Last weekend, for the first time in three months, I got my hair cut. I did so under direct threat from my wife, who’d months ago given up suggesting in favor of taunting.
“How does it feel to have a mullet?” she’d tease. “Mullet boy!”
“How does it feel to be married to a man with a mullet? What does that say about you?” Not my wittiest.
Whether or not I actually had a mullet is up for debate. Like most men who play fast and loose with socially acceptable time periods away from the barber, I was somewhere on the bad-hair continuum. Did I look like I could have played lead guitar in Spinal Tap? Or second base on the Grafton County men’s softball team, circa 1987? It wasn’t that bad. But wasn’t I starting to enjoy songs with twangy guitars and lyrics about God, working moms who somehow do it all, and relationships consecrated in pick-up trucks? Actually, no, not at all.
The thing is, I’m a man of principle. And several bedrock, core principles stand in the way of my sitting in the barber’s chair at regular intervals. For one thing, I’m cheap — but only when it’s something that doesn’t cost much in the first place. Show me an expensive hobby and I’m flying airplanes four days a week. But a ten dollar haircut? Let’s make that a special treat. For another thing, I value my weekend time. There are lots of studies that show, conclusively, that people who save their chores for the weekend are generally kind of bitter while they do them, but way more organized and focused for the rest of the week. I can’t risk that bitterness. I’ve got way better things to do on Saturday morning than sitting in the barbershop reading American Wolf Hunter while waiting for a couple of fossils named Fred and Larry are getting their seven strands of hair a weekly rearranging. Like engaging in expensive hobbies, such as actually hunting wolves.
And while we’re on the subject, here’s a burning question: why do their haircuts — guys who’ve been bald as billiard balls since the early ’80s — take the exact same amount of time in the chair as everyone else? Is the barber just pushing things around up there so they’ll think they need to keep paying him. “Whew, sure looks a lot better, Larry!” the barber will say, then wink at the rest of us. Couldn’t Larry just check in every time it’s a leap year and get roughly the same results?
Come to think of it, why do my haircuts take the same amount of time as everyone else’s? Usually I get in there and all the other guys either have spotty coverage like Larry, or military flattops, or at least highly-regulated, disciplined operations (the kind you see on school principals). Me? I usually slink in there looking like a cross between Billy Ray Cyrus and Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now” after six months in the jungle. My directions to the barber usually boil down to, “Please sheer me like a sheep.” By the time we’re done, the floor looks like hell and the poor guy needs new scissors. Now how does that haircut take exactly the same length of time as Larry the Comb Over’s?
And come to think of it, how come we’re both charged the same rate? Shouldn’t Larry’s bill be like $2.00 — and shouldn’t mine be like $80? Shouldn’t it be like property taxes: a variable fee based on acreage?
As you can probably tell, I do not get my haircut at one of those fancy salons. I get my haircut at the barbershop: one of those old-school ones with a barber’s pole outside. While my thirties have seen me evolve to the point where I can no longer set foot in a MacDonald’s, have a visceral loathing for Walmart (novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote that his mission as a teacher in a northern Vermont mill town was “Keep kids out of the mill”; “Keep kids out of the Walmart” often feels like mine), still I have yet to feel the rumblings of a need for any haircut that requires making an appointment.
Besides, even if I don’t always like the reality of waiting in line for what are often objectively haphazard results, I like the idea of barbershops, which are ingrained in popular culture as places where we gather to chew the fat, philosophize, and talk politics. Vermont author Garret Keizer, in his 1991 A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, wrote of his fondness for, “a barbershop full of regulars — each one a third part customer, a fifth part helper, and the remaining part permanent fixture.” As I made my way down to the barbershop last Saturday morning — a time slot I’m usually careful to avoid because of the crowds — I imagined I’d walk into a bustling waiting room lined with colorful regulars busily engaged in talking shop about the upcoming election. In fact, because my barbershop is right on Main Street in an important swing state — a state and a street much visited by national candidates — forget political talk. I wondered if we might be receiving a visit from a Hassan or an Ayotte — or even a Clinton or Trump.
