The Four-Dollar Haircut, or Shaving Above the Apple



250 E. 10th St. ny 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

Several months ago I was stuck in a rut. You know, drinking at the same tired bars, hanging with all-too familiar friends, masturbating in the same routine sock. So in my grand tradition of superficial alterations-buying new shoes, switching from contacts to glasses, wearing headbands instead of hats-I buzzed my skull. And now, several months later, the result was scraggly sideburns, a jungle of wiry Jew hair, and a thicket of neck fuzz.

To tame my Jew-fro I started wearing a tattered, mesh camo baseball hat emblazoned with a loaded pistol and the slogan “Go Ahead Punk Make My Day.” At the time, I was marginally employed as a part-time, temporary receptionist for a failing technology firm. One of my duties involved greeting potential investors. After my third day of drawling like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, frightening venture capitalists the company desperately needed to stay fiscally afloat, my boss confronted me. She was a large African-American woman with a beehive ‘do, a rack of breasts that could hold six volumes of Encyclopedia Brittannica, and a posterior the size of plump beagle. She sashayed up to the reception desk and placed ten long cherry-red nails on the counter. “Josh,” she began sweetly, tapping her nails, “I don’t care what stupid things you do on your own time, but when you’re on MY time you will not wear that God-awful hat in MY office.”

I doffed my cap, revealing my unkempt coif. I explained I had no dough. My part-time job hardly paid the bills. The beehive shook from side to side.

 “You KNOW that’s not MY problem, Josh,” she said. “My problem is your hat. If you can’t afford a cut, why don’t you go to a barber college? My cousin gets his hair cut there every month.”

I could’ve fought harder, stood up for my fashion rights, retained some dignity, but the truth was I was too lazy to find a new, equally meaningless job. I nodded my head and the next afternoon found myself at Atlas Barber College, home to the four-dollar haircut. *** Upon entering the college on East 10th Street, I was taken off guard. The tiny school—the acreage of two bodegas—disoriented me. The school seemed to be composed of freestanding walls, mirrors, and randomly placed chairs.

 The large window storefront featured two forms of advertising: a large sign proclaiming “$4 Haircuts-Men or Women” and the window itself, through which passerby could watch. Depending on how the haircut went, the window was either the best or worst advertising. The sole decorations were reflections of the motley crew of tunic-clad men and women-Latino, Eastern European, and African American-hungry for barber licenses.

   Before I took a seat, a diminutive gray-haired man in a maroon coat greeted me.

  “Take off your hat,” he said in a thick Slavic accent.

I doffed my mesh cap. He appraised my matted rug. “What you want done?” he asked.

   I said I wanted a little off the sides, my sideburns trimmed, and my neck hair eradicated. “Just your standard old haircut,” I added.

 He scratched his chin and pointed to a chair in the rear of the store. I went.

   A short, late-20 something woman with bottle-red hair introduced herself as Stacy and told me to take a seat. “I hope you don’t got nowheres to go,” she said with Queens verve, “because I got ta let my nails dry.”

   I was in no rush. I said so.

   “Thanks, hon,” she said.

   I liked being called “hon.” I didn’t say so.

   After a few minutes of hand flapping, Stacy asked me what I wanted. I repeated my request. Stacy nodded. She covered my torso with a plaid tunic, buttoned it around my neck, and wedged in a neck napkin. I removed my glasses, shut my eyes, and waited for my four dollars to work their magic.

   As she ran the clippers along my neck, Stacy asked me what I did for a living. I hesitated. Even when I worked reception I’d say “I’m just doing this to make my ends meet” to anyone who didn’t ask. Pathetic, yes, but I needed a modicum of pride when engineers several years my junior belittled me for failing to speedily transfer their calls. My college degree entitled me to a smidge of dignity, didn’t it? I quickly mentioned my writing before shifting focus to her current tenure at the barber college. “Three weeks…but I’ve taken some classes at the beauty college,” she added, as if that would assuage any fears of a foul haircut.

