Archive for August 21st, 2010

A Deficit

Pete’s touch is astonishingly calming.  He gently folds down the collar of my shirt, puts the stretchy tape around my neck and then sweeps his two fingers around it before he secures it along the nape.

The white vinyl cape comes next, also secured in the back.  With a hand on each shoulder Pete smooths the surface – I can see this in the mirror and feel it when I stop to think about it.  Mostly I don’t because Pete and I are talking.  Talking about something, but nothing too, at the same time.

His fingers flex, fanning out to their fullest over the top of my head and he uses the gentlest grip to position my head so that it’s lined up opposite of his.  He moves his eyes back and forth quickly surveying the situation and then the little muscles in his fingers, which are still atop my head, motions for me to adjust the way I’m holding it.  Slightly – just slightly.

Vast bold sweeps of the electric razor move across my skull.  Front to back.  Side to side and it’s over in less than a minute or two.

From behind and with one hand, Pete pushes my head forward and then with multiple gentle motions he moves the electric razor up and down along my neck moving from behind my right ear to behind my left ear.

“Take a look and see if this is short enough,” he says while offering me a round hand-held mirror.

I run my own hands around my skull and tell him it feels fine.  “I do it by touch,” I tell him.  “I can tell how it looks by the way it feels.”

Now the electric razor begins to dart to various spots along my hairline.  Pete and I are talking, this time about the politics.  When he needs to make a point he stops the clippers, places one of his hands on my shoulder, lowers himself just so and looks me right in the eye.  But when our eyes connect it’s in the mirror in front of us and somehow his point becomes my point (or vice-versa) because even though we’ve made eye contact, we’re doing so by being side-by-side.

I wonder if it’s this very fact alone that make barber shops such intimate places.  Discussions with one’s barber can include virtually any topic, but unlike any other setting, we’re always talking to one another from the same physical perspective.  And we are simultaneously looking at each other and ourselves, eye to eye.

Men are usually jockeying for a position – namely to be correct and we typically do this via any number of physical and/or verbal maneuvers.  To make our point we will do almost anything to subjugate the other party.  In the barber shop, however, learning takes place on what must be the most level playing field that men ever encounter.

Pete moves his clippers behind my ears after gently folding each one forward.  He tilts my head from one side to the other as he works his way around, tidying up and looking for rouge hairs.  I hear the purr of the foam dispenser and within a moment I feel the warm gel being placed along the back of my neck.

Pete reaches for the straight edge, then with the most benevolent touch moves my head slightly forward again.  It’s only the sound of the straight edge that I sense.  With a damp cloth he cleans up the remains.  He tells me about his youngest daughter’s first communion while doing so.

A dash of powder and then dusting with the brush.  The white vinyl cape is released followed by the stretchy tape around my neck, which is by this time damp.   Before I get out of the chair, Pete reaches into my shirt and unfolds my collar, placing it into the correct position.
“I like your hair this way better,” he says.  “It makes you look tougher.”

As I collect my hat and glasses from the rack across the room Pete jostles towards me.  “Wait.  Don’t move,” and he reaches out to hold my arm as if he needs to steady me.  I stop and he steps a few feet into the room with the clippers to get the couple of hairs that he missed.

What Pete does isn’t necessarily unique.  What is unique, perhaps, is that the majority of Pete’s customers are gay men and gay men are not accustomed to this manner of touching.  I suspect that regardless of orientation, men in general are not accustomed to this level of intimacy with another man.

So often gay men are trapped into an environment without touch.  The casual reader may find this interesting because gay men appear to be more free with their emotions than their straight counterparts.  Underneath this freedom of emotional expression there is often a very subtle power play that’s trying to work it’s way to the surface.

“Will he like me?”  “Does he like me”?  “Do you think he’d like to go out with me?”  “Is he  more interested in me than that other guy?”  The layers of internal dialogue that take place within the context of gay men being physical with one another are almost paralyzing.

Heterosexual (straight) men use sports as a means for physical closeness with other men.  The ass-grabbing, group-hugging and locker room towel-snapping isn’t just permitted, it’s expected.  Even as spectators, straight men will embark upon a level of physical expression towards one another that ends immediately after the game.

Maybe it’s simply an American male phenomenon.  I have two Islamic friends, one from Afghanistan and another from Somalia.  My Somali friend always greets me with a caress and will walk with me arm in arm.  The same is true with my friend from Afghanistan.  There is a kindness that I feel with these two men that that I do not feel from my American friends.

As I consider all of this I’m intrigued by how touch is so lacking in our lives as American men – and as a gay man myself, I personally know this to be true.  None of it would have surfaced, these thoughts and this short essay, had it not been for the caring, gentle touch of my barber Pete.

Maybe it’s accepted in the barber shop simply by the mere fact that the barber himself is the one who has access to all the sharp implements.  As little boys we learned quickly what it meant when the barber said “hold still”.  The consequences seemed immense.

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