One of my favorite places in Mexico is the local barbershop; I don’t mean a chain like Starbucks for your male mop. I mean a room tucked back behind displays of cheap jewelry, or a street corner room about 15’ by 15’ with two doors, one facing each street, at 90 degrees to each other, so everyone can look in and see who’s sitting in the Forties barber’s chair; and where you can look out and see everyone that’s looking in at you.
I go to the first one, the one behind the cheap jewelry displays, next to the bank; the one that looks down Avenida Juárez toward the Mercado Juárez, a building similar to a 1870’s train station straight out of France. The other barbershop was in another town, Compostela, in another state, Jalisco. That one was staffed by two young women who treated me as a grand curiosity and worthy of a mixture of client care and intercultural flirtation. The only problem for me was they were still women. Let me explain.
In the wake of divorces, breakups and various scalp-numbing rejections, I had been cutting my own hair for maybe thirty or forty years as a way of lessening the impact of my Delilah Complex; that is to say, getting a handle on any personal caregiving that depended on the good offices of a woman with scissors in her hand. Also—before and since then—I have scorned any haircut that cost more than five dollars or smacked of styling.
I learned to run the buzzer over my own nobby skull but could never quite get all of it and would still have to ask my love to mow the rest of it in a final coup de grass.
One day, I complimented a white-haired Canadian acquaintance that I thought had a very good close-to-the-noggin haircut. He told me where to go and told me to simply ask for the Número 2. The number refers to the depth of the fence on the front of the clipper’s blades—Número 1 being the shortest cut.
Saturday morning is good, but almost anytime you’ll find a family with a father and a couple or three boys who have come to be shorn. You walk past the cheap jewelry, past barbers One and Two, then step up onto the slightly higher level in back and look for a chair in barber Three’s domain.
He nods and says, “Soon” and then turns his attention back to the father of three boys. That man is roughly forty. The barber seems to know what he wants: short on the sides and a sort of butte on top. The boy’s mother looks on, reserving comment but clearly sweet and proud of her males.
Then comes the oldest boy, who carries a handsome thicket black hair. He’s about twelve. The barber speaks from in back of the boy’s head.
“El mismo?” The same?
The boy looks at his father, looking for what—permission, guidance, a blessing? The butte forms on the top of his head, the barber dusts around his ears; and Second Son steps up, grinning as if receiving an award.
Everyone thinks this is high fun, and barber makes all kinds of observations about the speed of the boys’ growth being slower than the growth of their hair; asks whether they want to be able see out from under their mops when he’s through; and assures them they will be able to run faster afterward.
There are other customers waiting besides me. They all smile at the barber’s commentary and grin at each other; some make comments themselves; their eyes flick over at me at times to see whether the gringo finds everything equally funny. I do and spend most of my time smiling.
The littlest boy is about three or four and sports a fine mop. The barber places a little person’s seat that spans the chair’s armrests. He lifts the boy up onto it. The boy is shy; his smile appears and disappears in reaction to the banter. The barber addresses him in the same way he had his brothers.
“El mismo?” he asks. The same?
The boy looks over at his mother. She answers, “Of course!” The father nods. The boy perches a little forward, as if ready to take flight. The barber suggests he sit back. He says it gently. The boy doesn’t react. The barber asks several different ways, each one funnier than the last, and always gently. The boy looks at his father, then at his mother. It is a communication problem with a thousand factors. Finally, the barber lifts him a little and settles him against the back of the barber’s chair—intoning a brief chant that would reassure a colt. The rich black hair comes off, the ears extend sideways, the barber holds up a mirror. There’s the butte, just like his father’s. A smile lingers. With a puff of powder, the barber dusts around the neck, then lifts him down.
It has been twenty minutes at the most for all of them. The father pays; the boys say good-bye; the mother takes the littlest’s hand. The barber folds his money and wishes them all well.
He flaps the youngest’s black hair from the cloth, looks at me and nods. When he is through, my thin white hair will lie on the floor with the boys’ grackle-black shearings.
I say, “Número dos,” sweep both hands over the top of my head and make a kind of extended zupping sound to indicate removal.
He understands and begins. We do not speak. I am feeling taken care of within his culture. He is taking care of me even though I am foreign and he doesn’t know quite what to make of me—and probably assumes I don’t speak Spanish and can’t do client-barber talk.
He’s wrong about the first one. Maybe the second one will come with time.