   But such was the hazard of the territory. Barber colleges are scarcely provinces of Vidal Sassoon. Enrolling for a $4 trim automatically waives the customer’s right to complain. That’s like haranguing McDonald’s cooks because they slathered too much special sauce on the Big Mac’s. I knew that. Everyone knew that. But not the guy seated next to me.

 “Motherfucker! Just what the motherfuck are you doing?!” I heard someone shout in a rough Jamaican accent. I opened my eyes and glanced to the right. A middle-aged, balding black man with a small ponytail was pointing at his neck and screaming at his barber.

 “I tell you to go to the apple. This is not the apple!” he screamed, gesturing to a spot beneath his chin where his closely cropped beard terminated. “The apple is down here! How the fuck you not listen and shave above my apple! I tell you how important my beard be, and still you no listen! You a stupid motherfucker! Get me your teacher! Maybe he can fix your fucking stupidity!”

   Clippers stopped humming. Genial chatter ceased. Every eye focused on the irate Jamaican. I discerned the problem to be this: The man loved his beard. A lot. The newbie barber clipped a smidge too much. So what? If he was party to a Rastafarian cult in which maximum import was placed on follicles I could understand his fury, but he was wearing the ponytail of a poorly aging hippie. Besides, the beauty of hair-both facial and cranial-is regeneration. You can muss and tuss, dye and chop, but short of male-pattern baldness, electrolysis, and various painful accidents, hair’s natural splendor will return. But as I still slept with a nightlight, I lacked the cajones to broach such points. Luckily, the grey-haired proctor arrived.

“Tell me, what is the problem you have with my student?” the teacher asked, sighing wearily as if this were an everyday event. The Jamaican man explained the problem. He only said “motherfucker” once.

 “Okay, okay; I will fix for you, but please don’t yell at my students,” Mr. Grey Hair said, picking up the clippers and starting to trim. The man agreed, calming down. Easy enough. Stacy resumed her novice cut. The barber college returned to barber college order. Clippers clipped. Cash registers chimed. But several minutes later Stacy proved why my mother told me to keep quiet if I had nothing nice to say. “You know, I just don’t like it when people curse,” she started, tossing an errant verbal match into a puddle of Jamaican gasoline. “If he were my kid I’d a washed out his mouth.”

   “What you say?! What you say?!” the Jamaican man screamed, leaping up and knocking Mr. Grey Hair backward. I wanted to run home and hide next to my nightlight, but Stacy’s scissors were frozen close to my carotid artery. “You think I’m cursing?” he asked, his eyes incredulously bursting from his head. “That was no cursing. When I say, ‘Motherfucker, I hope you go in the street and get kilt by a car,’ that is a curse. When I say, ‘I hope you get a bullet in the face and fucking DIE!’ that is a curse. I will curse you all now, motherfuckers! I HOPE YOU ALL DIE!”

   One of New York’s most wonderful attributes is unpredictability. Eight million compressed into 12 square miles equals supreme insanity. Will today be the day I run into a long-lost cousin, or will I be late to work because of the bearded man walking down Madison Avenue with a monkey perched on his shoulder? On the flip side, will today be the day the one-legged bum snaps or what exactly does that skittish man have beneath his coat? The ability for anything to happen is both a blessing and a curse, and I’d had enough for one day. I turned to Stacy, who’d stopped cutting, and feverishly implored, “Could you please finish my haircut?”

Stacy snapped out of her reverie and grabbed the clippers. She hurriedly trimmed my hair while the Jamaican man grew more and more incensed, hollering “motherfucker” at a cowering Mr. Grey Hair as if repeating the curse would regenerate his beard. When Stacy finished a few minutes later I forewent the baby powder on the neck. She removed my tunic and I headed to the front counter. I slapped down four crumpled dollars and stepped outside. I walked to a nearby Village Voice box and removed the latest issue, opened up the classifieds, slapped on my Dirty Harry hat, and started searching for a new job

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