A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that I no longer care how I look. I was packing for a camping trip, just jamming a bunch of shit into a bag without really caring, championing comfort (flip flops, shorts, other things I should be embarrassed to wear) over all else. I don't even have sunglasses anymore. I've traded those in for actual glasses, in true adult fashion. It’s funny how I used to worry about how I looked in a bathing suit, I thought, as if I could not believe the folly of worrying about my appearance as I was wont to do in younger days. Too hairy, flabby, what do I care? I’m married, have kids. I’m at peace with it. My feet are all calloused and crazy, I have a trick toenail; what do I care?
I tend to do this a lot; bemusedly reaching some level of enlightenment, breathing deeply and laughing silently, imaginary brandy swishing around in my imaginary snifter as I shake my head in remembrance of the fool I once was. But this notion didn’t last long—they usually don’t, as I come to realize that I don't know anything. (I mean, Christ, I don't even know any of my friends' phone numbers.) Needless to say, I have since returned to looking at my male friends’ feet enviously. Summer is the worst for this line of thinking. In winter, everything's covered up, knees and feet; no worrying about what kind of socks look the least stupid with shorts. As if I didn't have enough to worry about with my stupid hair.
I've kind of always thought of myself as a fat kid even though I was only really a fat kid for about two years, maybe fourth through sixth grade. But somehow that feeling during those years really stuck with me and I carry it still today. By the time I was a freshman in high school I was hella bony, my face kind of resembling Skeletor's. All through college and beyond, my head was nearly shaved, and I kind of pictured myself as a punk rock guy even though I was in a band that wrote songs that, at times, tragically sounded like Better Than Ezra. After college, I put on an impressive amount of weight and paraded around in Gap clothing and like sandals and shit, because I thought it was the adult thing to do. This didn't preclude me, however, from smoking insane amounts of grass and writing lo-fi mini-rock operas that no one would ever hear.
A health scare forced me to lose a ton of weight, returning me to my Skeletorian days. I then grew my hair pretty long, determined to restyle myself as a harbinger of some sort of ill-defined new rock and roll explosion, one that sprinkled insufferable pretension and heavy-duty guitar riffs over songs whose lengths would give Yes pause.
I remember back in these long-haired days I seldom worried about how ridiculous my hair looked, ostensibly because by design it was pretty ridiculous. But it was intentional. Now I look at pictures of myself from back then and think I look like a sickly foal.
One day I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed the length of my hair in relation to my aging skin and thought, Boy, I really don't want to see what that dude looks like when he's old. So I decided to chop it all off. I remember when I cut off all my hair people would say, “Oh it’ll be so much easier to take care of now.” And this has turned out to be patently untrue.
With long hair, it kind of always just fell the same. If it got a little too long, I'd cut it. Sooner or later. Didn’t really make a difference. And since you couldn’t see the back of my neck, it scarcely mattered if it was shaved close. Simple.
Now I have a beard and short hair, which you would think is easier to manage. After all, beard, no shaving; short hair, no fuss, right? The first sign that something was amiss came with my wife’s correctly noting, “Dude, you need to shave your neck,” usually in the car on the way to a social engagement, at which time little to nothing could be done about it.
And perhaps most troubling, in addition to frequently shaving around my beard, which has proven to be just as difficult and time-consuming as shaving, I now spend most of the little time I spend looking in the mirror trying to judge the ratio of facial-to-head hair, something that is way more complicated and crucial than I would have imagined.
For years my wife cut my hair, but it just got to be a bit too much with the kids and whatnot (the last time my wife cut my hair, I was rocking my infant son in his car seat with my foot so he would stay asleep). So one Friday, knowing that there was a Hair Cuttery located next to my son’s pediatrician’s office, I though it brilliant to schedule a haircut during my son’s checkup, which was scheduled for the next day. So I called up and made an appointment.
