MR. VANDERGELDER: I’ve got special reasons for looking my best today. Is there something a little extra you can do? A little special?
MR. VANDERGELDER: You know, do some of those things you do to the young fellas. Smarten me up a little bit. Face massage. A little perfume water.
JOE: [shocked] All I know is fifteen cents’ worth, like usual. And that includes everything that’s decent to do to a man!
— Hello Dolly!, 1964
At my last haircut, my barber made me an offer I regret turning down. He swiveled me to face the mirror, and held a hand mirror to the back of my head to show me the neat shape he’d made at the base of my skull. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Nope. That’ll do it,” I said.
He poked my chin suggestively. “A shave, maybe?”
I noticed earlier that day how scruffy I was looking. I was a little embarrassed, like my careless grooming was an affront to his professional sensibilities. I was curious about what it would be like to get a professional job, but it always seems like an extravagance. My mom always said she could never hire a maid, even if she could afford one, because she’d be too embarrassed to let a stranger into an untidy house. A haircut — sure I’ll pay someone to do that for me. I’d just make a mess of it by myself. But a shave I should be able to handle without help.
“Uh, no. No,” I said.
“Have you ever had a barber’s shave?”
“No. Actually, never,” I said.
“Oh, you should try it!”
But I was in a hurry. I didn’t have the time — even if he’d offered a freebie. And, I noted, he wasn’t offering.
I pretended to consider it. “Maybe next time,” I said.
“Definitely,” he said. It was emphatic. Like we had made an ice skating date or he had invited me over for stuffed cabbage. Like he was looking forward to it. “You should treat yourself every once in a while,” he continued. “And it’s very good for the skin. Opens up your pores.”
A man’s relationship with his barber is a solemn, sacred thing — intimate like a secret, as masculine as pissing your name in the snow. Sometimes it’s friendly, sometimes it’s just business. But it’s not merely a service. It’s a transaction of trust. It takes some letting go to sit back and allow another man to stroke a blade so close to a major artery. It makes that thin line between life and death much more appreciable.
But I admit to having a little bit of a crush on my barber, which can play tricks on the mind. My barber makes a living by laying his hands all over my scalp, my face, my chin and neck. My friends don’t even touch me so much.
Make no mistake, he’s straight. He opened a barber shop, he told me once, because he didn’t want the temptation of a ladies’ hair salon. And thank God, frankly. A gay barber would totally intimidate me, but to daydream about someone off limits is perfectly safe.
He’s not even what I would call handsome. But he has a dark, serious confidence that’s undeniably sexy. He’ll lean in and accidentally brush his chest against my ear. I can feel him breathing close. Sometimes I can catch an improper glimpse up his shirt sleeve at the hair under his arm. The thought of his hands on my chin, my eyes closed, my face steaming and tingling, his quick but gentle hand running that steady razor against my neck, is maybe a little too thrilling.