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One Mouth, No Waiting

An Afternoon at the Hyde Park Barbershop


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I kept catching my reflection in the windows of the record stores and gift shops along 53rd Street. I had to squint to keep the blowing bits of frost out of my eyes, and they had a puffy look. My face was bright red; my hair rose up around my widening bald spot like Cadillac fins. I looked like a flash-frozen Ben-Gurion. When I reached the barbershop I saw through the window that Raymond's chair was empty so I decided to stop in. I pushed open the door, letting the wind slam it against the radiator. A stack of magazines on the inside window ledge hit the floor. In the manicurist's chair just beyond the door, a woman sat in her red fur coat and wool turban soaking her nails. The manicurist, hunched over her small table, lifted her dark, studious eyes toward me and offered an angry shiver.

"Close that door Ted," said Raymond. "You're going to freeze up my hair." Raymond, covered with a smock, was smearing shampoo in his hair. It was all matted to his scalp, except for the front, which had peaked like a baby's. "Black people have got to keep their hair moist. Always moist. Say, Ted, is your hair ever oily?"

"No," I said.

"Why not?"

"It's never been greasy."

"Why not?" Raymond insisted in a loud tenor voice. "Come on."

"Because it's curly?"

"Because it's curly! Like mine." Raymond shook his comb at me. His round cheeks billowed when he smiled. "You want a haircut? It's going to take me about ten minutes to rinse off."

"I'll take a walk and come back," I said.

"OK, Ted. I want to talk to you about one thing when you get back though. The Three Stooges, Ted. Think about it."

Four of the shop's six chairs were home to customers in various stages of perms and relaxer treatments, giving the shop a sweet chemical smell, like cheap fruit candy. Two chairs down, Gordy, a huge, smiley barber, laughed so his whole body wiggled. "Three Stooges, huh?" Gordy wore a black silk smock embroidered with a map of Vietnam.

"That's right," said Raymond. "He comes in looking like one and leaves looking like another."

"Larry and Curly, huh?" Gordy said. He turned away from his chair so as not to laugh into the perm he was setting.

I always wait too long between haircuts. I don't like giving up what little hair I have to the barbershop floor, where it mixes with that of furrier men who can shed theirs with ease, even delight. For them a haircut is a chance to be shaped, molded. For me, it's a matter of tidying up, like scrubbing the tub.

When I returned, Raymond was working gel through his hair with two combs. "Come on Ted, sit down. This won't take long at all." He twisted his hair so the cowlick reappeared in front. "How do I look?"

"You look kinda like that baby on the toilet paper bag," I said.

"Charmin?" said Gordy.

"Not Charmin! No, no, Ted. I don't want to look like Charmin. Mr. Whipple? Squeezably soft? Not me."

"He doesn't mean Charmin," said Gordy. "He means Gerber."

"Yeah, that's me. The Gerber baby." Raymond beamed. "How you want your hair?"

"Neat," I said.

"Longish? Shortish? Michael Jordanish?"

"I don't know, just ..."

"OK, I got you Ted. Leave it to me." Raymond stepped in front of the chair and turned toward the mirror. He patted his head and smoothed down the front. "Hold on, Ted, I've got to wash my tools." Into the sink he dumped four combs and a pair of rubber gloves. Raymond saw my eyebrows lift at the slime and gray bubbles in the sink. "That's just shampoo and gel."

When I first moved into the neighborhood, I tried Andrea at the 57th Street Salon. She trimmed me for an hour using only a scissors, then picked and blow-dried my hair until it looked like shaggy earmuffs. Then I tried Supercuts. A pimply teenaged stylist with electric shears mowed my hair in five minutes. The spots he missed stuck up like crabgrass.

The Hyde Park Barbershop is an old-fashioned barbershop in a sea of salons. Strops hang from the sides of overstuffed black chairs. Customers wait in a cramped bank of seats along the wall. In the window stands a faded display board of plastic combs, most of them missing. A striped pole hangs outside.

