by Daniel Johnson
I got my hair cut by the same woman, a family friend—we’ll call her Allison—for twenty-one years, mostly at an in-home salon her husband built for her as a gift. Allison charged us cheap and came to understand the contours of my misshapen skull. She always led off a cut by spinning the chair around so my back was to the sink, gently tipping my head under the faucet’s stream of warm water, shampooing me, and using her wondrously long nails to scratch my head until the product was thoroughly distributed. From this—the scratching—she knew I got a boyish, puppy-dog pleasure. It was something, I know for a fact, she didn’t do for anyone else in my family.
I’ve asked every woman with whom I’ve been romantically involved to, at some point, scratch my head, scratch harder, use your nails. Reliably, most have fallen short of Allison. It is at my insistence that the specter of Allison’s hands stalk the landscapes of both simple haircare maintenance and—what?—foreplay, post-coital murmurings. I believe pleasure spectrums articulate themselves over time. Somewhere along that process of individual definition, the gestures involved in a routine, pre-cut wash warped into sensations I register as deeply ecstatic; for the vast majority of my hairdressed life, I must have looked forward to Allison’s cuts because I found them to be strangely and thrillingly intimate.
Now that I live in New York, I go to a barbershop packed away in a corner on the first floor of a high-rise near Battery Park. Its name: Barbershop. Intimacy-wise, it’s got the charm of a roadside motel truckers hit for some suspect crank and a quick midmorning fuck, cash up front. It’s the size of a rather large storage closet, with dirty white tile covered in unswept clippings, lit by overhead bulbs in frosted, flypaper-yellow plastic encasements. It’s manned always by the same four Israeli guys who talk less to and more over one another in their native language, and never to me. I find this both melodic and merciful; I’m terrible at any conversation when I’m in a leather chair being examined, reshaped.
I go there on my lunch breaks. I’ve been five times; they still don’t know my name. My first visit, I told the guy what Allison texted me to say when they ask what we’re doing: one on the sides, three on top, long enough so that I can style it, low fade in the back. At that, all four men switched their buzzers off and, almost in unison, told me with great urgency not to say this ever again. That, next time, if I said it, they’d actually do it, and I’d be a “crooked, unhandsome man.”
“Next time, you say, same style but shorter. That’s it.”
Once I had left and the lingering social terror had abated, something almost likeable revealed itself about the jaggedness to that experience. Living in New York City, there’s an inherent pressure to establish yourself as the prototypical Regular at the places you frequent: You walk into a café, you’re third in line, and by the time you get to the counter to order, the barista has already brewed your usual. I often feel myself crave for my transactions to be an acute combination of personal, neighborly, intimate. I’d very much like to experience the bodega equivalent of being the only one in my neighborhood to get a warm wash and a head scratch before I buy an egg and cheese on a roll. And so too often, I think, are strictly transactional experiences interpreted—distorted—as rude.
There’s a concrete ceiling on my relationship with Barbershop. It falls stories short of any familiarity appropriate to walk in and say, “Just the usual today.” I don’t find it cold. I find it absolute. Same style but shorter. It’s easy.
Admittedly, my hairstyle looks different each time I leave. The only consistency is in their method: the guys there tug my head around, press the corner of the buzzer blade behind my ear, come just short of drawing blood. They either forget about or ignore the bald spot where my crown meets the back of my skull, and fail to compensate for the receding hairline on the right side of my forehead. But I’m out of there in twenty minutes tops. They always ask me to come back—about as friendly as they get. They say it to everyone.
Daniel Johnson is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He is currently an Editorial Assistant at Bedford/St. Martin's Press.