Saturday, April 02, 2005

'Regular short. Not short short.'

Not quite sure which part of downtown San Francisco I was in when I found ‘Lulu’s’ barbershop – not sure who Lulu might have been either. The hotel concierge had directed me to the basement of the San Francisco Shopping Center when I’d asked where I might get a haircut. I had not been inclined to pay the minimum charge they listed on their tariff - $50 for a dry cut with a ‘junior stylist’. I have a sparse stock of hair – it really does not merit such outlay.

I wandered off in search of an old-fashioned barbershop. A couple of blocks away from the muzak and smooth elevators of the mall, I arrived at a grim neighbourhood of porn cinemas and shuffling vagrants. As I was about to give up on my mission and retrace my steps, I spotted the beacon of a barber’s pole half a block away. ‘Lulu’s’ looked unchanged since the mid-60's. A gnarled figure of a man was the only presence in the shop – seated in the waiting area by the window. He looked up at me with a very blank expression: ‘he’s in the back’. He nodded towards a door at the back of the shop. For a second I wondered if this was some kind of elaborate trap. The guy by the window was almost bald and looked as though he lacked the resources for a haircut (even at Lulu’s). I hesitated. He repeated, ‘he’s in the back, just knock.’ I knocked and a small man appeared – he was probably Korean. He looked at me with a quizzical look. I thought the knock alone was enough to indicate what I wanted – but no, this needed to be reiterated: ‘I’d like a haircut, please’.

‘Sure’, he replied and shuffled into his working slippers.

As the barber set to work with a flurry of scissors and comb, I saw a faded newspaper cutting on the wall between the mirrors. The headline mentioned two notable generals and their success in a campaign in Korea. The accompanying photograph showed the same in an active pose (possibly staged) - as they landed on a beach from an amphibious craft.

As the barber focused on the intricate coiffure around my ears, I scrutinised the clipping more closely. I realised that there was an attendant foot-soldier, in plain khaki and hardhat, following the pomp of the generals . He was laden with a heavy old radio and was labouring to keep up. His face showed great determination and his trousers were wet to above the knees. I then realized that the same man was now cutting my hair. He had aged well, with good posture and a boyish slenderness. The only obvious nod to maturity was a neatly trimmed moustache and a beret. I wondered what his journey had involved – from that beach to this salon. Another image on the wall suggested that the journey had been fruitful – it showed a large family gathering of several generations. The barber sat proudly at the centre of that shot – surrounded by smiles and love.

The barber did not speak as he worked. I was not offended by this – quite the opposite. I prefer a barber with focus – not some ‘junior stylist’ who would be likely to babble on like your best friend in order to pass off the style they wanted to give you, whether you wanted it or not.

The salon equipment was very old. In fact, the place looked like a film-set or a museum of barbering paraphernalia. I had just been on the audio tour of Alcatraz and, interesting though that was, I think I would have got more from an audio heritage tour of Lulu's.

My silent stylist then reached for his clippers and I noticed that his long fingers did not get around the girth of the handset. The device was at least 40 years old and my barber’s small hand gripping the clippers made him look like a child about to play ‘barbershop’. The clippers also made a noise like that of an aging outboard motor. This might have explained the silence. What would be the point of starting a conversation, only to have it drowned out by the clamour of the clippers?

The other notable object on the wall was a large metal box with a tube coiled around it. It turned out that this exhibit in the museum of hairdressing was the hairdryer. The tube had a serrated mouth and my hair was dried with a twisting, massaging motion. It was a pleasant, relaxing experience and it achieved something I thought I would never again see in my life: a quiff.

The barber then carefully returned each piece of his equipment to its correct place – such care, I thought, would ensure their service for many years to come. I smiled, he smiled. He knew I was happy with his handiwork and broke his silence:

‘That is regular short – not short short.’ I made a mental note of this, forgetting that I would probably never be in the neighbourhood again. We shook hands and I left feeling like a million dollars – although I’d only spent 20 (12 charged and 8 tipped). I still do not know who Lulu was and there hadn’t been a good moment to ask. I do know that one should always seek out maturity in barbershops – the ‘junior stylists’ are unlikely to provide what you really need.

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