"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

At the Barbershop

At the Barbershop

As soon as I sat down in the barber’s chair, I wanted to leave. His eyes cut when they looked at me, and when I tried to ask him how he was (I hate talking to barbers, so I force myself to every time), he didn’t even reply. Instead, he sniffed, turned to his clippers and breathed out loudly as he set the grade. Dragging a hand across his mouth, he asked if I was all right. I interpreted this in three, contradictory ways:

  • He hadn’t heard me before because I was mumbling, and so he spoke to me with an air of irritation at my perceived ignorance.

  • He had heard me, but it took awhile for him to register the fact; as though we were communicating via satellite uplink.

  • I looked terrified, and he was concerned for me. It wasn’t a polite gesture, it was an anticipation of trouble.

I chose to follow thread one; this put the onus on me without being as serious as the third option. I said I wasn’t too bad, asked how he was. His reply sounded like a threat and so I shut up.

I’ve always struggled with barbershops. I find the experience of being locked into a chair, with a stranger, while they alter your appearance, incredibly distressing. When I was a child I would sit in silence and retreat into daydreams. This worked until the age of twelve, when a particularly enthusiastic apprentice asked me why I was quiet.

“I’m just thinking,” I said.

“Oh right - what about?”

“Just stuff.”

My face was burning, and I hoped that they read my humiliation as a sign to leave me alone. Five minutes later, they asked me if I was still thinking.

The barbershop - particularly the ones staffed solely by men - allow you to watch a strange pantomime of masculine behaviour that doesn’t exist in many other spaces. Men speak in a lower tone while others gently stroke the backs of their necks, reaching for topics of conversation like ‘football’ or ‘stag do’. These are spoken about in a stilted, effortful manner; as though everyone involved feels like they have to perform in a certain macho format, without really believing in any of it. I hate football and I’ve never been on a stag do, so I frequently offer up ‘politics’ as my manly subject of choice, distancing myself from my actual beliefs and entering a sort of vague, moderate viewpoint. I once did this to a barber who had, up until that point, seemed like he just wanted to get the cut done and dusted (grade four and scissors on top is a short job, but it probably drags when you’ve got me in the chair), and his face lit up. The way the words tumbled out of him…Crown Prince...Turkish government’s agenda...They’re all playing a game.

It was like we’d agreed to dodge the whole sorry business of the ‘barbershop experience’ and, for a while, I didn’t notice that he’d actually stopped cutting my hair. I’d be lying if I said neither of us were performing anymore, but it did at least feel like we’d sidestepped some of the usual barbershop bravado.

Not with this latest guy; the guy who left me feeling ever more distressed in the chair as he gripped my head between his taut hands. A strange, strangled hum coming out of him every time he exhaled. He would twist my face around between his palms like a piece of wood in a lathe - his movements went beyond machismo and into a strange sort of tired anger. The only time he really tried to strike conversation went as follows:

“This for your Christmas office party?”

“Yeah, getting my last trim in for the year - you guys having a do?”

“Yeah. Next week.”

“Off to anywhere nice?”

“I don’t know. They’ll just give me an address and I’ll show up.”

I hope you agree with me that there’s really nowhere to go from there. Because I didn’t; I shut up, and so did he.

Between the ages of twelve and twenty-four, my hair was cut almost exclusively by women. The experience is vastly different; hairdressers talk to you about their children, their holidays, their lives. This might sound like the same subject matter as your typical barber, and maybe it is - but the delivery is entirely different. I would find myself drawn in, picking up conversations and storylines across visits. In turn, they would learn about me, and over the years we would talk keenly about each other’s goings-on. I enjoyed this; it felt normal. Once, a hairdresser’s daughter dropped by to pick something up from her mum. I said hello to her as if she was an old friend, her mum immediately and effortlessly introducing me, filling in the gaps so that the whole interaction felt pleasant rather than awkward and ill-fitting.

These women never seemed to be performing; they spoke in matter-of-fact tones, inviting conversation and enjoying the messiness of it. Barbershop conversations are never messy; they are like the awkward handshake or clap on the shoulder you sometimes get after being compelled to leave a tip...despite sweating it out the entire time you were in the chair.

This time, when I gave my terrifying barber a tip, he’d just handed me a hot towel to clean my neck, clumsily dropping it then catching it in mid-air. When I congratulated his efforts, he gave me his first genuine smile. His eyes looked grateful.

The problem with men is that they don’t understand themselves, so how can they understand anyone else?

Tom Dunn is an advertising creative living in London. Recently published work includes a piece on comic book adaptations for Little White Lies, and a personal essay for men's mental health anthology HIM + HIS. Website: tomwdunn.com, Instagram: @onetrueneville, Twitter: @tomw_dunn

Cover photo by Arthur Humeau on Unsplash

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