According to the traditional cliche, women are obsessed with hair styles. Well, I can tell you from personal experience, males aren’t exempt from that mania.
I’ll never forget my first bout of hair style madness, especially since I came out on the losing end of it.
It happened when I was twelve. Till then I’d always had the standard boy’s haircut — short all around, parted atop on the left. As I said, standard.
Come eighth grade I wanted more. And why wouldn’t I? I was no longer a grade school pisher, I wasn’t even on the lowest rung of middle school. Eighth grade was practically high school, a bastion of youthful virility and sophistication, and I fit that description to a T.
So what new hairstyle was I going to rock? There was only one I’d consider — a flattop.
Flattops (also called an Ivy League) were named after their resemblance to aircraft carrier flight decks and were a Real Man’s trim. Certainly, they were popular among the high school jocks, and professional jocks too, for that matter (Johnny Unitas immediately comes to mind). They also seemed to be favored by the uber-machos in the military. OK, so I wasn’t a jock of any sort, and hardly a war hero, but my can-do attitude and nerves of steel put me in the category anyone would have labeled, “manly.”
There was one big problem: Cutting a flattop was a special skill, and most barbers didn’t have it. Instead, they bungled and blundered, and you ended up with a “haircut” that was pretty much a near-scalping.
So who in town was capable of bestowing on me the flattop I deserved? Who could fulfill my tonsorial expectations? There was only one candidate — The Berkeley Barbershop.
The Berkeley was a big shop – at least five chairs with as many full-time barbers. It was on the current site of the Berkeley Green, on the Broadway side.
I’d never gone there, but what drew me in was a poster on their wall. Blue with white graphics, it had the profiles of eight men on it, each with a different hairstyle. So that did it for me: Those guys really knew their business. They had to, since they could do all those haircuts as well and distinctly as they were shown on the poster.
There was one more thing about that poster that fairly shouted excellence: Each of the hairstyles had a distinct name. The ones I remember are The Savoy, The Park Avenue, and The Presidential. And what to the public was known by the humdrum name, The Flattop, was on that chart called “The Varsity.”
My decision was not the least impulsive — I’d mulled over it for most of Saturday evening and all day Sunday. So as soon as school let out on Monday, I hied down to the Berkeley, a buck clenched in my hot little hand (75 cents for the haircut, two bits for the tip).
Because it was a weekday afternoon, there were only a couple of men getting haircuts. Three barbers were standing in the back, smoking and shmoozing. None the the smoking shmoozers gave me so much as a glance. I figure they were too involved discussing the fine points of their art to notice me.
Finally, smoke break over, one of them crooked a finger at me.
“OK, kid,” he said, “hop to.”
“Hop to.” Those were the words of command, for sure. This was a man in control, a master of his craft, a perfectionist. And just the man I needed to sculpt my new “do.”
I got in the chair, he wrapped the cape around me and pinned it.
“So whatcha want?” he said.
“The Varisity,” I said.
“What the hell’s a varsity?” he said.
“A flattop,” I said.
“If it’s a flattop, whydja call it a varsity?’
“Cuz that’s what it’s called on the poster,” I said.
“Poster?” he said. “What poster?”
“That one,” I said, pointing to the one on the wall behind him.
“Oh yeah, that poster,” he said.
He shook his head and muttered something under his breath I didn’t catch.
Suddenly, something seemed slightly off. Why didn’t he know the name “Varsity,” and why didn’t he know which poster?
Those thoughts were interrupted by the buzzing of his electric shears. It was Brazzat, Brazzat, Brazzat, and then it was over, almost as soon as it began. Boy, I thought, he’d have to be a real master to have done a great flattop so fast.
And then I thought something else — something that made my stomach lurch: Maybe he didn’t do a great flattop at all. Maybe he did a crappy flattop … or even no flattop at all.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror and my worst imagining was immediately confirmed. I had no flattop. I had what was euphemistically called a Buzz Cut, and what was more realistically called a Baldy.
Great God Almighty, I had an eighth-inch of hair over my whole skull, if that!
Instead of looking like an athlete or a war hero, I looked like a pudgy little kid who got his haircuts at home — with garden shears.
The poster was a fraud, window dressing, literally. And he was a fraud. That putz couldn’t cut eight different haircuts; in fact, I now realized he could do only two — the standard one with the part, and the baldy. That was it. I had gone to the barber’s, and had been taken to the cleaners at the same time. There was, of course, nothing I could do.
The sprint of shame
I paid him and stumbled out of the shop, feeling like I was gonna barf. And then I had to walk through town (which in those days was always full of people on the streets) and skulk my way home, uncovered. I hadn’t worn a hat, since I figured I’d be profiling my fabulous Varsity/Flattop for all the world to see and admire.
Well, I thought, maybe if I walk really fast, either I won’t see anyone I know, or they won’t recognize me. And after I’d taken maybe three steps, a voice ahead of me rang out.
“Holy crap!” it said. “What happened to you?”
I looked up the hill. There, at the top, was my boon companion Ralph Carlson.
Ignoring him, I sprinted across the street, down the alley between Bernie’s and CC Studio, into the public lot. From there, I could sneak up Dorsey Street, down Petrova, and get home without running into anyone I knew (or so I hoped). The whole time I kept thinking I wasn’t going to school, maybe wasn’t even leaving my house, till my hair grew back — if it ever did.
Of course I went to school the next day, and every day after. And of course my hair grew back. But the scars remained.
What made it worst of all was my being so naive that I thought because the poster hung on their wall, they had the skills to make those haircuts.
It was the first time I’d been exposed to self-promotion disguised as professionalism. But it sure wasn’t the last.