Iowa Writes

LANDON BATES
Barbershop


        The barber's pole rotates mutely in its glass case.  Its even bands of red and blue move up and around and out of view, and again.  A remnant of old ways, of consistency and simplicity.  As a kid, I'd sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of Joe's shop and gaze until my turn came, riding the spiral cloudward. 
        Although I would never dream of uttering these words within earshot of my grizzled barber, Gabe, I've long found there to be something distantly erotic about getting a haircut.  The touching and inadvertent tickling of the scalp and ears; the scissors hovering like a hummingbird above the head, nipping at stray long hairs as if they were nectar-bearing blossoms; the sweeping of neck and face with the soft brush made of horsehair—these small acts never fail to suffuse me with warmth and generate a certain tingling.  I don't mean to suggest that I become sexually aroused during a haircut.  The sensation is comparable, rather, to the mild ecstasy I remember feeling on the special occasions when, as a boy, my mom would scratch my back to lull me to sleep at night, tracing figure eights between my shoulder blades, her hand contorted into a loving claw as she hummed some or other lullaby.  On rarer occasions, Ms. Vicky, a friend of my grandparents who lived down the street from us, would do the scratching.  She had once been a Latvian beauty, fluent in 5 languages, who resembled a silent movie star, and her delectably long fingernails raked slow tracks down my woolen back, I the happiest of cats.  Which animal analogy cannot be all that far off.  The pleasure of another person's grooming you must be deeply engrained in the DNA, must touch an ancient nerve.

        The barber's pole rotates mutely in its glass case.  Its even bands of red and blue move up and around and out of view, and again.  A remnant of old ways, of consistency and simplicity.  As a kid, I'd sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of Joe's shop and gaze until my turn came, riding the spiral cloudward. 
        Although I would never dream of uttering these words within earshot of my grizzled barber, Gabe, I've long found there to be something distantly erotic about getting a haircut.  The touching and inadvertent tickling of the scalp and ears; the scissors hovering like a hummingbird above the head, nipping at stray long hairs as if they were nectar-bearing blossoms; the sweeping of neck and face with the soft brush made of horsehair—these small acts never fail to suffuse me with warmth and generate a certain tingling.  I don't mean to suggest that I become sexually aroused during a haircut.  The sensation is comparable, rather, to the mild ecstasy I remember feeling on the special occasions when, as a boy, my mom would scratch my back to lull me to sleep at night, tracing figure eights between my shoulder blades, her hand contorted into a loving claw as she hummed some or other lullaby.  On rarer occasions, Ms. Vicky, a friend of my grandparents who lived down the street from us, would do the scratching.  She had once been a Latvian beauty, fluent in 5 languages, who resembled a silent movie star, and her delectably long fingernails raked slow tracks down my woolen back, I the happiest of cats.  Which animal analogy cannot be all that far off.  The pleasure of another person's grooming you must be deeply engrained in the DNA, must touch an ancient nerve.


*

        My first time at Gabe's Barbershop and Tavern was a revelation.  The haircut I never knew I had always wanted. While I take pride in my love of language, I've always been hopelessly inarticulate with regard to haircut instructions.  How do you want it?  How many inches off?  How thin?  Do you want it layered?  Rounded or squared in the back?  I've never known, and my panicked ignorance has resulted in many embarrassing configurations of hair over the years.  But in the chair of a skilled barber there is a sense of total security.  You do not have to worry, to strain for a peripheral peak at the mirror in order to monitor the barber's progress, interjecting desperate instructions lest you be marred and forced to wear a ball cap for the next month.  You can close your eyes and relax into the chair and enjoy the simple rhythm of the clipping. 
        Gabe is ninety-two and has been cutting hair since he was fourteen.  Which makes seventy-eight years at the craft (minus his few years serving in the Navy during WWII).  It should go without saying that the man is a consummate professional.  An artist even.  He still does the edges around the ears with a straight razor, and after each haircut I get I fold down the top of each ear to marvel in a mirror at the immaculate arches the man has achieved.  When he cleans up the back hairline he slathers the neck with generous helpings of warm shaving cream before scraping away rogue patches of fuzz, sculpting the finest border between hair and neck.  I have all but begged him for a proper old-time shave, but he is no longer willing to take the blade to a man's face, he says, since the vast majority of his customers are now old men who shake.  (He is considerably older than most, but too proud to admit to any quavering on his own part.)  Haircuts here take time.  You mustn't be in any rush. And there is only one cut.  A Gabe's Cut.  He will do what he does and that will be enough.

        Here's how it goes.  You walk in through the open door of the bar and find him toweling a beer glass behind the counter.  He looks up at you and says nothing.  A silent man in work-worn denim sits hunched on a barstool sipping Budweiser from a perspiring bottle.  You clear your throat and ask in a chipper voice, "Got time for a haircut, Gabe?" or "Cuttin' hair today, Gabe?"  He ignores you, and you wonder whether he didn't hear you or whether he thinks you're joking and doesn't appreciate it or whether he simply does not want to cut your hair.  He proceeds to do other things.  Maybe dry another glass or get the man a fresh bottle if he is empty or adjust the thermostat.  Then, when he is good and ready he shuffles past the pool table toward the open door that connects the bar with the barbershop.  You intuit that he is ready and you follow him. He uses the footpump to jack or lower the chair, depending on your height, and you settle into its orange and white leather padding, noticing the ornate metal ashtrays embedded in each armrest and trying to imagine the logistics of smoking while your arms are confined under cloth.  (Did they forego the cloth in the old days in favor of the smoking?  Did they sit and chat and smoke in the chair pre- or post-cut?  Were these armrest ashtrays for the barber?)  But you do not ask about the ashtrays.  Gabe fastens the strip of tissue snugly around your neck and then unfurls the light blue apron out in front you with an impressive whoosh, before it settles neatly upon you and he clips its collar at the back.  And then, although it takes you a few minutes, you begin to notice something very different about Gabe here, compared with Gabe behind the bar.  What you begin to notice is that he is talking to you.  He is telling you things about himself and asking you things about yourself.  He talks about his children and grandchildren and their children; about his time in Japan during the war; even about his long-dead wife, whose grave he places fresh flowers upon each Monday, closing up shop for a couple of hours in the early afternoon.  And after he finishes cutting, and he combs your hair with the old fashioned part in the side and unclips your collar and removes the apron, shaking the loose hairs to the floor, you look in the mirror at just about the best haircut you ever had and the ten dollar bill you hand him feels insufficient and you wonder whether or not you're supposed to tip him for the haircut even though he doesn't accept tips at the bar, whether paying for the haircut is somehow different since he acted differently.  But you do not tip him.  You thank him and he says nothing.  You then walk over to the bar and take a seat a few stools away from the silent man who you now notice also wears a fresh haircut under his cowboy hat.  You will allow yourself one small glass of beer before you walk out into the bright day, bolstered by the affirmation of the old world.  And when Gabe returns to the bar, after sweeping up the hair accumulated on the barbershop's tile floor, he gets the silent man another bottle and you ask for a small glass, which he pulls from the freezer and fills at the tap, and the glass is so cold that the foam overflowing from it ices a thick column down its side.  And although it is only Budweiser, but because of how cold it is and your crisp haircut and the old Western playing at low volume and Gabe standing there with his arms crossed, it is just about the best beer you ever tasted.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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LANDON BATES

Landon Bates is an essayist from California.  Currently an MFA candidate in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, he has worked previously as a musician and a curator of rare films in San Francisco.

This page was first displayed
on May 07, 2015

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