The unkindest cut

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Recent news spotlighting the challenges young African-American men face in America reminded me of this column I wrote for the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest back in 1993. Also, I need a haircut.

My hair’s getting a little long. I can’t put my glasses on without catching some hair between the temples and my ears. I can’t close my mouth without mustache hair tickling my lower lip. I wake up looking like Bozo. I need a haircut.

But I keep putting it off, because my barber is gone.

*       *       *
We had a tough time finding a barber for the boys.

We’d tried a number of people, and they either didn’t click with the kids or their work didn’t click with my wife. We hadn’t visited the barber right around the corner; I’d soured on him after walking in a couple of times only to be told he worked strictly by appointment. I was used to barbershops where you wandered in at whim and waited -- and waited and waited --  enduring interminable conversations about people you didn’t know and sports you didn’t follow.

But my wife decided the guy was worth a try. He clicked. He rendered a couple of fine haircuts, as the boys sat astride one of those little horsey-seats, triggering long-lost memories of my first haircuts.

After that, I decided to make an appointment for myself. He didn’t have a horse my size, but he did have cable TV. He seemed to have scalped a who’s who of Oak Park political figures over the years, so the conversation was -- pardon the expression -- several cuts above standard barbershop banter.

And I got one of the best cuts I’d had in years.

*       *       *
One shadow darkened our relationship: One day, about a year after he’d won my family’s business,  a couple of African-American teenagers came in as I sat in the chair. The sign on the door said “No walk-ins.” He told them that. Unfortunately, he went further: “I don’t do that kind of hair,” he said. They protested, but realizing that even phoning in for an appointment wouldn’t get them a haircut there, they left.

As he continued cutting, I sat there fuming. Mindful I was addressing a man who held a sharp implement close to my throat, I argued that he was asking for a lawsuit with talk like that, that he was cutting himself off from a whole new source of business -- a new generation of clients. “I’ve got all the customers I can use,” he said. “I just can’t do that kind of hair.”

I departed, disappointed...but with a darn good haircut. At home, I recapped the confrontation for my wife. We didn’t want the kids to witness a similar scene during their haircuts, so we decided to let someone else tame those cowlicks.

I put off my grooming decision for a couple of months...until I began to resemble some shambling, hairy mockery of humanity. Then I went back. Repeatedly.

Our rambling conversations touched often after that on issues of race.  But the barber was beyond my preaching. And when he’d ask fondly about the kids, I’d cowardly mumble something about my wife finding a place she liked better.

Now I regret not being more forthright.

*       *       *
Over the last couple of years, I’d call to make an appointment, but get no answer for days on end. Encroaching cancer kept the barber from his shop.  But he’d always return, even though he began taking midday naps in the back... with an oxygen tank nearby.

*       *       *
When I called early this spring for an appointment, I got the answering machine. A few days later, I got just an endless series of rings. Still I waited, hoping for his usual return.

Then, my coworkers began asking me if I was cultivating a new look. And when radio guys suggest your hair is too long, it’s time for a haircut.

One more call:  I heard those horrible, empty tones of death: “doo-dee-DEEEEE! The number you have reached has been disconnected....”

I needed a new barber.

*       *       *
I have a running bit with my wife. Every time a neighborhood storefront goes vacant, I say: “You know what we need there?” She wearily delivers my standard response: “A donut shop.”

Well, we have a new vacancy in the neighborhood now. You know what we need there?

A barber shop. With a horsey seat.

Oak Parker Charlie Meyerson is the news director and morning newscaster at WNUA (95.5 FM) Radio in Chicago. His column appears regularly in Viewpoints.

Originally published June 30, 1993. Too bad things haven't changed more in 21 years.