Usually one or two white students from the university come in, sit quietly, and listen to the barbers and customers talk, but most of the customers and all of the barbers are black. It took several haircuts before Raymond remembered me. He wondered whether I was a professor or a graduate student. (Neither.) For a while he thought I was a doctor at the medical center. Then he had me confused with a grad student named Jeff. Raymond knows me now, though. When I come in, he asks if I'm "Ted or that other guy." "How is the novelist?" he says with a slight bow. I usually remind him I am just a reporter. "To me, Ted, to me you're a Nobel Prize winner." He slaps the seat of the chair on each of the last three syllables. "Have a seat, Ted." Raymond uses my name often to punctuate our conversation, maybe to reassure me that he knows who I am--that I've taken a place in the world of the shop.

The shop is alive with talk. Conversation travels its length in waves relayed through Gordy in the middle. When Raymond has a point to make or a good joke, he aims an ear-shattering shout over Gordy toward the last chair.

Raymond readied me for my haircut while checking his own in the mirror. He draped my front and wrapped my neck with tissue paper, bobbing and weaving in the front and back mirrors, turning his head all around and giving it delicate pats. "I look good," he said." "I'm ready for you now."

"How come you don't have Sports Illustrated in here?" I asked as Raymond revved his scissors in the air above my head. "Michael Jordan's on the cover in a hologram."

"Michael's smiling, right?" said Gordy. "You can see him open and close his mouth when you turn it."

"Yeah, it looks like he's doing a fish face." I opened and shut my mouth to show what I meant. I got weird stares, no smiles. Raymond changed the subject.

"I get Sports Illustrated at home, Ted," he said. "I won a free subscription when I ordered something from American Express. Sixty, no, fifty weeks of Sports Illustrated."

"Free? That's an expensive subscription."

"Oh, very expensive, Ted."

"A kid came to my house selling for his school," I told him, "and my wife got five years of a woman's magazine for 30 dollars. That barely covers postage."

"I got Inc. for free," Raymond said, "when I answered a survey that came with my Fortune. You like magazines, Ted? I get a lot of them." Raymond walked over to the rack. He brought a whole stack back to my chair and put it in my lap. "Here's some good ones I bet you're not too familiar with." Gordy's giggle started to simmer. "Take a look," Raymond said. "Widen your horizons. Here's Emerge, Ebony--you know that one--and Shop Talk." Gordy lost it with Shop Talk, a trade magazine for black hairstylists. "Here's Black Enterprise; this is a good magazine. It's about business. Practical advice."

While I leaf through Black Enterprise, Raymond points out the articles. "Look, here's one on two cousins who started a big construction company. This one is basic stuff on how to interview someone. Look, here's an ad for tapes of Les Brown, the motivational speaker. He's on TV."

I had caught a bit of a Les Brown marathon on television a couple of weeks before. He stopped my nightly prebedtime channel surfing. Brown is a robust, high-energy speaker who talks about how with positive thinking and self-confidence he changed from being a slow learner, considered by others to have little promise, into a successful motivational speaker. He was speaking to a largely black but mixed crowd seated on all sides of him. He paced around the stage telling personal stories interspersed with quotes and stories from other positive thinkers. I switched him off after about half an hour. I got his message and his energy was too high to get me any closer to sleep.

"I saw Brown's show," I said. "He makes a lot of mistakes when he talks." Gordy dropped his smile and turned to look at Raymond. The customer waiting across from my chair peered over his newspaper. For a few long seconds I heard only the clipping sounds behind me, where Raymond was trimming the back of my head. The scissors cut slowly, grinding through each hair and closing with a snap.

"Yeah, Ted," Raymond said finally. "I've heard that from other people, too. What kind of mistakes do you mean?"

"He misquotes things, and mispronounces words. That's what I heard."

"Can you give us a for instance?"

But all I could conjure up was a general impression.

"What did he misquote for example?" Raymond asked again.

"I don't remember exactly, I just noticed he wasn't too careful with who he cited in what contexts," I said. Then the manicurist, sitting in a smaller chair next to Raymond's, stood up. She was a slight woman, dressed in a knit red tunic with gold buttons. Her hair was slicked back around a delicate, meticulously made-up face. Her lips, painted deep red, were tight and her eyes wide and angry.

"Well, just what did he misquote?" she said stiffly. When I failed to answer, she moved closer, pointing her emery board in my face. "I'd really like to know what mistakes you thought he made."

