Barbershop Minuet

By Matthew Hennessey

I am a man, so I try to limit how much and how hard I think about my hair.

But I am also a man with a job, so I have to keep it somewhat tight, especially the back and sides.

In a perfect world – a world of unlimited riches and unlimited time – I’d get my hair cut every two weeks. I understand Puff Daddy gets his hair touched-up every day, so to me, two weeks doesn’t seem that extravagant.

Like all places of business, barbershops are governed by a complex web of unwritten rules and implicit consequences. Every barber shop has a hierarchy. Typically the guy with the chair closest to the door is the boss. He is always most in demand.

As with all hierarchies, however, the top man is not necessarily the most talented, so the first-time visitor errs by jumping right into that first chair. If there are open chairs, the barbers will try to direct you toward one. The barbers themselves prefer to choose who will cut your hair.

If there are no open chairs, you wait. Even if there are open chairs you will often find people waiting, though it’s not always clear which customer is waiting for which barber. The barbers rely on this confusion to maintain control over who sits where.

A chair may open up. The fellow next to you may refuse it. He may be waiting for the top man’s chair to open up. In that case, you are free to skip ahead of him. You, too, can refuse the open chair, but this amounts to passing judgment on both chair and barber, a slight unlikely to be forgotten.

Choose wisely, for once you sit in a barber’s chair, he will expect you to sit in his chair every time.

Say you come in on a day when “your” barber is not there. Say you sit in someone else’s chair. Say you get a better haircut from the second stringer. The next time you will be forced to choose between them. And, as I have been saying, this is a choice that barbers prefer to make for you.

All of this sets my nerves on edge, so I have three or four barbershops I visit regularly in a kind of circuit. This gives me flexibility, but pretty much guarantees I will be unhappy with my hair about 66 percent of the time.

There is the high-end option, on Lexington in the low 70s, where a haircut costs something like $25. With tip, that rounds up to $30. Not too bad, but I can’t do it every two or three weeks.

The other chop shops in my rotation are relatively equal in terms of price, but the quality is inconsistent, making successive visits both unappealing and unwise.

Then there is the issue of barbershop small talk, which, as it happens, also comes in “premium” and “discount” versions. A barber in one of the less-expensive shops once whispered in my ear something so vile, so unrepeatable, that I vowed never to return.

By contrast, I almost always leave the high-end shop with a smile on my face. My favorite barber there once initiated a conversation about global warming, a topic I normally prefer to avoid. Imagine my surprise when he lowered his voice and said, “You know, a lotta guys say it’s bullshit.”

In New York City, treason like this doesn’t come free. It costs $30. If I could afford to, I’d gladly pay more.

I convinced my wife to cut my hair once. It was a disaster. Tufts of hair were nestled in our towels for months.

Somehow I doubt Puff Daddy ever hands his baby momma the electric shears just to save a few bucks.

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