Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Little Off the Top

In the politically correct climate of North America today, we are encouraged to avoid stereotypes of any kind. We are enthusiastically chastised when we say or do anything that might tread, however lightly, on the sensitive toes of our fellow man - er, human? Homo Sapiens? Or is that Queer Sapiens these days? I don't suppose it really matters when even animals have advocates that would afford them equal and possibly greater societal rights than the people who care for them and sometimes eat them. Witness a recent advertisement for a beer, Stella Artois, that was pulled for depicting a man trading his prize pig for a beer. The animal rights freaks were a little put off by the suggestion that the pig was made into the dinner special by the innkeeper. Extra! Extra! People eat pork! Wow.
See, political correctness blunts the senses, particularly that of humour. The unfortunate thing is that this shift toward total inclusion and sensitivity is rather inconvenient. Stereotypes just save so much time.
Gender stereotyping is a good one. Girls can't drive. Guys won't ask for directions. Women fall for the romantic comedies and real men don't cry at the movies. Before anybody starts butting me buts, I understand that there are obviously exceptions to every rule and there are probably very few really archetypical examples of either sex. There is probably even some guy out there who really appreciates light jazz played on the traditional Peruvian pan flute. One, maybe, but that constitutes an exception, not the rule. The broad strokes are easy and most people recognise the bigger picture without having to get into the nuanced detail.
Men are different from women. All the knee-jerk reactionary contrarian Hippie socialist arguments in the world can't change that. Besides the rather delicious physical dissimilarities, we each approach the elements of our daily lives differently. Men and women dress differently, we socialise differently and we definitely groom ourselves differently. On the subject of grooming, one specifically defining gender distinction is in the care and maintenance of our hair. Our culture places a great deal of importance on hair generally and on its upkeep in particular. I can not pretend to really understand the hair salon experience even from a male perspective. I can relate my own experience in the world of men's barbershops in an effort to foster a better understanding of what motivates manly conceits.
Women aim to get the hairstyle that they want. You know, the one in the magazine erupting from this model or sprouting from that celebrity. Men get the haircut they need. Not necessarily a good one, or even a pretty one. Utilitarian and sufficient to make it through to the next one. Many times, it is the same haircut the man has been getting since the end of highschool or college. Simple, right? Not really. That male haircut is a deceptively complex ritual with roots that spring from the most fundamental follicular essence of manliness. Allow me to illustrate my own experience at the barber to highlight my own admittedly incomplete understanding of the phenomenon.
The barbershop I have been using for the last six years has a pretty typical set up. It is a long, narrow space in a commercial plaza and is situated next to a used book store and a shoe repair shop. There is a Canadian flag out front and a red, white and blue barber pole that probably used to spin around at some time. Inside, there are three chairs and only two barbers. Eight or so old office chairs fill the waiting area where patrons read current newspapers and old magazines. The walls are decorated with large posters of outdated hairstyles as though someone might come in and say, "Hey, I think I'm in the market for a big lacquered pompadour like, ummmm… that guy!" while pointing at the appropriate photo. At the entrance are a half-dozen frames holding the autographed pictures of some minor celebrities who have been in for a trim.
When you arrive, the barber says something like, "Hey, Handsome! How you doin' today? You wanna cuppa coffee?" In my world, this is spoken with an Italian accent. Of course, that's because I only trust Italians to cut my hair. I used to have a Greek barber for a while named Peter. He had Playboy magazine in the waiting area, in case a woman wandered in by mistake, I suppose. I had to stop going there, though. One time on a hot summer day, he was cutting hair in his undershirt. Sitting so close to a paunchy, sweaty Greek man whose body hair had captured the remnants of previous haircuts sent me searching for new talent.
If you want the coffee, you have to get it yourself. You tip the spigot on the stainless steel coffee urn and fill yourself a nice styrofoam cup. The coffee is weak and only lukewarm and the styrofoam invariably attracts stray clippings of indeterminate origin. Try as you might, you will never get every one off of the cup. Even if I don't get a short, prickly remnant in my mouth, I can never avoid feeling as though I have.
When my turn comes, I go to the first available barber. I learned my lesson about playing favourites when I used to go to another barbershop before moving to the area where I now live. I used to go to a place with three barbers, but I always got my hair cut by Tony. I'm not even sure how it happened. I think he must have cut my hair by random chance a couple of times and I mentioned that I thought he did a nice job. In a while, I was just passed over by the other barbers because they thought of me as Tony's customer. I really only ever went there because it was beside the bank where I cashed my paycheques and since I got paid every two weeks, I got my hair cut every two weeks. All I ever wanted was a fast and convenient haircut. Tony turned out to be a drunk and started showing up at the bar where I worked. After cutting him off a couple of times and forcibly ejecting him from the premises, I couldn't go back to the shop where he worked. I had to move on.
Several barbershops later, I now find myself in the chair of either Rocky or Tony. Both know me and whomever I face in the mirror, he will ask about my wife and daughter, about my job and my (neverending) home renovations. Both know that I don't follow sports, but with the skill of professional barbers everywhere they will move on to weather and current events. This talent is one that barbers share with the better class of bartenders - the gift of inconsequential gab. The ability to speak about a range of subjects with any customer with the appearance of sustained interest and without raising any real controversy. During the course of this chit-chat, my hair is made magically shorter with an effortless grace that comes only with countless hours hovering over thousands of shaggy scalps.
At the end, the barber will finish up with the hot shaving cream out of the the stainless steel heater-dealie machine and a straight-razor. Ahh, the straight razor. I have never shaved myself with a straight razor, let alone another person, and I feel that any barber that still uses the straight razor is worth patronising. Bonus points if they have the heavy leather strop nearby. The razor finishes up the stubble at the base of the neck and a quick brush dusts some of the loose hair clippings from my face and head to settle, no doubt, on the stack of styrofoam coffee cups. The remainder will work their way into my shirt gradually throughout the day causing mild discomfort.
That's it. End of haircut. Total elapsed time: less than fifteen minutes. Well, longer if the waiting area is full when I arrive, but then I am rewarded with a faster cut. For all of that, I wind up with the same haircut I always do. The same, basic, utilitarian trim I have been getting for sixteen years. If Tony cuts my hair, he will occasionally say, "You shoulda getta the flat top. You havva the righta hair..." and I often agree and promise to think about it. I pay my thirteen-fifty (the price went up after the New Year) and say goodbye. I always leave with a, "See you in a couple of weeks," but I never get back in fewer than four.
Simple, fast, uncomplicated transaction. That is what appeals to men. I am totally loyal to my barber, but I don't emotionalise that committment. Faithful, but flexible - I arrive on my schedule and the relationship exists solely on my terms - I may never stray, but I reserve the right to consider my options. My barber never calls me to ask what I am thinking. I never have to go out with his friends. I have never had to spend Christmas at his parent's house. If my barber suspects I might have gone for a little trim on the side, he never mentions it and always welcomes me back with open arms.
Ladies, please don't try to send your man to a stylist. You are messing with his most perfect relationship.


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