asks me. "No," I say. "Do you have an opening in your schedule?" They motion toward a chair in the middle of the room and facing a mirror. The usual hair-grooming utensils in cups and drawers and on the small counter under the mirror.

"What do you want?" the barber says.
"Just a buzz and a shave." I say.
"What level--two? One?" the barber says.
"One." I say.
"Would you like a fade?"
"No. No fade."

He nods.

"And on the beard--what number?"
"One."

The barber looks at me and I can sense a slight hint of disappointment. 

I remember the first time I went to the barbershop further up Jaffa, when the man cutting my hair there asked if I wanted to have my hair and beard lined up. I told him that I did not. And then he said to me, "Why not? If you don't then it won't be beautiful." So I said okay. And Reagan actually liked it. I usually think that if it's too groomed then I won't feel like myself. I'd like to leave things a little unkempt. But the sharpness of lines does have its appeal, even to me.

I look at my face in the mirror and the barber places the white foam neck-wrap around my neck. He then puts the cape on me, turns on his razor at level one, and begins to shave my head. I see his face and detect boredom. I think to myself: This shop is empty, this guy is a barber. I have come in here asking for the most simple, and boring haircut possible, requiring the least expression of his skill. I should let him do what he does.

So just after half of my head is shaved I tell the man that, actually, I would like a fade. "From level 0?" he says. "Yes, that's perfect," I say.

After he finishes with level 1 on the top of my head, and 0 on the sides, he procedes to my beard. And again he asks, "Fade the beard, too?" I say, "Yes."

He then goes about trimming my beard. The left side, the right side, my mustache, my neck.

"With the blade?" he says.
"Yes." I say.

I never like these blades, I'm a trusting person, but razor blades are sharp, and I always end up with cuts on my neck. Maybe this is because in the past the barbers who used these blades on me did not always know exactly how to stretch the skin first so the blade does not drag. This barber does, however, and ends up doing a good job. I think also that he respects my change of mind, and my decision to trust him with this blade.

He goes through the steps of visiting a nearby sink to gather a handful of cream. He lathers the cream on my left and right cheekbones, and then on the lower portion of my neck. "This cream is very warm," I think, "that's a surprise."

After the shave with the blade, the man takes a warm towel and cleans my face, then he turns to the mirror to an empty bottle of what looks like perfume. But I know it must be an aftershave, and that my face and neck are going to sting like hell any minute now. He unscrews the spray bottle, refills it from another bottle, rescrews the spray bottle, sprays some of the liquid onto one of his hands and does a second lather on my face and neck. Sure enough, this stuff stings like saltwater on a papercut, except there are a hundred of them.

I tense my face, a sharp breath in and a breath out. Damn.

The barber looks pleased. I do look good, I think to myself. I like this. My wife will like this. I should get haircut-shaves more often. It feels like it'd be a nice ritual. My dad told me that when he was a kid he got a haircut every Sunday. Ah, I wouldn't do it every Sunday; that's too many books and coffees. But once a month, maybe--that I could do.

I pay. It's a little more money than I payed at the other place. But then this haircut required more instruments and more chemicals. You get what you pay for.

I'm walking home and I think about the dignity of the profession. The air is cold on my face and neck. I feel slight stinging. I should probably start wearing scarves here soon. You really do have to let people do what they do. I walked in with the idea that I wanted the most basic and simple service, requiring the least amount of skill. But the dignity is in the details. No one walks into a nice cafe and tells the barista not to do latte art. The barista is not only a coffee maker, the barista is also--and more importantly--a human being; and for the human being to do something without the natural tendency to also make that something artful--well that's just not human. In the same way, no sane person walks into an establishment for fine Italian dining to tell the chef to give them the food, only don't plate it, put it in a pile in a bucket--that's where it's going to end up anyway. Which is similar, also, to saying, don't even try to sort out your life or make it beautiful, you're going to die eventually anyway.

And maybe that is the depressing philosophy that underlays our less thought-through attempts at simplicity and minimality—the reason why a barber vacillates between boredom and dignity, rote work and craftsmanship.

Maybe we should be more maximal, slow down, take more steps in the haircut ritual, more art in our coffee, more arrangement with our food. Less time erasing details we don't understand, and more time learning to allow the details in, the details that truly make us human. ☗