"I don't know," I repeated. "If we sat through the programs together, I could show you he made a lot of errors. Mispronouncing words, quoting the authors from books they didn't write. He doesn't check his sources."

"You might have to do that," said Gordy. "She's got Les Brown tapes in her car."

"And you're going to dismiss him just like that?" the manicurist said. "Because he quoted a few things wrong?" She turned around and shook her hands in the air, as if trying hard not to shake me.

"I wouldn't normally. But as far as I could tell," I said, "his message was about excellence. About being all you can be. Yet he does not do an excellent job himself. He makes a lot of mistakes."

"But what about his message?" she asked.

"I had a hard time hearing the message when I thought he didn't live up to it himself." I thought of one of Brown's mistakes that particularly rankled me. "He made a point by saying 'as Bigger Thomas wrote in The Invisible Man.' Now that is a big mistake. He's talking to a lot of black people and he doesn't even know Bigger Thomas is a character in Native Son, a murderer by the way, who chops up a girl and puts her in the furnace, and Invisible Man is a book written by Ralph Ellison. Now these are two of the most important books of black literature and he mangled it."

"You see," she said, finally accompanying her mad stare with a poke, "that's what you people do. You shoot somebody's whole self down because you don't like the way they quote authors or say words. Raymond," she said turning to him, "I am sick of it." She moved closer to him and lowered her voice, waving her emery board in my direction.

"Please, please, please," I said, looking at the exchange behind me in the mirror. "You're talking about me, please let me hear it."

"I told him that's like putting the pastor on the pulpit," she said.

"What's wrong with that?" I asked. "Isn't that where he's supposed to be?"

"You don't get it, do you?" she said with a mad smile. "That means you are comparing the life of a man to the gospel he preaches. You don't reject the Bible because the minister isn't up to it."

"I didn't think Les Brown was offering the Bible," I said. "He was telling people to be their best, and he wasn't his best. That's not a bad message, but it's a bad example."

"Maybe it is his best," she said with some force. "And maybe that message means a lot to a lot of people."

"Well, it obviously means more to you than to me," I said.

"You got that right," said Raymond. "It means a lot, a lot more to her."

"And what moves you," I added, "probably is not what moves me."

"Well, Ted?" Raymond asked. "What moves you?" Again, I couldn't think of anything.

"That's something I'd like to know," said the manicurist. "What does move you?" Again I could not think of anything.

"Don't hold back," said Raymond. "We're not dumb."

"He reads a lot of books," Gordy said to me.

"It's not a matter of brain power," I said, feeling my own failing me. "It's a matter of taste."

"OK, then," said the woman. "Tell us what you like. 'Cause you know what? I might like that too."

My resolve faltered. I considered saying Martin Luther King, but thought they would think I was pandering. I considered Thomas Jefferson, but he had had slaves. Rousseau, Locke, Paine. Too arcane. What about Ben-Gurion? Too Jewish. That said more about me than I wanted to, and opened up issues I didn't care to broach. Plus I was fuzzy on the philosophers anyway. I considered saying something like "great literature," but caught myself before I made that insult.

Keeping a tight stare on me, the manicurist said, "Raymond, you gave this man a good haircut. He's having a hard time answering the question, but he looks sharp." She turned abruptly back to her customer.

"Look, Ted. Some guys might be moved by Nietzsche, right?" said Raymond. "But when Les Brown quotes Nietzsche, he's probably just saying one small thing that someone told him Nietzsche said. I don't know everything about Nietzsche, but I might like that quote. Do you know about Nietzsche, Ted?"

"I'm supposed to know about him," I waffled, "so I know something about him."

"Well, you're probably 1 percent of 1 percent," he said. I knew he was giving me more worth than I was due. "But to others it's just part of the message."

The woman who had been waiting patiently for the manicurist to finish her nails looked at the magazine on my lap. Opposite the ad for the Les Brown tapes was another ad with a reproduction of a painting by Gauguin.

"I want to know," she said with a sweet smile, pointing to the painting, "what do you think of him? He left his wife and children to go live in the South Seas to paint."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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