When I got there the next day, I was asked who I had an appointment with by a lady who was completely frazzled. I said that I wasn’t sure; nobody had told me. She exasperatedly opened up what was presumably the appointment book and asked my name. I told her and she said, “That’s with Frannie.” “Okay” I said. She said that Frannie was running late. “Okay,” I said. Then she said that they don’t really take appointments. “O…kay?” I said, wondering, if they didn’t take appointments, how had I made one the previous day for the exact time that it is right now? In my experience, usually, if you call a place for an appointment that doesn’t take appointments, they’ll say something like “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take appointments,” not “We’ll see you tomorrow at 8:30.”
She then begrudgingly told me to follow her, complaining about how she (Frannie, I assumed) always does this. My hopes for a wash—easily my favorite part of getting a haircut—were dashed when she had me sit in the barber chair, haphazardly swooshed and velcroed a smock on me before she began to furiously spritz my head with water from a spray bottle. “Gonna be a crazy day. Gonna be another crazy day,” she said, shaking her head, spritzing, lukewarm water running into my ears. A man walked in at this time, and she said, “Sir there’s going to be a bit of a wait. We’re missing Frannie.” Spritz spritz. Worry worry.
Right then, I realized that I would rather be just about anywhere else than trapped her with this person, whom, through no real fault of my own, I had upset gravely, and who, by the nature of her profession, was about to lunge sharp objects at my head.
“What number?” She asked. “I’m sorry?” I asked. “What number? 4? 5?” she continued. “Umm…I’m not sure what you mean.” “WHAT NUMBER GUARD . . . ON THE CLIPPERS?” she hollered, somehow managing to stifle the YOU IDIOT that was clearly meant to follow this question. “Uh, I really don’t know.” She rolled her eyes, and showed me the various guards that go on the end of the clippers in order to vary the length of your hair. “How about this one?” she asked. “That looks good,” I replied—it really could have been any length and garnered the same response, as I recoiled into the barber chair, now replete with nerve-induced back sweat—and she put it on and began buzzing away at my head.
I dared not tell her my preference for not using clippers—dictated by my wife’s preference for not using clippers. “I can tell they used clippers,” she would say, revealing an amateur by his or her tool preference, and, with a mere six words—the briskest of sentences—truthfully and efficiently deflating the enjoyment of a shiny new haircut.
“The next time someone asks you what number,” my Hair Cutterer said, sternly, “it’s a five.” Buzz buzz buzz.
The whole thing was over before I knew it, which is saying something, because generally when you’re in an uncomfortable situation, time drags on. When she was done, I paid her, gave her a reasonable tip, and her demeanor and tone changed instantly. “My name’s Lois,” she said, now beaming nearly psychotically and scribbling on a business card, “and these are my hours,” purportedly so I would know when not to make an appointment. Excuse me: when to not come in for a haircut, as they don’t take appointments.
It was only after I left that I realized that she had never asked me how I wanted my hair cut.
I then joined my wife and son at his pediatrician’s office. My wife inspected my head with her hands, squinting. “I can tell they used clippers,” she said.
Not long after, I became privy to a friend of my wife’s—a professional stylist!—who cut hair out of her apartment after she had her son. She did a great job, and I really enjoyed the whole experience. We talked about the minutia of being new parents, bands we liked, our former lives, and cigarettes, and she became a friend of mine. Everything about it was beyond pleasant, except for scheduling haircuts for after the kids’ bedtime on a weeknight became too difficult; I work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,and it's surprising how much that one-hour shift can throw a monkey wrench into the works. So I regrettably needed to get my hair cut on my lunch break, which was really the only free time I had available.
There’s three options within walking distance from my work. The first was to go to a salon, and spend upwards of fifty dollars (or, as I like to think of it, between six and ten pizzas, depending on where you or, rather, I order them from) on a haircut, which seems ridiculous, given that a fifty-dollar haircut for one as dumb as mine seems absurd; plus, I just couldn’t afford that. The second option was Supercuts at the Thompson center, by all means an unpleasantly drab experience: ten minutes of idle chitchat, clippers, no wash, B96; it's like getting your hair cut in the salon equivalent of one of those pop-up Halloween stores. It bordered on unacceptable, but it wasn’t as bad as the alternative, which was looking like a disheveled lunatic.
