Barbershop Quandary

So I’ve been going to this same barber for the past 16 years. He’s an old Sicilian guy named Frank; he has postcards of Italy pinned up on the wall, you know the sort of place. When I first went to him he ran a tiny cubicle in the middle of a small arcade, with a single chair in it, a bench with waiting room for two customers, and a sign saying “No seats reserved”. The first time I went in there, I sort of fumbled through a description of how I wanted my hair cut, having never really figured out the language that barbers use or what all those “number 2 blade” secret passwords meant. Frank cut my hair and it seemed fine to me. Afterwards, whenever I went in Frank would ask, “The usual?” and I’d just say, “Yes thanks,” and he’d cut it.

A few years later, his son joined him in the business, and “Frank’s Hairdressing” became “Frank & Michael’s”. They added a second chair to the cubicle, but it became too cramped to move about in properly. So they took up a lease on one of the small shops in the same arcade, and moved the business a total of about 5 metres into (slightly) larger premises. And in fact they installed a third chair. The first time Michael cut my hair, Frank instructed him on how I wanted it cut, and I didn’t have to say anything.

At peak times, such as Saturday mornings, when the queue got long (the bench in the new place seated three customers, but there were occasionally guys queued up standing outside), Frank and Michael employed a third barber to come in and use the extra chair. But I tended to go get my hair cut at other times, mainly to avoid the waiting. But also because I dreaded the thought of getting the new guy and having to explain to him how I wanted my hair cut. Because I couldn’t. I didn’t know the language or what to say to pass on that vital information. A few times I went in and they had the extra guy there, but fervent hope was enough to land me a seat with Frank or Michael, and it was simply “the usual”. The third barber changed over time too – it was the same guy for a while, then it was some other guy, and then a bit later someone else. They always seemed to be about Frank’s age – I presume they were family friends or something. Once I got the new guy, and as I sat down, Frank looked over and without prompting described to him how I wanted my hair cut. The guy did it, and it was fine. The next time I got the same guy, and – phew – he remembered and cut my hair right.

But then a few months ago my luck ran out. I went in and there was another new guy there. I waited on the bench, hoping when it was my turn that Frank or Michael would finish their current customer and call me over to their chair. But no, the new guy finished, and called me over. And then came those dreaded words I’d avoided for sixteen years. “How would you like it?”

I panicked. A cold sweat broke out. I looked desperately around for Frank or Michael, but they were both engrossed in their current customers, backs turned to me. I tried to describe what Frank and Michael did, fumbling for words: “Sort of short, I guess, but not too short, you know, with those clipper things at the back, and sort of cut around the ears, and…” I must have rambled incoherently for a minute or so. The guy took up his implements and proceeded to give me the strangest haircut I’ve had in sixteen years. It was all sort of wrong, and looked funny, and was too short in the wrong places, and weirdly long in others.

I let it grow out, this weird haircut, and when I went back the next time I got Frank and he said, “The usual?” and I breathed a sweet sigh of relief, and said, “Yes, thanks.” And he cut it beautifully.

Then I went on my recent trip overseas and when I came home it was almost time for a haircut again. I went in last Friday afternoon, and there was a new guy I’d never seen before in there, working the seat between Frank and Michael. The sweat started to rise as I waited on the bench, realising that it was my turn next, and Frank and Michael looked like they’d recently started their current customers, but the new guy was just finishing up with his. And lo came the dreaded, “Next!” and I found myself in the barbershop hotseat, with the new guy, and me having never adequately described my own haircut in over sixteen years, quivering with fear like a doe in the headlights. The words, “How would you like it?” rang out like a gunshot in the night.

Overcoming my fear, I realised I still had an option open to me. In desperation, I called out, “Frank, how would you describe my usual haircut?”

Frank turned towards us, said to the new guy, “Short medium.” And the new guy nodded and proceeded to cut my hair with no further instruction, and it came out perfect – exactly the way Frank would have done it.

3 Responses to “Barbershop Quandary”

  1. Stephan says:

    This all sounds very familiar to me! (Well, not everything; I go to a Malay barber, and actually a lot of other things are different as well. It’s mostly the emotions that are similar.)

    The worst part for me is when they finish and hold up the mirror to let me see if it’s ok, and it’s not. I usually just say that it’s fine.

  2. maarvarq says:

    I hate having to micromanage hairdressers. Some of them practically want to know how long you want each individual hair, and they’re usually the ones who take ages to do anything too.

  3. John Booth says:

    It is good to find out that one is not alone in one’s haircut description anxiety. Well told. (I think my favorite bit is the realization that your all-too-familiar-minute-long ramble is expertly communicated from one pro to another, in just two words.)

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