It was a big day the first time I was old enough to get dropped off at the barbershop. I sauntered in, settled into the waiting area, and plucked a plump Playboy from the pile of Field and Streams and Sports Illustrateds.
Nobody cared that a child was reading Playboy because 10-year-old boys in the late 1960s were invisible. I sat there in the manly crowd, the air snapping with the antiseptic smell of Barbasol, and not a soul noticed I was quietly, intensely studying variance in areolae size and topography.
The photographs iced my brain. Shattered my cerebellum into shards of shining crystals. Still. A tiny corner of my mind focused on my highest priority, the same priority I had every time I entered the shop: Please don't let me get Richard's chair.
Richard. There was a man who appreciated the invisibility of children. How did I know? Because he ignored everything I said. "I don't want a buzz cut" was the first among my many instructions.
As soon as the words left my mouth, Richard's clippers fired up with a blunt "pffftt!" The same sound as a welder's torch taking a spark.
Five minutes later it was over.
I decided that Richard had a secret pact with my father, who was a nut for short hair. I had better luck having my terms met in the rare, jubilant case when I didn't get Richard. But it didn't matter. By then the die was cast. Richard had trained me to feel helpless and intimidated in the chair. His haircuts may as well have been waterboarding sessions. He sheared away every ounce of my assertiveness and left it on the floor to be swept into the clanging metal pan at the end of the day.
Time marched on.
There was good news and bad news by high school. The good news was my dad stopped lording over my hair length. It must have been a classic case of pick-your-battles. By then I provided hair-raising behavioral realities that overshadowed hair-cutting ones.
But I still had to contend with Richard. Of course by then I was his bitch.
"How's that lookin' for ya Andy?" he'd say. He knew. Oh, he knew. I'd silently climb down out of the chair, pay him at the cash register, walk past the Playboys, mope out to the street, and put on a hat.
When I left for college in Madison I figured out a plan to deal with the haircut madness. I'd grow out my hair until, well, until forever. Or at least until Christmas break. When I got home that holiday season my father called me "Andrea." It was music to my ears.
Thing was, I was a swimmer in college, and long hair, at least for me, was a hassle in the water. One afternoon after class I headed to the College Barber Shop on State Street.
The College Barber Shop in the 1970s was one part grooming parlor and one part lecture hall. That's where TAs, their long hair flowing down untouched beneath the head rest, got straight-razor shaves while holding forth, yammering away in loud voices, picking up right where socialist professor Harvey Goldberg's 12:05 p.m. lecture left off.
That's where I continued my uninterrupted streak as biggest loser in the gamble that is barber chair roulette. The guy I'd always get at College Barber had the habit of leaving his doughy hands on my head or neck a few seconds longer than was necessary to complete each action. There's a fine line between confidence and caress. And haircuts should be, you know, consensual.
I'd enter College Barber and run my eyes down the long length of chairs, sizing up the progress of each cut. Then I'd do some math and, with astonishing accuracy, predict whom I'd end up with 25 minutes later. All through the wait I had a chant in my head: "Please-not-the-friendly-hands-guy-please-not-the-friendly-hands-guy-please-not-the-friendly-hands-guy."
The guys who waved off the next available barber and waited for the one they wanted? What balls! Ruthless! Not me. I sat down with Doughy Hands Guy like he was a long-lost friend and, fighting back tears, took his caressing cut like a man.
A defeated person at the outset of an experience will settle for anything to make it come to an end. Plus, I'm a Libra. I'm not in a hurry to conjure up conflict. These things are what turn people like me into liars in the hands of a hair stylist.
"How's that lookin' for you?"
"Just what I wanted!"
"What if we just leave it long in the back?"
"You want product in there, don't you?"
"Lots of it!"
A haircut is to a personality what an amp is to an electric guitar. I blame that bastard Richard for unplugging mine many years ago.