I’d seen her walk down the boulevard before. Mrs. Doubtfire with tattooed arms.  Her hair is always up.  At first I thought of Miss Kitty, the saloon maven from the old TV western Gunsmoke, but now it seems it’s definitely inspired by Wilma Flintstone.  In fact, there is something of the cartoon character about her.  And that smile.  Always a subtle smile accompanies her brisk walk.  Maybe she’s a librarian, maybe a receptionist.

Today she’s wearing a polyester suit and enters my favorite hair-cutting parlor as I cross the street.  Fifteen minutes later she is cutting my hair and we begin that light obligatory conversation. My name is Betty, so what do we want to do today, a trim, something new? My you have lovely salt and pepper hair.

I can really see her tattoos now and notice they look more like 3-D comic book drawings without the special glasses on.  There are bubble designs, and plaid textures, also animated images. Would you like a beer or something else to drink?  Here, let me take your glasses, we can put ‘em right here on the counter.

She has a light touch and handles the scissors well.  I thought it would be raining again today, but they said definitely by late afternoon. Just as long as it doesn’t snow, taking the bus takes forever when it snows. We share arrival dates in Portland and I learn she has me beat by two years.  When we get to favorite restaurants, her voice makes me wonder if she might be a man.  Have you tried Dove Vive, they have the best pizza, and it’s all cornmeal crust. It’s the funniest little place right between a convenience store and a dry cleaners. My limited experience with transgender hair cutters is that they tend to be better.  Not sure why, but I always end up satisfied with the way I look and the entire experience.  It wasn’t always that way.

Steinbeck once wrote that the barber and hair stylist are the true therapists in this culture.  He made a strong case that people would tell the person that cuts their hair far more than any clinician.  Perhaps, but that too has eluded my experience.  All I know is that these days it’s not nearly as traumatic or unpleasant as I remember.  When Ms. Doubtfire turns on the clippers for a little clean up around the neck and sideburns, I’m momentarily transported to the 10-year-old days of my life.  I open my eyes and decide to remain in the 21st century.  But a sideways glance reveals an antique barber chair on the other side of the room.  I see the round seat, the brown vinyl, the footrest, and the razor strop.  The long lever that pumps the chair to the correct height plunges me headfirst back into this flashback.

I’m in North Hollwood.  I reach for the screen door to Bob’s Barber Shop.  The dust and rust make it look like a piece of burnt toast, but it protects a sturdy wooden door with a long rectangle of glass that lets me peer inside to see how many are waiting.  I got my second “professional” haircut here at age 3 and every one thereafter until, at age 19, I made a conscientious decision not to get haircuts.

There is no sign-in list.  I look for an empty chair and calculate the chances of getting Bob or Irv.  Those two are pay dirt.  If my luck abandons me it’s Rufus.  Sometimes there is a fourth barber, usually somebody in training who always remains nameless.  Today there are three. Bob, in his crisp white smock, looks like a doctor, and works on one of his regulars, Irv has a woman in his chair, (he’s the only one who cuts women’s hair) and Rufus is finishing up on a kid close to my age.  I peruse the back of this fourth grader’s head to see if any blood or nicks are visible.  Rufus will hurt you.  He is about a hundred years old with a pointy nose, and a raspy voice. Seems like his hands are shaky too.  I’m too scared to say, “No, I’m waiting for Bob.”  My father says it every other Saturday morning at 9.  But I am only a brief visitor in this very adult world.

“Hi Bruce,” Bob says from his number one chair.  He has just finished stropping his razor and is about to do the precision work around the ears of the burly butcher from the Community Market around the corner.  Irv looks up and gives me his Liberace smile.  Rufus has his back turned and I scramble for a seat as far away from his end of the room as possible.  Someone has just left and I find one of the small brown vinyl waiting room chairs warm to the seat, and closer to Bob than Irv.  A standing ashtray filled with pearly beach sand and buried butts is to my left.  On my right sits a small table with a small stack of magazines and three comic books.  The expectation is that I should reach for Porky Pig, Uncle Scrooge, or Roy Rogers.  But the second magazine in the pile is a Stag Magazine. The Field and Stream on top of it is askew and I can make out the cover of this “Magazine for Men.”   It’s a jungle scene illustrating the title story, “The strange Kingdom of Dr. Wirkis.  The other articles are “The Spy who Defied the FBI” and “The Bloody Life and Fortune of Gangster Al Capone.”  It is Dr. Wirkus, a marooned U.S. Marine that holds my attention.  He’s pictured confronting three inhabitants of his desert island home.  Two are pirate looking natives with brown skin and red scarves on their head.  In between them is a woman, light skinned with long curly black hair.  She is facing Dr. Wilkus so I can’t see her face, but I can tell that she is topless because the necklace of colored beads she wears is covering the front portion of her breasts, but visible is their fullness on the side.  I want a view.  Therefore I begin to shuffle everything on the table.  I place an Argosy Magazine over the comic books so it appears I have momentarily been prevented from choosing between the animated duck or pig.  Lifting the Field and Stream allows an unfettered look at Dr. Wilkus’ Amazon beauty.  I wonder what her breasts really feel like.  I imagine her nipples, her thighs, and the softness of her hair.

“Yur next, come on boy…”  Rufus beckons.

