The men in my family have a barber. His name is Bill, a laconic, bald gentleman able to discuss basketball, cars, and even politics with encyclopedic knowledge, gratifying interest, and no trace of offensive opinion. He has cut my father’s hair for 47 years, and my brother’s for 44; my brother has only once, in desperation, allowed The Scissors Of Another to touch his loyal head. My husband joined the fold when we were married, and Bill cuts the hair of my son and both of my brother’s sons. All six of these men and boys, those closest to me by blood or marriage, make the pilgrimage to Arkie’s Barber Shop for the ministrations of Bill when they can’t see their eyes, feel annoying contact between hair and collar, or need to be particularly spiffy for the beginning of school, a family wedding, or an important meeting. It’s a tradition.
I remember Sam’s first haircut in Bill’s chair as if it happened last week rather than twelve years ago. My beautiful boy draped in a vomitously patterned plastic cape was fascinated by the hydraulic chair and the big mirror, lulled into calm after watching Daddy get his hair cut, first. There were no tears but mine as those sandy curls fell onto the floor; he was always a good boy, an easy boy, interested in everything around him and possessed of an inherently mellow vibe. We took pictures, Bill kindly bent down and selected a perfect curl from the floor for me (still kept in a silver box in my top drawer), and Sam made an easy transition from Baby to Boy with his short, straight, summer-cool hair.
As a young man, Sam continues to be mellow, easy, and interested in the world around him. He is a skateboarder, and an aficionado of dub step music. He is loving with his baby niece, still kisses his aging beagle, treats girls kindly, and jumps to open doors for his grandmother. He is also an incredibly filthy slob who can wreck a clean kitchen as if he had the eight hands of an Indian deity, capable of sleeping all day in the summer, uninterested in reading, and a master in the art of wheedling us into schemes involving sleepovers, online purchases and the drilling of various holes in the walls of our geriatric home to facilitate the placement of speakers, projectors, and Xboxes. He would like a tattoo. He trades on Craigslist with canny facility and a steady stream of strangers appearing at our door to pick up bikes, drop off game systems and, if my mother is correct, murder all of us in some spectacular and newsworthy manner. He seems to me to be a fairly normal boy of his age, with the “Intuitive” dial turned up higher than most, and the “Book Learning” dial on a lowish setting.
Recently, Sam looked at me from beneath swathes of heavy, sandy hair and requested that a haircut be scheduled soon. He looks good with long hair, but it really was too long, particularly for an impending work trip to an Indian reservation in the brutal heat of South Dakota. Given the weight of his hair, it would have been equivalent to performing manual labor in 90+ degree heat with a coiled beaver atop his head. In the meantime, we learned that Bill-the-Barber had taken the first step towards retirement, and was no longer working on Saturdays. This was a huge complication for my male kinfolk; my retired father could get his hair cut any time, but my brother and husband could only get their own hair cut, or take the boys in on the weekend. We dithered, we discussed whether another of Arkie’s finest could cut Sam’s hair, and his hair grew until it touched the tip of his nose and covered his ears.
Sam reminded me that last summer, on a whim, he had gotten his hair cut by a woman at a hip unisex hair establishment in a neighboring city. It had been a stylish cut, and he had actually looked pretty great. He vouchsafed to me, in strict mother-son confidence, that he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with the straight-edged, traditional barbershop cuts. He is no metrosexual, this boy with dirty fingernails and the odd trove of cheese sticks and Funyuns under his bed, but he has a growing sense of individual taste and style. Yesterday, I woke him from his slightly sweaty summer day stupor, and drove him to the salon where I get my hair cut on those rare occasions when I get my hair cut. There were no signed pictures of football coaches on the walls, no piles of “Sports Illustrated” magazines, and no 60s wood paneling on the walls. Sam was immediately handed off to the kindly Jill, who thought he was adorable. He did not want me to go back with him, so I settled on a deep couch to play Angry Birds, sniff spray fumes and listen for the occasional sound of my son’s gruff, baritone laughter.
He came back to me looking handsome, and smiling goofily. There was a lot of “product” in his hair, and Jill had blown in some kind of poufy bump at the crown that I knew would never be duplicated at home. I paid for the cut (double the usual tariff at Arkie’s), bought a tub of some kind of “piecing wax,” and nodded solemnly at the instructions to come back for a trim in six weeks. On the way to the car, Sam said he liked the cut, but allowed as how “that lady was really OCD, mom, like she kept stopping and sticking her fingers in my hair and moving it around and pulling pieces up and then putting it all back.” I told him that was not so much a sign of mental illness as the hallmark of a stylist, a different world from the wet-comb-cut technique of a barber. He was handsome, happy, and comfortable in his own skin. He is embarking on a new life, this boy who is my heart, a life in which he creates his own traditions.