I arrived at the barber shop under the sign "Men's Haircuts: $21.00". I pushed through the door to the sound of chimes and the low murmur of professionals.
"Hi", a cheerful voice called out from the rows of maroon-uniformed barbers. "Five minutes".
I smiled and nodded at no one in particular and took a seat in the low leather couches that lined the waiting-room. Looking around the pleasant establishment, I relaxed. This was going to work out after all. I had recently moved to the big city and was committing my scalp to a new barber after almost 20 years of barbering with Ted.
Ted was a perfect barber. He had honed his craft on the islands of Hawaii where he mastered the styling of hair very much like mine. He was confident and fast yet a perfectionist with proportions and finish. I had followed him around as he bounced from one hairstylist's shop to another as barbers frequently do. I would phone in for a haircut and invariably learn that Ted was no longer there. Of course they would never say where he had gone because they didn't want customers following Ted to a new stylist's establishment. Like a detective, I would hunt for him until I found him manning a chair in some dejected looking store at a discount mall.
"Who is next?" said a halting accented voice. I looked up at the tall thin man standing uncertainly at the opening to the waiting room. The five other men who sat waiting turned to me. I rose from the deep couch and followed my new barber to his chair on the work floor.
He looked to be about twenty seven. Definitely from the Middle East but the face shape and mannerism put him closer to Persia than Arabia. I watched him in the mirror as he draped the black apron around my shoulders. He exuded an air of uneasiness ... as though he had been trained too briefly and tossed out onto the stage before he felt ready.
He spent a few moments fastening the cape to my neck and looked up with an expression of triumph when the last button snapped in place. I surveyed his counter space as I tried to decipher what a celebration over the deployment of an apron meant.
To the left was a tray holding an array of blade guards for electric clippers. These guards determine the length of hair the clippers leave on the head. The number two, for example, will leave about an eighth of an inch while a number three will leave about three eighths.
A number of combs lay around a tall urn of what I assumed was an antiseptic fluid. The combs were speckled with hair and it was my turn to feel uneasy. "Head lice, ringworm ... Ted would not have tolerated this."
The barber addressed me in a muffled voice. "What we do for you?" He had the odd look on his face of one who did not understand the words he had uttered.
I began putting a theory together.
The owner of the barbershop was asked by his brother in Iran or somewhere in those parts to bring a wayward son over to Canada where he would learn English and a skill that would transform him from a directionless hang-about to a man with an honest trade. I had obviously intersected this story very early in the process. The English was not there and the barbering, though yet to be seen, had began ignominiously.
"Short on the sides and slightly longer on top", I said slowly. I pulled my hands out from under the apron to help me illustrate. I watched him trying to interpret what I was saying but even though he said "Yes", his eyes showed no recognition.
"And so it begins", I thought to myself as the clippers began buzzing around my ears.
Using the number three, he cut the sides starting on my right, working round the back and ending on my left. Not noticing that his electric cord had encircled my head, he yanked the clippers to get into position which jerked my head backwards like a Pez dispenser. He mumbled what I took to be an apology. I decided to be gracious and composed myself without protest.
He momentarily disappeared from view and reappeared holding a squirt bottle. After adjusting the nozzle, he shot several streams of water at the top of my head. He had intended to mist my hair but instead, water jets shot into my hair and rolled down my face in dentritic patterns ending at my chin. He adjusted the nozzle again and several more jets were shot at my head where they collected into rivulets and poured down my face.
He looked at the spray bottle with some puzzlement and then at my reflection in the mirror. He noticed the streams running down my bemused expression and darted off returning with a tightly rolled towel. I smiled slightly to encourage him on but without unrolling the towel, he began dabbing my face like a tentative boxer jabbing his opponent's face with a glove. My head kicked back again as I vainly tried to avoid the blows.
Ted left the island life to return to the town where his mother lived. She was getting old and needed someone nearby so he abandoned his idyllic life of sun and surfing. I deduced that he had worked among people who were frantic to get out of the barber shop to return to the surf because he worked efficiently. He minimized motion and effort...cutting hair with rapid snips and expertly flicking the cut hair away from the client. He would have one hand holding an ear away from the head while a finger guided the trimmers on an elliptical arch down the back of the head. He made very little contact with the subject's head and the subject appreciated that.
The scissors, snipping seemingly at random, abruptly stopped. My stylist walked around me and began snipping at the same patch of hair from the other side. He dropped the scissors in an inexplicable fumble with his thumb and index finger. He said something under his breath and stooped to pick them up. As he continued, fragments of my black hair tumbled down my face and stuck to the moist tracks where water had recently flowed. With vertical bands of dark hair plastered to my desperate face, I looked like a caged ocelot.
After an extended period of mystifying actions, the barber stood back to look at his work. I looked at myself and had to suppress a pang of despair The random snipping had resulted in an uneven conical shape cresting the top of my head like a Mesopotamian burial mound. I began to get up somewhat relieved that the ordeal was over but he pressed me back into the seat. Wagging his finger in what he clearly hoped was the universal semaphore for, "We are not done yet", he held his other hand under a spout that spewed a thick white cream. He smeared the ooze on my neck and sideburns then reached into a glass jar and pulled out a straight edge razor.
"Oh", I gulped. "A straight edge razor? In a learner's hands?"
Using the mirror, I looked around the work floor at the other barbers but no one seemed alarmed. No watchful eye was turned our way.
After the fiasco with the scissors, he was surprisingly deft with the razor. The visions of a severed jugular faded as he cut neat edges on the back and sides of my hair. Perhaps his talent with the razor had channeled him down the path to personal hair care. I modified my theory: His father in Iran had seen promise in his son's blade-work and had recommended him to a relative; the Canadian barbershop owner.
An industrial hairdryer was turned on and at last I began to feel at ease with the warm air blowing over my newly exposed head. Starting with a tingle, a violent nervous pulse coursed from the top off my head to my feet. I convulsed in my seat ducking from the hairdryer that had heated up to the temperature of the sun's core. He pointed the high-velocity plasma at the balding patch at the back of my head causing a frightening pain to explode in my brain. He must have seen my silent scream because he hurriedly shut off the magma gun and stepped away from me.
I tugged at the cape and struggled to stand while gingerly touching my burned pate.
He seemed shell shocked and looked wildly around as I got to my feet. He must have thought I was going to attack him.
The pain rapidly subsided so I decided to adopt my usual stoic persona rather than make a fuss. I thanked the young man curtly, paid my fee at the front desk and fled.
"Ted, where art thou?" I asked aloud as I drove out of the parking lot.