That’s why I was so surprised when I swung open the door at 9:30 am on a rainy Saturday morning and found the place empty. No regulars with their pants hitched up and their fingers in their suspenders. No old-timers in “Hillary for Prison” shirts shooting me skeptical looks. Nobody drinking coffee and railing on the local school system. I was so dumbfounded as I was whisked into the barber’s chair that I believe I mumbled something like, “Um, the Sinead O’Connor look, please . . .” Where was everyone?
The first thing to know about my barber is that he carries a pistol at all times. Not in his hand, but in a holster on his hip. Now I have a few rules in life: Don’t clog up the left lane. Don’t tailgate — especially one of those trucks that’s carrying 12 loosely chained cars on top. Don’t get drawn into an argument with an eighth grader. And never, ever bring up politics with a man carrying a gun and holding a razor inches from your throat.
But rules are made to be broken, right?
What can I say? Per my previous column, I’ve become obsessed with “polling” everyone I meet. And right then it occurred to me why I’d really wandered into the barbershop that morning: I hadn’t had a single face-to-face conversation with a real, live Trump supporter (one who wasn’t 16 years old) all year. I’d come down here for some good political talk, and damned if I was going to let fear of bodily injury get in the way.
I’d brought a book with me, which I’d put down on the windowsill as I got inside. This book too was election-themed: J.D. Vance’s topical but rather ho-hum Hillbilly Elegy.
“What’cha reading?” my barber asked me by way of introduction, and we were off on what I quickly realized was, for me, a strange balancing act. At first he was surprisingly coy about politics. I baited a few increasingly tasty hooks — “Have you been getting all these crazy mail ads from Hassan and Ayotte?” — and came up empty. Perhaps he had no interest. Or perhaps he had too much interest — and enough self-control to realize it. Whatever it was, I started to feel bad, and quit asking about politics. We settled into a groove.
Bu then — right as I’d said something blithely non-political (“Geez, we need some rain, bad”) — “Zzzzzrrrrrrtttttttt!” The electric razor veered wildly off course.
“I tell you what we need bad!” he roared, holding the razor up. “For that woman to be behind bars!”
I simultaneously cowered and also craned toward the mirror to see if I’d be wearing a strange Z-pattern on my head for the next two months.
From that point on, it became hard to talk to him. I’m not good in these situations. I’m never sure how to handle volatile adults. I’ve never been comfortable around yellers. I feel the need to placate, but also a childish urge to push back. It’s a balancing act: say the wrong thing and this guy is going to blow a blood vessel in his cornea and he’s also holding a razor four inches from your carotid artery. But back away and suddenly you’re listening to offensive rants for the next ten minutes, and there’s nothing you can do but sit there and take it. It’s a delicate balance — one I’ve never been good at.
I tried my best to hit the middle ground.
“The Republicans screwed this up,” I said, shaking my head sadly. “This was their chance, and they nominated a guy who’s barely going to win Utah.”
“That wasn’t the Republicans!” he thundered. “It was the American people! That’s what they wanted!”
I felt confused. What was I supposed to say? What I would have wanted to say — or what I might have said on the Internet — would come across as rude to his face. And it didn’t seem worth it to try to argue: what would be the use? This guy had his mind made up.
“I’m a big Second Amendment guy,” he was saying.
“Yeah, so is Kelly Ayotte,” I said — our New Hampshire senator locked into a tough reelection race — “and Trump’s taking her down with him. He’s scaring the hell out of decent people.”
“I think the American people are too chicken to vote for a guy like Trump,” he growled. “If someone comes in here and insults me” — and in perfect timing, just then a Mike Pence lookalike happened to walk in the door — “I’m going to insult him right back!” Pence looked back at us, terrified. His face asked, “What the heck have I walked into?”
