Tuesday, April 04, 2017

`Mowing My Hair Into Neatness'

I’ve been fortunate with barbers. When living in upstate New York, the same guy cut my hair for nineteen years. We had little else in common. He was a dedicated golfer, sometimes playing as early as February when the chief obstacles were snow drifts. Our only shared enthusiasm was jokes, and we stored up all the good ones we heard until my next monthly appointment. Because he was unburdened with political correctness, Chris was a reliable source of laughter-unto-tears. I’ve been seeing my present barber for almost six years. He’s an idealist and carries on too long about the president, but he has a good heart and appreciates my supply of jokes, though he’s sadly lacking in his own. Like bartenders and psychoanalysts, most barbers by nature are better suited to be listeners than talkers. While in Naples on this date, April 4, in 1891, Chekhov writes to his sister Maria Chekhova:

“I went to a barbershop and watched a young man having his beard trimmed for a whole hour. He must have been either a bridegroom or a card shark. The ceiling and all four walls of the barbershop are lined with mirrors, so you’re reminded more of the Vatican, where they have eleven thousand rooms, than of a barbershop. They give an amazing haircut.”

Chekhov thought in stories, not ideas. Commonplaces stirred narratives (“bridegroom or card shark”). Earlier in the same letter, found in Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973), Chekhov describes Mount Vesuvius, likens Naples to Hong Kong and writes of his visit to the aquarium: “It’s disgusting to watch an octopus devouring some animal.” When it comes to celebrating the masculine American ritual of going to the barbershop, I defer to Karl Shapiro in “Haircut” (Person, Place and Thing, 1942), which begins:

“O wonderful nonsense of lotions of Lucky Tiger,
Of savory soaps and oils of bottle-bright green,
The gold of liqueurs, the unguents of Newark and Niger,
Powders and balms and waters washing me clean;

“In mirrors of marble and silver I see us forever
Increasing, decreasing the puzzles of luminous spaces
As I turned, am revolved and am pumped in the air on a lever,
With the backs of my heads in chorus with all of my faces.

“Scissors and comb are mowing my hair into neatness,
Now pruning my ears, now smoothing my neck like a plain;
In the harvest of hair and the chaff of powdery sweetness
My snow-covered slopes grow dark with the wooly rain.”

Now things are different. On Saturday I took my youngest son to a “stylist” of his choice. The atmosphere is faux-manly – wood paneling, chess board, leather chairs in the waiting room, a pool table, beer by the bottle. It mingled elements of a suburban rec room and a high-toned bordello, and didn’t smell at all of talcum powder or witch hazel.

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