TODAY I HAD my hair cut at one of the many hip Toronto salons, and I found myself recalling the many haircuts I’ve had. Long ago, when my youthful hair was of unadulterated pepper, a haircut meant a visit to the barber. I don’t know that the word style was of any application to the trade, and in either case what a boy got from the barber of the 1950s to the early ’70s was always the same, at every visit and for every boy. I can’t imagine my mid-century european barbers, who had wielded a scissors and straight-razor through war and possibly also the Depression, submitting to the modish term hair stylist. But then, these were the days before everything, even life itself, became a style.
In every town and city a remnant of the once-ubiquitous barber shop remains, but most of us now get our hair cut by the stylist, at considerable cost and with a good degree of fuss. A trip to the stylist begins with the question “How would you like your hair styled” and ends “Do you use product?” (This question always brings to my mind the mysterious words Grade A Product, so of course I answer, “Yes, I use eggs.”) Thereafter the bill, of roughly $50 for a man and much more for a woman.
Whereas the barber is without exception a no-nonsense man in (at the minimum) his fourth decade, the stylist is often a woman of twenty-some years. I don’t know if there is a supervising body that keeps the young barber out-of-shop and the old stylist out-of-salon, but these operations sort themselves out as if there were. From the outset the salon and shop are a study of contrasts. The barber wets your hair and gets on with it; the stylist puts something on your head that I gather is designed to smell like the oil of an essence of the whatever and massages your head for five minutes, while you enjoy the salon’s discerning selection of Very Hip Music.
Now in the chair, the business of perfunctory chat ensues. If it’s your first visit, the barber will complain about the government and taxes, confident of your commiseration, and the stylist will pleasantly affect interest in your hobbies and work and family. Thereafter, and over time, the conversational norms of familiarity will soak in, so that eventually the barber will complain about government and taxes and ask how the wife is, and the stylist likewise introducing questions about children and so forth. One could go on and on in this making of distinctions, but there are also many consistencies across this little salon-shop binary of mine.
For example: getting your hair cut is much like finding someone has come into your home and moved all the furniture. Whether I very much like the hair cut I’ve been dealt, or I very much dislike it, my immediate impulse on leaving the shop is to go home and shower. The haircut, in other words, is the exact follicular equivalent of an interior re-decoration. The hair which accompanies you as you depart is not your hair — it is someone else’s interpretation of your hair, perhaps well-meant but all the same an imposition. In that awkward space between your haircut and your next shower, you are a ventriloquist act in which the effort of someone no longer present, pretending to be you, lingers. Everyone who knows you sees this, but you are compensated slightly by the frisson of walking home among strangers under an assumed identity.
Somewhere on my personal list of the Unacknowledged Social Inequities is the cost of haircuts for short-haired women as against those of long-haired men. I may as well come out and say, and forgive my bluntness, that in some areas of human social and economic life your genitals still determine your treatment: the haircut is one such area. I protest this as a longtime, long-haired man. For many years I’ve benefitted from the economic privileges of my sex, and while there has long been an equal pay for equal work movement, I’ve yet to encounter the stirrings of an equal charge for equal hair revolution. Maybe it is on the way, and if so do count on my support.
Despite what I’ve stated, I don’t exactly mind the overpriced salon experience, but I’m not entirely at peace with it either. The head massage is nice, but I spoil it to a great degree by spending the entire time thinking about how icked I would be massaging the heads of icky strangers. This is a variation of Groucho Marx’s assertion that he’d never join a club that would have him as a member, and like Marx’s dictum, my slight discomfort at having someone getting all groovy-like with my scalp works against what I suppose is meant to be a simple human pleasure.
My goodness, how did a fucking haircut get so complicated? Doubtless in the manner of everything else in this world, by means of one improvement after another. So I choose to enjoy it, and even insist upon it. I’ll go back to the barber — but I will also have the salon experience, which includes not only the overpriced pseudo-luxuries like the oil of essence of whatever and the scalp massage, but also that increasingly foreign country of twenty-something year-olds whose lives are mostly in front of them and who have discoveries in-store that they can’t even imagine. The point is to keep the windows open.