He was sitting in his shop, the front room of his home, talking to a friend and fiddling with his razors. The room is small with a concrete floor. It contains a single barber’s chair, a rickety wooden bench and few old chairs, a fan, an old wooden shelf with a drawer that holds the tools of his trade and one big mirror. The chair was empty. He’s probably my age, maybe a few years younger. He’s got thick salt and pepper hair and unlike many other men in the village of similar age he hasn’t dyed it all black yet. He’s fairly thin with a bit of a gut, likely from beer and cheap whiskey. His chest and arms are heavily tattooed. He has one tattoo on his upper arm that reads “Sea Hock” which I’ve got to assume is supposed to read ‘Sea Hawk’ and because of that I think he was either in the Navy or he spent time hanging out in some seedy port of call. When he’s not cutting hair I’ve seen him making bamboo or reed cages and tending to his roosters. I try not to think whether the fowl are used for fighting. I’m pretty sure they are.
The house in which this tiny barber shop sits is constructed of old wood and corrugated tin. He was cleaning and repairing his clippers and razors when I first showed up on a Saturday morning. My own clippers had died unexpectedly and I needed him to finish the job I had started. I arrived with my partly shaved head wrapped in a lime green bandana. He was reluctant at first and sent me down the street to a woman who also cuts hair, but she was closed so he relented. His little shop is not so much dirty as it is dingy and dark. It looks like someone’s old one-car garage. There’s one fluorescent bulb hanging near the large mirror and one small glassless window. Besides the ever-present pictures of the King and Queen there’s a poster of buxom babe in black bra, panties and fishnet stockings striking an almost dominatrix-like pose.
He was quick to understand that I wanted all my hair shaved off with only stubble left. On my first visit to this new barber we were both cautious, he needed to get used to my hair and to my head and I needed to get used to his razor, his technique and his touch. Getting one’s hair cut can be a very intimate affair.
He wasn’t rough and his movements weren’t jerky. He ran the clippers tenderly over my head. He was reserved and took his time. I liked that. I began to feel safe and in good hands. I eased into the experience.
I visit this barber now every 3 to 4 weeks. He’s asked the same questions a half dozen or so times. No, I don’t want a shave. Yes, I’m from America. Yes, I’ll be here for two years. No, I’m not interested in the woman in the picture. So I was a little surprised when one day he pulled the lever on the side of the chair and tilted the back down. I was no longer upright and I felt vulnerable. I didn’t ask for a shave, I didn’t want a shave, but he grabbed the clippers and proceeded to buzz my week-long beard to the same length as the stubble on my head. For him it must have been about symmetry.
As he was gently running the razor up my neck, up onto my jaw, he placed the palm of his free hand on my chest. I don’t think I flinched or gasped when he touched me but the slight pressure from his hand sent an unexpected feeling of pleasure through me. I hadn’t been touched in a very long time. His hand didn’t linger on my chest, there was nothing untoward about it, it was a fleeting, unconscious act of balancing himself and of making me feel safe. I was surprised by the feeling I was experiencing, I hadn’t realized how much I missed this type of contact, this gentle touch. But there it was.
I felt a human connection and I felt at peace; I felt comforted and strangely needed. When he lifted his hand a few seconds later, when the nerve endings were no longer stimulated, when the feeling left by the weight of that hand subsided, I felt alone and vulnerable once again.