I’m convinced of one thing about barbers. The thing that separates them from hair butchers isn’t the deft touch with the scissors. It’s communication with the patron. I’ve found over the years that barbers to a man, and sometimes to a woman, are unable to translate what kind of haircut I would like.
The butchers, it seems, learned their craft at the hands of the very “barbers” that scalped me in Army boot camp. The less hair, the better, that’s the rule.
Take the other day here in Phoenix.
I visited a three-chair barber shop up on Northern. I had been there before with the same unhappy results.
My ideal cut is to salvage the few long hairs I have left with just the wild ends nipped. Squared-off at the neck and not tapered. And my ears visible or partly so. I often wait months and look like a shaggy dog before braving the barber chair again. But it always ends up the same. Not quite a buzz down to skin. But close.
This time I was armed to the teeth. I was confident. I had better language. I learned it on a recent visit to London where I got my hair cut by a “stylist,” and a young Polish woman at that. It was the best haircut I’ve had in a decade or more. And it was worth the $28 US in another way. I discovered how to talk to an American barber.
“Two centimeters?” she had asked, showing me a space between a thumb and index finger that I took to be 3/4 of an inch. Voila! Back in America what could be simpler than to tell your barber the exact amount of hair you wanted snipped?
“I’m trying to let it grow out,” I said to the barber on Northern. “I just want this much cut off,” and I indicated with thumb and index finger just how much that should be. Three-quarters of an inch.
“Good,” said the barber, a woman of about 50 with a thick accent I thought Eastern European. On my last visit to this woman I had used what proved to be imprecise language. “Just a light trim,” I’d instructed, thinking wrongly everyone knew what a light trim was.
And so she began. She snipped for a while and showed me the mirror. It looked pretty good. A little shorter than I wanted but, for a Phoenix barber, it was OK. Then she asked if I wanted the hair cut off my ears. I said, sure.
The next thing I knew one-inch pieces of my grizzled hair were falling like snowflakes to the floor. It was too late to tell her to stop. I am a congruous person. I did not want to go out in public with a lop-sided look. One side of my hair long and the other side almost white-walled. So I sat there appalled, another failure at communicating what I expected in a haircut. I paid the $18 and left, humiliated again that I, a writer, can not communicate with these aliens.
I am through now with barbers. I will bite the bullet next time and pay the extra $20 or so to get my language translated properly. By a stylist.