Anthropologists like funerals and weddings as windows into folk culture. They ought to add barbershops. I had my hair cut at the local East End Barber Shop the other afternoon. When I got out of the chair, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and just sit and watch and listen. Life, a community—workingmen, mothers with their boys in tow to get clipped, black people, white people, banter, stories, laughter, different accents, unsweptup hair like sheep shorn in dunes around the barbers’ chairs. The young lovely in tight jeans and tattoos and the long Kentucky vowels who cut mine had a scripted ink message on the inside of her perfect bicep that I could almost read without my glasses. Maybe I should get out more often.
I grew up above a barbershop on Main Street. Red and white striped pole on our front lawn. For a while when I was in grammar school, I would get a snip and comb every morning on my way to school. Mr. Crist, the barber, would splash some smelly stuff on there. There were mirrors on both walls, and, high in the chair, I could see myself repeated into the vanishing point.
Fifty years ago, I had an Italian grandmother-in-law who called me barba, beard, the same as in the original Latin and root of the word barber—but not of barbarian, which, I think, is how she meant it. I wasn’t patronizing barbershops at the time. And I was Irish.
Funny profession, being paid to groom strangers, but it goes back to the origins of luxury and specialization. Better than being a bricklayer. When you think of a groom, you think horses, someone who attends to the many needs of a beast, not just brushing its mane. And for ages that is what barbers did—not just cut hair and beards and give shaves, but also trim nails, lance boils and cysts, clean ears and scalp, pull teeth, set bones, and apply tourniquets. Your go-to man (always man) for your physical surface needs. In fact, that red-and-white striped poll in our Main Street front lawn originated as the symbol of a tourniquet applied to a wounded limb.
At some point, the barbers moved their trade in off the streets to shops, which evolved into neighborhood social points where men (always men) could enjoy the camaraderie of their peer beasts being groomed, and eventually, regrettably, into barbershop quartets.
The ladies have a separate history, culminating in their beauty salons, about which I am not authorized to comment. Suffice to say, the word beauty never appears in the history of masculine establishments.
I eventually married a hairdresser. Or was she a beautician? I’ll have to ask. This stroke of frugality freed me from barbershops for several decades. It was not so strange being groomed by someone I loved. The arthritis in her hands finally forced Connie to pack away her scissors and shears, and I have had to return to the world of barbershops. Or at least to the East End Barber Shop. Next visit I will bring my glasses and try to read the line of script on the papyrus-white skin of my groomer’s lovely underarm.