Shorn of Plenty

Mom had no training as a barber. Neither was she a hairstylist. Fact is, Mom never could and still can't shave her underarms and get them to "come out even." Yet, up until I was 5, Mom cut my hair.

Mom had no training as a barber. Neither was she a hairstylist. Fact is, Mom never could and still can't shave her underarms and get them to "come out even." Yet, up until I was 5, Mom cut my hair.

To do the deed, she'd spread newspapers over the kitchen floor, place a chair in the center of the papers and place me on the chair. Next, she would drape an old bed sheet over my shoulders, pull it tightly around my neck and fix it firmly in place with a clip clothespin. A dishtowel, to be used should Mom shear off an unexpected ear or sever a pesky-but-vital artery, was laid nearby. Then, suffused with a dread Marie Antoinette must surely have known, I would be set upon with scissors.

Pictures from that era show a lad whose cranium resembles nothing so much as a billiard ball randomly dappled with glue and rolled in dry brown grass clippings.

Before starting kindergarten, Dad took me to get my first professional haircut. The barber, Dad's own, was named Cal — short, I've come to believe, for Callous Mutilator.

Ol' Cal had me climb into an adult barber's chair outfitted with a booster seat, in actuality a stacked pair of phone books topped with an inflatable hemorrhoid donut. Once balanced there, he gripped my head like Sandy Koufax gripped a baseball and with electric clippers flashing — twist-buzz-wrench-buzz-twist-buzz — unceremoniously cropped my thick thatch down to a short, fine, scalp-showing bristle. The kind of cut that, today, one associates with drill instructors and k.d. lang concert-goers. At the time, Cal simply said, "I call that a Leavenworth." To Dad, he added, "If you want it shorter, I can go 'electric chair close.' "

Me, I didn't want it short at all. Even at 5, I favored the long, unruly, defiant manes of Rock stars, artists and other drug addicts. But no, this was not allowed. My father, a balding, button-down, hard-nosed conservative, was determined to make his son in his own image. An attitude that, over the next few years, would also condemn me to false teeth instead of braces and summers at Senator Strom's White Supremacy Kids Kamp.

At 18, I left home, its strictures. And for the next seven years, my hair went uncut. It grew long, unbound, unmanaged. Once, at a protest rally, it was cited by police for disorderly conduct. That such a shaggy lout was able to attract, entice, even marry a woman during this same period is not so much a testament to my charm as to my good fortune in stumbling upon someone keen to shit all over the high hopes of her parents.

The decision to end my haircut hiatus was driven by my inability to find work. (Truth: Your haircut will cost you more job offers than your résumé.) No one, it seemed, was anxious to hire a man who could have benefited from reading The Ted Kaczynski Guide to Good Grooming.

For the big event, I made an appointment with a hairstylist: Tawni. Unlike a barber, I told myself, a stylist will see my surfeit of hair as raw material to be shaped, transformed. A canvas on which to create. The reality was Tawni saw it as a neglected thicket that needed pruning, thinning and quite possibly a controlled burn.

Satisfied with her inaugural effort, I stuck with Tawni for nearly a decade. And for much of it, she was friendly, efficient, attentive. But ultimately she started to take me for granted, skipping the time-consuming shampoo in favor of expediently "vacuuming out the big pieces" and adding destination charges simply for pumping the chair up to the appropriate height. After a while, though still happy with her cuts, I decided it was time to take my hair elsewhere.

I began slumming, frequenting chain salons that advertised low prices. Chains with names like "PriceShaver," "Lowball Coiffer" and "Hey, It'll Grow Back!" I liked that these places required no appointment and seemed to be bored with all their customers, not just me. I was less enamoured with who my fellow customers were — a 50/50 mix of stingy, flaky-scalped retirees on fixed incomes and young men with the trim, cautious, machine-stamped hair typical of underwear models in K-Mart fliers. Disenchantment grew as I discovered the discount cutters' skills to be lacking something. Specifically, skills.

My current stylist, Mariana, is especially talented, does superb work and is, I reluctantly admit, far from inexpensive. I go to her because, it turns out, I'm a very vain man. Because I leave her salon with a feeling of self-confidence and self-worth that it used to take a brush with alcohol poisoning to achieve. Because I've contrived a way to charge her cuts to my health insurance as non-elective surgery.

Here's something, though. Yesterday, as I sat in Mariana's chair, spending too much time, money and thought on what is, after all, nothing more than a collective societal affectation, a cosmetic manifestation of a need to blend in or stand out more, a silent though unambiguous declaration of how much or little we care about appearance, a tacit expression of alignments and estrangements, I wondered: With a head so densely packed with such horseshit, why doesn't my scalp sprout flowers?

Bob woodiwiss'a column appears here the last issue of each month. His book, Keys to Uncomfortable Living, will be published later this summer.

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