Monday, January 28, 2008

Barber shop

Getting a haircut used to be something I’d look forward to as a kid growing up in the then sleepy town of Bangalore. It was the main event of a lazy Sunday. You’d go to the barber shop, and settle down on a bench while waiting your turn. The place would be typical, surrounded by mirrors, with a display of rather exotic looking colored liquids in bottles, and plenty of colored bottles with water in them, with a siphon-spray attached. And the barber shop would have its clear hierarchy. You’d know in a moment who owned that establishment. Usually middle aged, with a dash of white amidst mostly black hair, a bristly moustache and an air of satisfaction as he’d carry out conversation with his customers, pass judgment on the happenings in the country, and manage to subject the barbers working for him to some of his strong opinions. Meanwhile, a TV (which was black and white when I was a little kid, but soon became color) would have either the news or a cricket match on, while my turn would finally come, and I’d be treated to delightful splashes of water, the steady snipping of scissors as they removed a load off my head, and finally the all relaxing head massage (“champi”). Born again, I would return home delighted with the proceedings of the day.

Those seem like distant memories, and many years have gone by, with a haircut becoming something of the mundane. TGF or Supercuts are fine, and my haircuts are satisfactory, but somehow it had become too much of a sterile routine. Go, put name on the waiting list, wait for name to be called, get a “number 3” haircut, pay, tip, and leave. Sure, there was nothing bad about it. In fact, it was a streamlined process, and rarely took more than 25 minutes (from the time I reached the store and put my name down on the list, to the time I left).

I had almost forgotten what those days in the little barber shop at the corner of my street was like.

A few months ago, after moving to Dallas, I think I might have rediscovered something. There was this little barbershop unimaginatively called “Barber Shop” a block away from my former apartment. Now, never a person willing to go great distances to get my hair cut, I decided this was well worth a try. So one fine day I decided to walk in and get my hair cut. The moment I entered the store, I knew it was something a little different. There wasn’t any nice waiting corner in the store, just a long bench in front of a seemingly endless mirror. About half a dozen people were waiting their turn, and I sat down besides them. There was nothing resembling a wait-list, we just sat, and the place slowly began to seep into me. The music was Spanish pop. The proprietors seemed to be big fans of gangster movies. There were vintage posters of Pacino and De Niro (from their Scarface and Godfather days), in black and white, right next to a poster of the real Al Capone (and not De Niro). The TV was on, but in some almost invisible corner, on mute, showing a Spanish channel. Having become a little used to the unisex salons of TGF and Supercuts, I was a little startled to rediscover a “guys only” barber shop. But there were guys of all ages, from slightly obese kids munching on bags of chips to middle aged men waiting their turn as they flipped the pages of a Sports Illustrated printed after the previous year’s Super Bowl. Most of the customers were either Hispanic or black, and there was a new atmosphere of relaxation and enjoyment in the barbershop, as some kids ran around in some improvised game of “pull the shirt”. I noticed an old poster hanging in a corner that read “for colored only”, in mock jest.

I looked at the barbers. They’re all Hispanic, rather well built, and many have some extremely artistic tattoos on their forearms. I noticed that they almost always stuck to clippers and rarely (if ever) used the scissors. A couple of them have tattoo tears, and looked like people I wouldn’t be comfortable running into in a dark alley.

And then I got my haircut. I’m usually not a talker while getting haircuts, but I couldn’t help striking a conversation with the barber here. He was a delightful chap, and while his English had a typically strong Hispanic tinge to it, it was more than fluent. I’m not sure who owns the place, but he said a couple of them had been convicts once, but had long since reformed, and now had families and kids to take care off, and enjoyed their jobs as barbers. I of course didn’t press questions about tear-tattoos, but was almost tempted to ask if that was why they used only clippers and not scissors. Many of the customers around me seemed like regulars, and there was plenty of interesting banter about their lousy jobs, or wives/girlfriends, or the latest in cars. One kid said something about wanting to drop out of high school, only for a barber to call him an idiot, and tell him to “stay out of trouble and in school”. One customer was complaining about the inmates of a halfway house located next to his house, and his wife wanted them to move to another place, but he liked it there!

I didn’t realize that my haircut itself had taken nearly half an hour. And that seemed to be the average time, as the hair of each customer was cut and shaped to perfection. My hair had never felt that good since I moved to the states.

It’s been many months now since that first visit, but you can bet your bottom dollar I make it a point to visit every few weeks, when I decide my hair needs some grooming.

I only wish they’d learn to offer a champi.


Abi said...

Forget Champi. How about all those wall calendars and posters with pictures of barely clad women? Didn't Bangalore barbers have them? The ones in Chennai had tons of those. In fact, that's the only thing I remember of those barber shops.

In the here and now, I go to the one in the Institute, and it's all ultra-sterile ... Not at all interesting!

Sunil said...

heh...yes indeed, that and posters of Salman Khan or some such movie star in radiant, shampooed hair!

I wonder how much the barber shops have changed since then though. It has been some 10 years since my last haircut in B'lore.

Anonymous said...

Long time since I had that wonderfully liberating experience called a haircut (cue in the obligatory hairless head jokes here).

Fun read. Twain on Barbers.

Sunil said...

selva....i don't think i have any obligatory hairless jokes. I'm going the bald way, and routinely tonsure my head, or keep my hair very short :-)

Twain was hilarious.

Anonymous said...

The good old days will never return, hair cut, road cricket, cycling and etc., everything in my sweet memories. But most of us are caught up with our busy schedule, so we have to realize the reality and should move on...
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Wavefunction said...

I could pay 1500$ for a ticket just to go get a champi from my Pune barber. It's that rejuvenating.

Fëanor said...

There was a Lebanese barber in New Brunswick who offered to his customers pages upon pages of photographs of immaculately coiffed women. But no matter which hairstyle one chose, one always ended up with a Monica Lewinsky do. Cracked me up every time it happened to my wife.

Meanwhile, at IISc, we had a surly old man who cut our hair. Over the years, the sign on his board had worn down from Prop. to Prof. Venkatappa, which was appropriate, as he was as cranky as any professor. There was a photo on the wall of him with C.V.Raman. Or was it only that he claimed he had cut Raman's hair? Can't remember now.

Finally on the topic of massages, here in London, I've seen signs for a twenty-minute experience: Indian head massage, only £15! If my stinginess doesn't overwhelm my curiosity, I'll probably go check it out.

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