I am reminded nearly every day how much the world has changed in the short time that separates my childhood from the present. My wife recently sent me a text message from London announcing her safe arrival. Not long ago she would have been faced with the complications of an international call hoping that I would be home to pick up the phone. One might not think that a simple haircut would cause a person to reflect upon the capricious nature of our modern age. After all, the mechanics of blades slicing off hair has remained fairly constant throughout history. But each time I visit my hair salon one of my earliest memories returns to be measured against its present day scenario.
I look forward to haircuts nowadays. Not only because they leave me looking younger and more handsome but I enjoy the whole experience of pampering and personalized service. I also enjoy being in the company of the salon’s intelligent, beautiful, staff of Japanese women.
There weren’t any girls in Mr. Coffey’s barber shop when I was a boy. The closest thing to a girl in that establishment was a little sissy like me who had been pulled by the locks of his flaxen towhead by his grandfather. He sported the proper buzz cut of a man’s man and I was to be transformed into his masculine image by the angry sneer of a pulsating trimmer. The closest thing to Japanese in small town North Carolina would have been a bottle of Kikkoman if, indeed, it was available.
“Well, hello Mr. White. I see you brought your granddaughters,” Mr. Coffey, owner and operator would joke, referring to my older brother and me above the glassy tinkle of a tiny bell dancing above the door to announce our entrance. My brother got the worst of the barber’s all-in-good-fun derisions because he was also on the chubby side. So, besides comments about his mama letting his hair get long he endured digs about his mama “feedin’ him good, too.”
The staff at the salon I patronize today does not indulge in this type of playful ridicule no matter how innocent or how easily my appearance makes it for a person with a predilection for acerbic observations. Instead, I am greeted at the reception area with bright smiles and cheery hellos. In the colder months they offer to hang my coat and remain patient and pleasant as I fumble around blindly behind the fogged lenses of my glasses threatening to upset the neat piles of magazines. These are glossy fashion and design periodicals from Tokyo, Berlin and New York spread out for waiting clientele to idly thumb through.
No such reading materials were provided at Mr. Coffey’s. The best a literate customer might have hoped for was a well-read and wrinkled daily paper left behind by a freshly shaved banker. For the most part, however, anyone in for a trim sat silently or passed the time participating in the mindless palaver of middle-aged men. The topics varied but I remember them mostly focusing on the hair length and possible gender Mr. White’s grandsons. Every now and again, amid the chuckles produced by one of Mr. Coffey’s nasty bon mots, someone might feel comfortable enough to join in the fun and add their own chiding two cents. Once a gaunt shadow of a man in overalls offered that “he had a son-in-law with hair down to his shoulders if it was a inch.”
There is plenty of long hair at my salon, on both men and women alike, and it all gets treated to a luxurious wash by one of the junior staff members working her way through cosmetology school. With the same care used to handle an infant, this young woman gently lowers my head backwards into a basin of black porcelain where her soothing fingers work up a rich lather of mild, fragrant shampoo. I am then rinsed squeaky clean with warm water the smells and feels like summer rain. Towel-dried, I am lead with overly cordial gestures to the swiveling thrown of my stylist who begins to comb down the saturated strands while asking my reflection in the mirror how much of it should be removed.
If you had a wet head while seated in Coffey’s massive iron barber chair it meant you’d been caught in a sudden downpour on your way to the shop. My hair was always as dry as the scratchy paper collar fastened around my neck and there were certainly never any questions about desired style or length. Once I’d climbed into a special seat designed to elevate kids to the average height of an adult, I was wrapped securely in a smothering white smock and at the total mercy of this heavy set stranger who smelled of talcum and a stale cigar smoke.
A thick slab of ominous leather hung heavily from a hook on the back of the chair. I recognized it as the razor strop from the nightmare stories my grandfather told of a not too distant generation that brandished such sinister weapons for use upon the tender hides of naughty children and undisciplined, recalcitrant youth. As the clippers began harvesting the crop of my scalp, I focused every bit of energy a five-year-old could muster on being a good boy that didn’t fidget.
I don’t fidget now; there is nothing to make me feel uncomfortable as my stylist’s begins deftly snipping away at my dead ends. Photos ring the mirror like a wreath hung as a journal of her world travels and in each snapshot she poses in front of some famous landmark or natural wonder or at a table set with dishes of exotic food. Vacations and cuisine are generous topics for casual and enlightening conversation and in no time my head is beautifully manicured. The tiny debris left behind is rinsed away and during the application of invigorating peppermint conditioner, my temples and forehead are softly kneaded. I am given a hot towel for my face and after my new cut is shaped with pomade, my neck and shoulders receive a relaxing massage. I hit the New York streets ready for action, feeling and looking like a new man.
Mr. Coffey concluded his business by sweeping you with a few brusque and desultory strokes of a stiff bristled brush. Despite this treatment and the protective intentions of the collar and suffocating smock I always itched until my next bath. And, even for a kid, I looked terrible. I felt even worse riding home in the nauseating backseat of my grandfather’s Buick rubbing the stubble of my unimaginative Dachau trim.
Mr. Coffey and his shop are long gone now. So is my grandfather. A lot has changed since then, too. However, had they lived long enough to understand that I get my hair cut by a woman at a hair salon in New York there is little doubt that my status as a sissy among these men would endure all time.