“And that’s the kind of guy Trump is too!” he finished.
Perhaps it was the addition of a potential witness in the shop, but I started to feel less tense. I also started to realize something: I was sort of enjoying hearing what my barber had to say. It’s one thing to hear Trump voters interviewed on television, or to read their posts on Facebook. But it’s another to hear it in person. And this wasn’t some sociological experiment. Though I joke about polling my friends, I’m not some Brooklynite reporter wandering through Iowa or Ohio; this guy lives in my town. He cuts my hair. I found myself wanting to know where he was coming from. If he didn’t wish to hear what I had to say, so be it, but I’d keep listening.
“All those women coming out of the woodwork right now,” he continued, “Why do you think they didn’t come out before? Because they’re lying!”
Over in the corner, Pence was leafing through a copy of American Bait Fisherman and pretending that he couldn’t hear us.
“No,” I responded, “Trump’s handing the election away. He needed white women and then he started feuding with Ms. Universe. He’s a terrible politician.”
“He’s not a politician! That’s the guy we need!”
As our conversation finished and I got out of the chair, I found myself wondering something: If we Americans had had more conversations like this over the last four years, wouldn’t we be less polarized now? On this day, our conversation was awkward, tense, unfulfilling for me, and — I’d bet — unfulfilling for him too. But we’d listened to each other. I hadn’t talked to anyone remotely like him in a long time. And despite the fact that I never told him I was supporting Clinton, my guess is that he hadn’t talked to a lot of poll-wielding, William Buckley-quoting, mullet-wearing Independents in the last few years himself. We hadn’t torn into each other the way we might have on the Web. And we hadn’t sidestepped the conversation, either — the way our increasingly segmented society makes it all too easy to do.
After all, that barbershop was empty.
In my early twenties, I lived in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood that was remarkably self-contained. It was nearly an island, surrounded on two sides by small creeks and on a third by the Potomac River. Every morning two black SUVs arrived to ferry Andrew Card, George Bush’s Chief of Staff, to the White House. Three doors down lived a top American kayak racer who’d once written “F.W.” in duct tape on his Olympic boat — a not-so subtle reference to his personal feelings about our esteemed president. What our neighborhood was missing, I always thought, was a neighborhood pub — the kind of place where my friend the kayak racer and perhaps men like Andrew Card might’ve gathered for an after-work beer to hash out their differences. We were a neighborhood full of people who didn’t know their neighbors. We needed some place to bring us all together. I think every American neighborhood should have a pub. Few do.
Much has been written about the lack of front-porch discussions in our culture. Revealingly, in Vermont one of the most popular digital meeting places for town residents is a site called Front Porch Forum. As I walked home from the barbershop last weekend, I passed the spot on the pedestrian bridge where weeks before someone had written “White Power” on the wall beneath a hand-drawn Nazi swastika. The message had since been painted over, but I can’t walk by without thinking of it. Perhaps this election itself is just the kind of national conversation we might have at the bar or the barbershop — one in which previously unacceptable ideas that have long festered in places like Ohio or New Hampshire can suddenly come rushing to the surface, to be cleansed by the light of day?
I am skeptical. First of all, the words “national conversation” are tossed around loosely. A conversation implies listening. If your conversation is conducted entirely over mass media, how much listening can really be done? How much give and take can there really be? If you don’t personally know anyone from the other side, how much do you really care to listen? And how often, really, are we even in the same place — the same virtual bar or virtual barbershop — as people who think differently from us? What I think everyone needs is a barbershop — a place to gather with people who think differently — that we can use to a put a name and a face to the other side.
That’s why, as I slid out of the barber chair and admired my new haircut, I reached out and shook my barber’s hand.
“I’m Alden,” I said. He told me his name.
Walking home, I thought to myself, “This is good. I need to do more of this.” And I think it’s true.
Especially if it means I get my haircut more often.