One of my biggest fears, which is all but predetermined, is winding up looking like an alcoholic middle-school math teacher: short-sleeve, light blue button-up; Coke-bottle glasses; puffy face; black oil-resistant Sears work shoes; wildly disheveled hair from perpetual neglect; the unmistakable look of surrender.
Then one day I went to the uncelebrated Supercuts and it was closed until further notice, because they were doing some kind of renovations. This seemed odd to me, because, if you’re going to a place like Supercuts, clearly you don't care about the environment. You just want a haircut like, right now. Couldn’t they have kept a chair amongst the rubble for emergency haircuts, lest they alienate their client base? (They certainly did with me.) So I began researching option three, the local cheapo barbershop.
The place I wound up isn’t really an old-school barber shop, per se, with the candy-cane barber pole and whatnot—Chicago certainly has those—but more like a holdover from the ‘80s; the kind of place that has weird books for reference purposes featuring pictures of people with wildly explosive out-of-date hairdos on pages that look like perhaps someone has liberally grazed or urinated on. The lady who became my “hair stylist” for the next year or so strictly due to her availability on the day I first went there, I’ll call Theresa, is by all accounts a lovely Latino woman, with a bit of a jaw abnormality that makes it appear as if she’s smiling and gritting her teeth at the same time, all the time. She was delightful to talk to; she shared stories of her kids’ sporting events, the tumults of dealing with the bullshit of her extended family (which travails she had little time for), how she would accompany a friend of hers to visit a loved one in prison (and how you’re not allowed to show any cleavage when you’re there, Thanksgiving dish preparation, and the time she thought her son disappeared, but it just turned out he spent the night in the family car.
The biggest selling point, however, was that I could get my hair cut during my lunch break. The haircut was marginally better than Supercuts or Hair Cuttery and, though she would use clippers on the back, a cut included a wash, and she would even trim my beard. But then a sort of DIY ethos salon run by lesbians opened up in my neighborhood. Male haircuts cost $20, a mere $4 more than I was paying downtown, the difference being less than the cost of the cheapest pizza on my radar. And, not that I’ve ever indulged there, they offer you a PBR to chug during your haircut (although I must confess that I’m not quite sure how this would work, unless they also give you a straw). The decision to jump ship was an easy one to make.
By all accounts, my experience there has been uniformly pleasurable. I’m pretty much relegated to getting a haircut within whatever two-hour period of time on Saturday or Sunday (again, work makes it impossible for me to get there on a weekday) we don’t have some museum, park, play date or birthday party to go to, meaning that—even though I try—making an appointment with the same person isn’t really possible. Which leads to a bit of awkwardness every time I’m there, as I’m not really sure if the person who cut my hair the last time, if they even remember me, wonders why I’m getting my hair cut by somebody else.
At this point, I think I’ve had my hair cut by just about everybody who works there, and the conversation is usually unusually great. There’s something comforting about having your hair cut by someone who swears unabashedly, talks about smoking pot with her 13 year-old niece at a time share in Orlando, is dreadfully hung over, or talks about how his mom responded to his coming out. And I get the benefit of being able to talk about being a dad and having a square job in my normal voice, rather than one affected to appeal to the most general audience. (One of the guys, a gay man, who cut my hair seemed encouraged by our conversation, volunteered that it seemed like cool people were having kids now; I decided not to burst his bubble by pointing out that, if you have kids and you’re getting your hair cut by a gay man at a salon run by lesbians that offers canned beer to its patrons, you’re probably not representing the majority of parents out there, for better or worse.)
At any rate, I love this place, even though no haircut I have gotten has been the same. In fact, I came out once with my hair parted on the opposite side than when I went in. But I don’t give a fuck. I wholeheartedly love the experience, the people, that it’s an independent business in my neighborhood, and, not least of all, the price.
