The refuge from modern stress that is the black barbershop has received recent adulation in various media. Not least of these is the film Barbershop
, a surprisingly good (in my opinion) take on the institution which concentrates mostly on setting the scene and doesn't drape too much external plot over the course of events which cover a single day.
I was in fact raised in Upper Manhattan, but not Upper (or Eastern) enough to patronize a black barbershop while growing up. Plus, my dad is nothing if not completely un-Black in phenotype. That, plus the strained race relations of the Harlem area in the 1970s meant that his taking his son in search of one might have been a bad plan despite the fact that I had hair so curly as to form mini-dreadlocks of its own accord, and a markedly darker skintone than he. As a consolation to me in my later years, I realize that he managed to take me to a worthy substitute which, while not serving as the neighborhood social center the black barbershop can, certainly contributed to my diverse ethnic exposure during my formative years.
In any case, back to the black barbershop. Many years later, my younger brother's son is turning two years old. They live in Washington, D.C. - in the area known as Dupont Circle which, before the gentrification and gay culture renaissance it experienced in the early 1990s, was nice and run-down. As my bro and I are walking over to 'get him a haircut' before the party, I get to marvel at one block of 14th street in particular. This block has (at one end) an enormous Whole Foods market, gleaming and new. Across the street, there is a new huge condo development, with associated advertising. Next to the condo, however, in the middle of the block, is a skeezy, painted-brick front bar ('pub,' my ass) with iron bars over the windows and hand-painted signage, which marks the perimeter of said upscaling. Across the street from that, next door to the Whole Foods -
...is a black barbershop.
We head in. There are five stations, three of which have barbers at them, and three or four folks seated along the wall (which, I should note, has nothing to do with whether they're waiting for a cut). My bro heads for a station in the back and negotiates a quick trim. I'm left standing in the front, marveling at the zillion-layer-brown paint on the frontage and brick; the flyblown and grilled front window, with 'BARBERSHOP' in elaborate, almost circus capitals painted on it.
"What I do you fo', young man?" The speaker is the barber with the front station - traditionally, the 'new man.' He's perhaps in his mid seventies. I stutter something about just being with my brother, and wave about helplessly for a second. He sees the opening.
"Give you a neck shave, den? Trim th' beard?"
I'm done. "Sure." I seat myself in the chair, and my barber snaps the cloth around me expertly. He is no newbie. Inside of ten seconds, he's got the chair adjusted, my head tilted slightly back, and the electric razor in his hands.
"How close you want it, boy?" (I should note I have gray hair in said beard and hair, but am beginning to realize how comforting it is to be addressed as the young guy).
"Oh, up to you, boss." This is the correct answer, I learn from his solid nod, lower lip pooched out in concentration. He turns my head back and forth once, surveying, and starts in with the razor, using short but confident strokes. No overlaps, no hesitation, a steady rhythm.
The radio tied to the shelf between my station and the next (honest, a radio; half a boom box, a handle and single speaker, antenna canted) is playing Robert Johnson, which I can certainly appreciate. At the moment, Robert is crooning about the hounds following him, and the barber next to us (who is in his sixties) says something about "Dat's good stuff, who dat?"
There is - horror - a shock of disbelief. My capillotomist misses a stroke. Doesn't make a mistake, mind, but interrupts the rhythm. Covers by switching blades and looks over his big-ass square glasses at the offender next door. "'Who dat?' God Damn, boy, what the hell you talkin' bout? You got hit on de head as a chile?"
"Aw, shut up, Curtis, don't you be goin' on about knowin' all dat. You only nine years older'n'me, nigger, don't be puttin' nothing on, takin' nothin' off-"
"WHO DAT? Dis man jus' said who dat," he announces to three waiting patrons, all of whom shake their heads in unison and on cue. "Who dat. God damn, Leroy, I swear." He continues to cut my hair, and I risk it.
"That's Robert Johnson, pops. Father of the blues. First recorded Delta Bluesman."
I can't see him, but Curtis (working on my neck) beams. "See? MMMM-hm. Dis boy knows, Leroy! Robert Johnson. Dis boy know his music."
Leroy isn't upset, but continues the argument, which I have come to realize is merely the same as 'conversation.' "Nigger, yo' sister done warn me you was an uppity mo' fo', MMMM-hm, yep, she did. I shoulda lissened, boy."
I realize, at this point (strangeness for a Northeasterner) that I am in the American South. It's funny to realize, sometimes, how far south D.C. actually can be. The hot air from outside ladles itself over my head as another customer enters, the air conditioner laboring wheezily atop the door. Greetings are exchanged; the newcomer takes up a ragged and ancient Playboy magazine from one of the green vinyl chair seats along the wall and settles in after mumbling to one of his neighbors. Curtis moves over to my cheek.
"Leroy, I cain't understand how you c'n not know yo' blues, boy. You be beltin' out dat shit ev'ry day, heah, singin' when we tell you t'shut it, MMMM-hm?"
MMMM-hm. The very phrase has settled into my head. I have to admit that I derive special sensory enjoyment from having a haircut or a beard trim, especially from a skilled barber. The touch of cold steel or swift electric will send a shiver up my spine, starting near my coccyx and dispersing rapidly upwards out my arms to my fingertips, and up my nape to the back of my skull. Unlike most shivers, though, it leaves me cool and dry, rather than nervous or sweaty, and each stroke will send the signal again. I have learned to remain perfectly still in a barber chair, the hum of the electric chattering its soft song into my ears as the teeth slide ever so lightly across my earlobes, or along my jawline. I don't sleep, but I'm not awake; the caress of the steel has my nervous system singing me to sleep in the chair. My consciousness hovers slightly above my body, well-tuned sensorium, and listens:
"...cuz we tol' his old lady that when she come in, remember?"
"...an' he didn't go anyway, stupid foo'. Hah. Heh heh heh. 'Member she come back in heah, after dat, lookin' fo' him wit' his shit in a suitcase? Wanted to throw him outta her house without gettin' her house broken throwin' stuff at him, dat foo.' "
"MMMM-hm, yup, hah."
The generic acknowledgement, it seems, a grunted but still liquid sound intended to convey the fact that the speaker is, in fact, listening despite being (to all appearances) buried intently in the latest Playboy, or the game of checkers that has sprung up on an unoccupied green vinyl seat along the wall. MMMM-hm. I can feel a laugh, one of those body-wiggling laughs of pure happiness, threatening to well up, but I sit on it firmly - it would only be misinterpreted.
"Hey, boy." Curtis appears to be addressing me, while swiping at my throat with an electric trimmer. I can't resist.
"You evah heah Robert Cray live?"
I'm in. My MMMM-hm passes muster. I feel myself settle slightly deeper into the chair, relaxed, spoiled, home.
The neck shave, beard trim and a ceremonial pass across my 'fro with the scissors (just enough to elicit the shivers) and a spritz of Elixir across my head, and we're done. I pronounce it perfect, taking joy in Curtis' visible satisfaction, and ask how much. He realizes I don't know, and I watch his lower lip get sucked in and gnawed as he debates whether to sting me out of sheer reflex. I won't be offended.
I nod soberly, hand him six, and escape into the world outside of bright lights, modern cars, Whole Foods, and find my bro (finished already) smoking one of the cigarettes his wife won't let him smoke in the house. He tosses it, stands, and we regard each other. He raises an eyebrow.
The laugh is enormous, and shared, and we amble off down the block, two men about our business.