Damn, I got Rufus.  I mount the chair and silently pray for good luck.  Rufus shakes out the pinstriped cloth and drapes it over me.  I see the liver spots on his right hand and wrist.  He takes a strip of tissue paper and fastens it around my neck, brushes off his clippers and I soon hear the buzz in my right ear.  I never even got to say what my mom told me.  Just tell the barber you want a regula boys haircut, say it, a regula boys haircut.

Rufus has made my prepared remarks impossible.  I don’t care.  I just want to get out of here.  From the barber chair I pan the room.  I find the Norman Rockwell calendar, the coat rack, and a wooden framed painting of a stream with a mill wheel turning.  To the side I catch a glimpse at who is in the other chairs.  When Rufus takes a minute to go to the lather machine, I catch a glance at the glass jar of combs, waiting like preserved body parts in formaldehyde, the small, blue can of whale oil for the clippers, and a few dismantled clippers in various state of repair.  A long mirror runs down the whole wall.  On it, are taped each barber’s license.  Can’t make out his date of birth or any of the other numbers, but Rufus has a last name: Foster. His picture looks like a mug shot from the 1920s.

I endure the sweet smelling pink liquid rubbed on my scalp.  I hold my breath and wince only once when the talcum powder dusts my neck.  Rufus takes the brush and pokes at the clippings on my face.  All I want now is a shower.  Carefully removing the dollar and a quarter from my front pocket into Rufus’ outstretched palm, I thank him, nod to Irv and Bob and break for the door.

So it goes until I turn 21.  Hair becomes politics.  Hair divides generations.  Hair is for wearing not cutting. Bob Estes postwar barber shop dream is now hostile ground.  I know now that the Norman Rockwell world I grew up with is not the one I will inherit.  The calendars still show high school proms and locker rooms, soda shops and baseball diamonds, but they exist only in artist’s conceptions.  The boy walking down the railroad tracks with the fishing pole over his shoulder and the can of worms by his side never crosses those tracks.  We never see the other side.  The other America.  Not in calendars, not on television, not in history books.   At 18, I want a calendar that celebrates the Civil Rights movement.  Nobody paints dogs and fire hoses, bombed out churches or the wet graves of students who wanted only to bring democracy to those without.  No April or May with photos of separate drinking fountains or literacy tests. My generation is demanding Free Speech, occupying buildings, marching in the streets and doing something unheard of in barber shop culture: questioning war.

Now, when I see the familiar barber pole spinning red, white and blue I only see a twisted flag.  So I don’t go to Bob’s or any barbershop.  Except for a buzz cut necessary for survival when I lived in Texas, I cut my own hair.  It’s not actually a haircut, more like a thinning out with a small device that looks more like a comb with razor blades.  Later on my ponytail is the best of both styles.  You just pull it back and fasten a rubber band and sometimes your hair length is even invisible.  With my first teaching job comes my first haircut in a decade.  By now, even country singers like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s hair touches their collars.  Hair length and political beliefs have no connection.  Visits to hair cutting establishments with clever titles follow.  Great Lengths, Tresses, and Mane Attraction.  Then come places with cards to stamp for a free haircut after ten visits.  Supercuts, Great Clips, and the one whose name works on many levels, Clip Joint.

Getting a haircut is no longer about being masculine.  It is not about becoming a man but rather the man I have become.  Betty hands me a small mirror to check the back of my neck.  How’s that look?  We took off about an inch and a half.  That gonna do it?  Don’t forget your glasses. Betty walks to the cash register and I follow.  Here let me stamp that card for you.  Thanks, see you next time. I smile and thank Betty knowing full well I might not see her next time.  There is no guarantee any more.  I can live with that.  It beats getting Rufus.

Today, I get a haircut about every two months.  My favorite place streams Led Zeppelin, Black Eyed Peas, or B.B. King if I’m really lucky.  My barbers wear whatever they please, have pierced lips, multiple earrings, and never use razors.  I’m the older adult now in a youthful world.  I still find Sports Illustrated, an occasional Field and Stream, and the comic books have become graphic novels.  I’m not concerned about the calendars, or the politics of the place.  Recently I noticed prints of works by Klee and Warhol adorning the walls.  I’ve come to like Norman Rockwell, especially his painting of school integration in the South.  I think it’s called “The Problem we all live with.”

©Bruce Green, 2011

Bruce Greene taught at El Cerrito High School in the East Bay for many years.  He has published everything from poetry and educational research to creative non-fiction and memoir.  He is a founding member of The Guttery a writing group in Portland, Oregon where he now lives and writes.

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3 Responses to “Bob’s by Bruce Greene”

  1. Alexis Says:

    Bruce-

    So good to hear your voice. Was looking for a BAWP summer class and here you are. Still get tidbits about you from Joan and Paula.

    Now take my three year old son to the Grand Barber Shop on San Pablo in EC.

    Still teaching and learning.

    Alexis Usnick Morgan

    1. Bruce Greene Says:

      Alexis,
      So nice to hear from you. Glad to hear you are doing well and are a mom! Thanks so much for the kind words.
      Bruce

  2. Barbara Bornet Says:

    Bruce, I am happy to read your voice again with your rich observations. Thank you. Barbara

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