But now I find myself back in the same position as I have so many times in the past. It’s been months since I’ve had a haircut, due to scheduling difficulties. It used to be I felt like we got invited to nothing, but now, with all these kids’ birthday parties, I feel like we’re in an elite circle of socialites, constantly responding to online invitations: “We’ll be out of town. Boo!” or “We have another party early, but should be by late afternoon before we’re having our own party in the evening, which you are certainly invited to!” It’s dizzying.
I sometimes see my ex-stylist Theresa on train on my way home, and I imagine it’s a lot like how most people feel running into an ex-girlfriend, though, as I don’t have many ex-girlfriends and they’re good people, I can’t really equate it with that. “I haven’t seen you in awhile,” she said upon our last encounter about a week ago. “Mmm. Ha-ha. Yeah,” spilled out of my mouth as I got off at my stop. What could I say?
Which brings us to the facial-to-head hair ratio, a rather difficult terrain to navigate; risky business. If your hair is overgrown and you trim your beard too short, you wind up looking like Ken Burns. Of course, it’s easy to manage if all you do is use clippers for both, but this tactic demonstrates a lack of finesse or bother. It's the tactic employed by the same people who were the demographic for those who would rather hook up a contraption to their vacuum cleaner than pay someone six dollars, let alone get off the couch, to cut their hair. Though it is most certainly a way to avoid the dreaded alcoholic middle school math teacher appearance fate that assuredly awaits me, that’s not me, man.
When I go too long without having a haircut, there will inevitably a time, usually some morning, when after having a serious conversation with my wife or disciplining my son, I’ll see my reflection in the bathroom mirror, notice how insanely explosive in all directions my hair is, I'll replay the conversation I just had and wonder how anyone can take anything seriously this guy with the extremely fucked up hair says.
So, since the deluge of children’s birthday parties and other family events this summer have made my getting a hair cut virtually impossible, in order to not upset the hair-to-beard ratio, I did what any reasonable person would do: after coming up empty at Walgreen's, I ducked in the neighborhood dollar store that is going out of business and bought an orange (the only color they had) bandana for 85 cents. (See the aforementioned going-out-of-business comment.)
I put it on that evening, as we were putting my son to bed, thinking, Hey—here’s a solution to my problem. Plus, it’s like, cool and stuff. I’ll wear this headband; it’s like I’m the doomed muscle-bound cool guy in like Friday the 13th or something.
Every night, my wife, son and I have sharing time—which may sound even more hippieish than wearing a headband—where we each take turns recounting what happened during the day that we found “good,” “silly” (a recent addition upon my son’s recommendation), and “frustrating or sad.” The headband died instantly, as, when we all settled into my son’s room, my wife could not restrain from covering her mouth, laughing gutturally, and pointing at my head. To no one’s surprise, my headband proved a shoe-in for her “silly” thing of the day.
The next morning, as I was getting ready for work, I decided that my beard, approaching braiding length and somehow making my eyes appear to be weighted with a deep disturbance for which bloodshed of the innocent offered the only release, could no longer be neglected, facial-to head hair ratio be damned. I put the adjustable guard at seven—a full two above five, which number in relation to guards I shan’t ever forget—and hoped for the best, investing the 20 minutes in an endeavor not likely to have a positive resolution, but at this time seemed like the lesser of two evils. After showering, dressing, brushing my teeth and plastering my hair with surf goo, I took a good look and, sure enough, the facial-to-head hair ratio had been irreparably disturbed, at least without the intervention of a professional. Despite my best efforts, my head looked like a shriveled, overcooked potato below, a cacophony of discarded Easter basket grass up top.
I remembered my thoughts a few days earlier, the briefest flirtation with a certain weightless relief in finally reaching an apex in not caring how I looked. You know, I thought, turning my head this way and that, slowly, with a sort of defeatist’s vanity, I wouldn't care how I looked if I didn’t look so fucking stupid all the time.