In the black community, the Barbershop has long been the great equalizer, a faucet tap for the social consciousness, and a place where all manner of cultural, educational, and professional differentiation are brought low by the common need to get a haircut and discuss the problems of the world while doing so. For the better part of the last 70 years, it didn’t matter if you lived in the toniest of areas, worked in the most gilded of towers, black men still needed to go back to their metaphorical Harlems to get a cut.
The bankers would wait next to the bus drivers. The lawyers would talk sports with the restaurant cooks. The professors would share space with the guys who were students of the streets. It would make for excellent networking opportunities if discussing one’s occupation wouldn’t violate one of the more inviolable rules of barbershop etiquette: work talk usually means you’re bragging, being uppity, an asshole or all three.
The unwritten rules are complicated, filled with exemptions, and new ones can be added by the singular consent of the guy with the scissors.
And I had no idea how much I had missed it all.
For the past year or so, I have been getting my cuts from a lovely woman who doesn’t work in a traditional barbershop… actually Sydney operates from a beauty salon that caters mostly to Latin American women. The conversations I could hear were mostly in Spanish and the ones in English were unfamiliar to me at best and of the “men-need-to-steer-clear” variety at worst. Recently work has kept me from my normal every three weeks schedule and I was at least ten days overdue.
Dear non-black-male readers, I know that every three weeks may seem a bit excessive to you. I know that some of you may also be wondering “but your hair’s so short why would it matter?” The answer is within both of the questions. Because my hair is closely cropped, it doubles in length in 21 days. If your hair grew twice as long as you prefer to keep it, you might be sprinting to the shop too.
I walked into my backup barbershop a couple of days ago because I still couldn’t get an appointment with Sydney. I sat for about 90 minutes as the entirety of the shop partook of conversation about the NBA Playoffs, President Obama, DC elections, Strivers Row, and a few more things I cannot recall. Some of the talk was serious, some of it got called out as ‘barbershop woofing’, but all of it was a social balm. There’s a “No Profanity” sign on the wall – it seems irrelevant because there is a varnish of reverence at all old-school shops. We would no sooner curse here than we would in a church undercroft.
The cut wasn’t quite as tight, and surely didn’t feel as good absent the scalp and neck massage that I get from Sydney. But I certainly don’t get the same visceral needs met with her. As much as I made a big deal about finding Sydney, I think it’s time for me to tell her that we need to have an open relationship.