Haircuts and Memories by Ray Clifton

The weather is warming in central Alabama, and my wife has been hinting (well, nagging really) that it’s time to get my “summer” haircut. This is an old southern tradition in which men get their hair cut shorter for the summer months. In my case, it’s not going to make a lot of difference, because every passing year leaves me with less hair to cut.

The summer haircut brings back memories. I hated haircuts as a child.

My dad took me to a barbershop in our little town back in the late 1960’s, which I believe was located on one of the side streets between Broadway and Norton. This shop was a real man’s haven: three big leather-clad barber chairs, black and white checkered tile floors, and mirrors on the back wall. Other walls adorned with mounted deer heads and large-mouth bass, along with a scandalous auto parts store calendar featuring a pin-up girl in the latest one-piece bathing suit. In one corner, a glass-front cabinet filled with creams and tonics every man needed to keep his coiffure under control. Metal chairs with vinyl cushions lined the waiting area. Real men talking–football, problems at the mill, or the intricacies of rebuilding a small-block 350 engine. Plenty to read while you waited: Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, or the local newspaper. There was an AM radio on the counter, playing country or gospel music. Depending on the time of day, you might even hear L.R. Ross tell you what merchandise was available for sale or trade on the “Shop and Swap” segment on W.F.E.B.:

“Neighbors, we have a man who’d like to trade a goat for a single-shot 12 gauge shotgun. If you have a gun you’d like to trade, please call…”

I can still smell the witch hazel and talcum powder.

Although there were three chairs, only one was used. The barber was Mr. Mallory. As a little boy, it seemed quite possible to me that he had given Moses his first hair cut. He wore glasses with lenses as thick as the bottom of an old green-glass coke bottle, and the end of his nose was an inch from your head while he worked his magic.

Mr. Mallory always asked “How you want it?”, but the answer never mattered. You might want it like Elvis, but you got it in a style called “flat top.” It was the cut he liked best, the one for small-town southern gentlemen at that time. I was just relieved to leave the chair with ears still attached. If I didn’t squirm too much, I’d get a piece of Bazooka bubble gum as a reward.

Times have changed.

The place I go these days for a haircut is a “style shop.” The customers are both men and women, and the barbers are now called “stylist” and are exclusively female. The walls are pastel and there are flower arrangements. The sound system plays something soothing and “New Age.” The shop smells of bleaching chemicals and potpourri. There is no Field and Stream, though if you look hard you might find a copy of Time or Newsweek. The last time I went, the receptionist asked me if I wanted a warm cookie.

My stylist is blond and attractive. She tries to engage me with conversation about American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, but it is to no avail. I have never watched either. Confident that my ears will survive intact, I fight the urge not to doze off while she works. She asks if I would like mousse or styling gel before I leave. I always decline. As Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

She and her coworkers are psychologists. They tell me my graying hair makes me looked “distinguished.” I am aware that I am being worked for return visits, like a waitress works a middle-aged man for tips at Hooters.

I’ll admit she does a good job with the little bit of hair she has to work with. But for her skills, she charges a fee that would have made Mr. Mallory decide to close up early and take the rest of the day off.

Manhood still barely intact, I leave knowing I’ll have to return in a month or so. I feel a strong urge to go rebuild a small-block 350 engine or shoot an animal.

Maybe times haven’t changed all that much. I still hate haircuts.