Parting company Essay: If you've endured one too many unkind cuts from your barber, try somebody new. After all, it can't be your hair that's the problem.


I did a brave thing once. I got a haircut at the barber college. I must confess, though, it was more through inadvertence than audacity, so maybe it wasn't such a brave thing at all. I saw a red and white pole, walked in and sat down. Before long a young woman came up and started cutting my hair without saying a word. When I went to pay up, the fee came to about a dollar, which pleased me. The haircut didn't.

But they almost never do. It's always been that way. Usually I'm deliriously happy if I come out of a barber shop not determined to buy a hat. The two weeks after I usually spend looking away from people, pretending to be preoccupied. After some of the hair grows back, I'm comfortable for a few weeks until my head begins to look like something people clean floors with and I have to go back to Kenny again.

Kenny's been my barber for about four years, and the best I can say is that when he's done I don't feel self-conscious in elevators or at other moments that require standing silently among strangers. Kenny also has other points to recommend him. Understand, this is not faint praise.

The essayist Robert Benchley once confessed to a fascination with his own physical appearance. "This does not mean that I am pleased with it, mind you, or that I can even tolerate it," he wrote. "I simply have a morbid interest in it."

That gets it about right. Morbid is the operative word, as in psychologically unhealthy.

My life has been a long rosary of botched hair jobs with tortured aftermaths. Why? I don't know. Generally, I've assumed it had to do with the nature of my hair. Is it too thin? Is the hairline too high? Cowlicks?

Whatever, I blamed myself. It took me years to stop hating my aggregate gene donors, all the way back into the bogs of Ireland. Then one morning I awoke with a question in my mind: Could the problem be not with my hair, but with the hands that cut my hair? Have I violated all the laws of probability and been victimized by a succession of incompetents?

I recalled those very few times when I emerged from the barbering process actually pleased, hoping my hair would never grow a millimeter. Nearly always when this happened I was abroad. In 1985, for instance, a barber in Managua, Nicaragua, cut my hair and when I looked in the mirror I thought, "Hey, this man has spirited me away and replaced me with Gene Kelly!"

In 1993 I got a haircut in Milan. It was expensive, but I was on an expense account. I went into the piazza convinced I faintly resembled Rossano Brazzi. Not the way he looks now, of course. He's dead. But as he looked in the 1958 movie version of "South Pacific."

After coming home, I bounced from barber to barber until I wound up with Kenny. He does his best, but so far has been unable to make me look like Paul Newman. But he does have peripheral qualities. He tells me things, useful stuff.

Once he said the space shuttle was causing floods in Ohio. Sure enough, shortly afterward I read that meteorological disturbances could be linked to the rockets launched into space.

He told me how to treat a sluggish car: "Put a can of paint thinner in with the gas." I did that and had to keep my foot on the brake to stop the car from running away with me.

"Who told you that?" asked Glenda, working on chair three.

"Nobody told me," said Kenny (snip, snip). "I just tried it."

All this helpful information notwithstanding, I still felt unfulfilled, hairwise. Then I had another epiphany: Maybe I haven't been paying enough for my haircuts. Could it be that the skill level of barbers rises with the amount they charge? Wouldn't a stylist named, say, Monsieur Henri meet my needs better than a barber named Kenny? I assumed, being ignorant of the hair trade, that stylists are to barbers what brain surgeons are to, say, dentists. Or something like that.

With this in mind, I found myself pushing through a gleaming glass door and into the pulsing modernity of the Corbin Salon at the Colonnade. This, I realized immediately, is not the kind of barber shop I've been accustomed to. Mostly women, young and not so young, wandered about. Some wore small towels on their heads. One had her head decorated with sheets of aluminum foil. How arcane. I was truly in a temple of the grooming arts.

A young woman attended me at a stainless steel desk trimmed with dark wood. She took my name and told me I would be served, in my turn, by David. She said it in such a way as to suggest that that was his defining nomenclature, that somehow he had floated free of all ancestral reference and emerged unique, one and only: David.

I sat on a fine leather couch. I thumbed through glossy magazines with little text but full of pictures of beautiful heads. I took account of the rich, untextured carpet running up to walls painted a flat gray, faced off by opposing walls of stainless steel panels. It has a contemporary feel to it, I thought. The music, unemphatic, communicated a sense of intensity. It pounded against the wind song of hair dryers.

Eventually I was led to the hair-washing station; a young woman with avid fingers massaged my scalp. Nirvana loomed.

A young man in his late 20s, dressed in black, whose entire self-presentation seemed to hang on a faint chin beard, came up and said, "My name is David."

He stuck out his hand in an earnest manner, his elbow locked. "Shall we trim it up?"

We talked about life in Baltimore, his vast experience as a stylist. He lived nearby, a refugee from overly festive Fells Point. I watched the eponymous Corbin, framed in the light from the window, counseling a client on her 'do. She looked rapt at the master.

David worked for about 20 minutes, He was neither talkative nor taciturn: a pleasant conversationalist. "Do you agree with the current theory," I ask, "that men who part their hair on the right can be abnormal?"

He said he hadn't thought about it, but promised to.

When the job was done I recognized that I was at last within hailing distance of contemporary. The cost for this service added up to $45 with tip. This was a little over three times the cost of a visit to Kenny, even more expensive than my barber in Milan.

Was I happy with the result? Let me say Paul Newman was nowhere near and I knew that in about six weeks I would be back visiting Kenny and asking him to tell me again about his relative in North Carolina who eschews both wood and charcoal when making his barbecue. He burns old tires.

"Doesn't it smoke and smell bad?" I asked him.

"Sure," he said (snip, snip). "But the barbecue's real good."

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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