SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 26, 2011

Hair Tonic

 

As the old dictum has it, it’s the little things that matter. Is that how it goes? I think so. Well, if not generally, it’s how it goes here. The little things do matter. Unfortunately it’s the little things that can also be the trickiest.

            The big things may be big, but they generally aren’t that tricky. In my case for instance, divorce wasn’t tricky. Blindness wasn’t terribly tricky, either. Annoying, but not tricky. And I’ve never been bothered much by the idea of dying. The big things are inevitable, they’re inescapable, so you deal with them. Try fighting them and you just end up looking more foolish than usual.

            Finding a new barber, though? Now that’s a tricky bastard.

            I’d gone to the same barber for seventeen or eighteen years, but when I moved, it would’ve been a huge pain in the ass to keep going back. A train ride just for a damned haircut? Christ, I don’t care about it that much.

            That being the case, it meant finding a new one. I’ve been in this new neighborhood for seven months now, and that entire time, I’ve been looking for a new barber without a hint of success. I’ve gotten haircuts here, but I haven’t found a barber yet. They’re two completely different beasts. A haircut is just an errand; while a barber is a culture and a style and an experience. It’s not even that I give a damn about my hair. But barbers? Well, barbers I do care about. That’s why I was having such a time finding one.

            It should’ve been simple. I wasn’t really asking for much, I didn’t think. I just had a few criteria. If a barbershop and the barber himself don’t look like they’ve been in operation since at least 1945, then I’m not interested. The place is probably some kind of fly-by-night hipster operation that’ll send me home with a mullet or a fauxhawk or muttonchops or whatever it is the jackasses are getting done to their heads these days. The stupid thing is, they’re usually things that don’t involve much actual cutting of hair. They’d probably charge me eighty bucks for the humiliation and wasted time, too.

            So the place had to be ancient—or at least operate like it was. That was number one on a checklist I’d created. If the barber didn’t have a heavy Italian or Brooklyn accent and a name like “Vito” or “Sal,” then I’d keep looking. The name mattered. Even if they had the accent, if they called themselves something like “Caesar” or “Raoul” or some other swishy one-name crap it was not the place for me. People like that generally don’t like having me around anyway, so it works out.

            Sinatra on the radio isn’t absolutely necessary, but it helps. In a pinch, Louis Prima would do.

            On the counter in front of the chair, there had to be a jar filled with black combs soaking in a mysterious blue liquid. And electric clippers had to be the primary haircutting implement. When scissors were employed, the barber had to play them like castanets when they weren’t cutting anything. There were a few other things as well, but they didn’t matter if I didn’t get through these first necessities.

            You’d think it would be simple where I was living. Neighborhood full of retired Irish and Italian cops and firemen? What else would there be around here, barbershop-wise?

            Barbershops meeting my chosen criteria might’ve been everywhere around me, but I hadn’t been able to find them. A friend took me to a place a few months back. A new place where I received a haircut from a Russian woman. I’m sorry. She didn’t do a bad job I suppose, but the whole vibe was just plain wrong, teetering toward the ugly.

            Then one afternoon while we were walking down the street, Morgan pointed out the barber pole outside a place a block away from my apartment, next to the tattoo parlor. I had no idea it was there. It was worth a shot. I was getting desperate.

            A few days later I headed out shortly before noon. I had a plan. I had that checklist in my head of all the necessary attributes, and as I encountered each one I’d tick it off. Once I hit number seven or eight, I would settle.

            Preoccupied with all this, I tapped a few yards too far and walked into the tattoo parlor, where I was informed they didn’t cut hair. “The guy next door does, though,” the helpful tattoo artist offered. I thanked him and tried next door.

            It took me a bit to find the entrance, but as I was standing there trying to figure out which one was a door and not a window, I heard a series of small, slow, shuffling footsteps approaching from inside. As they drew closer, the cane finally found the open door. I leaned inside.

            “Hello, ah . . . can I get a haircut here?”

“Yessa!,” a ragged Italian voice said. “Righta this away.”

            Well, there was one down. He took my hand and shuffled me to a nearby chair. The place was silent apart from the distant ticking of a wall clock. He took my jacket and put it somewhere. Then he took my cane and put it somewhere else. Normally I would never allow anyone to do such a thing, but I decided to trust him.

            Without a word he tucked the towel around my collar and snapped the apron across me.

            “You wanna shorta haircutta?”

            “Yes please.” That was the extent of the instructions. It was the only instruction he needed. He knew what to do. I ticked that off the list, too, even if it wasn’t on the list originally.

            The next sound I heard was a plastic comb being tapped against the rim of a jar full of (presumably blue) liquid. That was three down. A few moments later he snapped on the electric clippers. When you ask for it short and the first thing they do is whip out the clippers, you know you’re dealing with someone who knows what “short” means.

            He moved very slowly, which allowed me to deduce a few things. He was not simply an Italian—he was an elderly Italian. And best of all, he was an elderly Italian hunchback. Honest and for true. I crumpled my list and tossed it on the floor with the hair clippings. I’d found my new barber. It seemed I had, in fact, found the Greatest Barber in the World. Just to make sure, I asked him what his name was.

            “Vincenzo,” he said.

            Well, there you go.

            There was no Sinatra playing, only the incessant ticking of that wall clock and his labored breathing. He didn’t say a word. The place was completely empty. No one else was working, no one was waiting for a haircut.

            I was in the chair for a very long time. As we closed in on the hour mark, I started to worry a little. What if I’d stumbled into something here? Some Twilight Zone scenario? I’d been so damned picky about finding a barber shop that now, having found the perfect place, I’d have to spend eternity here.

            Well, I’d deal with it. Maybe he was just taking his time because there were no other customers and he needed something to do.

            Shortly after passing the hour mark he did what all barbers do even when they’re fully aware that I can’t see—he shuffled away from the chair and returned with a mirror, which he held up to the back of my head. He waited for me to comment.

            Knowing exactly what he was doing—in his case it was probably just muscle memory—I told him it was fine.

            He shuffled slowly away to return the mirror, then slowly shuffled back.

            “You wanna I should trimma th’ eyebrows?” he asked.

            “Oh, that won’t be necessary, no thanks.”

            There was a brief pause. “You wanna I should trimma th’ eyebrows?”

            “Nah, I’m fine, thanks.”

            There was another pause. “You wanna I should trimma th’ eyebrows?”

            “You know, I think that sounds like a fine idea, thank you.”

            When he was done he filled his hands with tonic and massaged it into my scalp. Yes, there was no question about it. I had found it.

            He snapped off the apron, and brushed me off from top to bottom. I was beginning to understand how he became a hunchback. He’d even given me an excellent haircut, though that of course was secondary.

            “So how much do I owe you?” I asked, assuming this would be the punchline.

            “Ninea dollar” he said.

            “Ninety?” Oh jesus Christ. I didn’t have ninety dollars to my name. I knew it was all too good.

            “No—ninea. Ninea dollar is good.”

            “Oh,” I said.

            An ancient Italian hunchback who offers the last haircut in New York—maybe the country, but certainly New York—that costs less than ten bucks? Jesus, this really was some kind of Twilight Zone scenario. I was going to head back out to the sidewalk and collide with the ice delivery man, or a chimney sweep.

            I didn’t though. Everything was as it was. And that much, I guess, was the only disappointment of the afternoon. Well, that and knowing that when I tried to go back, the place wouldn’t be there, that it had never been there.

 

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