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In The Chair Post by :traveldan Category :Essays Author :Ralph Bergengren Date :September 2011 Read :3537

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In The Chair

About once in so often a man must go to the barber for what, with contemptuous brevity, is called a haircut. He must sit in a big chair, a voluminous bib (prettily decorated with polka dots) tucked in round his neck, and let another human being cut his hair for him. His head, with all its internal mystery and wealth of thought, becomes for the time being a mere poll, worth two dollars a year to the tax-assessor: an irregularly shaped object, between a summer squash and a cantaloupe, with too much hair on it, as very likely several friends have advised him. His identity vanishes.

As a rule, the less he now says or thinks about his head, the better: he has given it to the barber, and the barber will do as he pleases with it. It is only when the man is little and is brought in by his mother, that the job will be done according to instructions; and this is because the man's mother is in a position to see the back of his head. Also because the weakest woman under such circumstances has strong convictions. When the man is older the barber will sometimes allow him to see the haircut cleverly reflected in two mirrors; but not one man in a thousand--nay, in ten thousand--would dare express himself as dissatisfied. After all, what does he know of haircuts, he who is no barber? Women feel differently; and I know of one man who, returning home with a new haircut, was compelled to turn round again and take what his wife called his 'poor' head to another barber by whom the haircut was more happily finished. But that was exceptional. And it happened to that man but once.

The very word 'haircut' is objectionable. It snips like the scissors. Yet it describes the operation more honestly than the substitute 'trim,' a euphemism that indicates a jaunty habit of dropping in frequently at the barber's and so keeping the hair perpetually at just the length that is most becoming. For most men, although the knowledge must be gathered by keen, patient observation and never by honest confession, there is a period, lasting about a week, when the length of their hair is admirable. But it comes between haircuts. The haircut itself is never satisfactory. If his hair was too long before (and on this point he has the evidence of unprejudiced witnesses), it is too short now. It must grow steadily--count on it for that!--until for a brief period it is 'just right,' aesthetically suited to the contour of his face and the cut of his features, and beginning already imperceptibly to grow too long again.

Soon this growth becomes visible, and the man begins to worry. 'I must go to the barber,' he says in a harassed way. 'I must get a haircut.' But the days pass. It is always to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow. When he goes, he goes suddenly.

There is something within us, probably our immortal soul, that postpones a haircut; and yet in the end our immortal souls have little to do with the actual process. It is impossible to conceive of one immortal soul cutting another immortal soul's hair. My own soul, I am sure, has never entered a barber's shop. It stops and waits for me at the portal. Probably it converses, on subjects remote from our bodily consciousness, with the immortal souls of barbers, patiently waiting until the barbers finish their morning's work and come out to lunch.

Even during the haircut our hair is still growing, never stopping, never at rest, never in a hurry: it grows while we sleep, as was proved by Rip Van Winkle. And yet perhaps sometimes it is in a hurry; perhaps that is why it falls out. In rare cases the contagion of speed spreads; the last hair hurries after all the others; the man is emancipated from dependence on barbers. I know a barber who is in this independent condition himself (for the barber can no more cut his own hair than the rest of us) and yet sells his customers a preparation warranted to keep them from attaining it: a seeming anomaly which can be explained only on the ground that business is business. To escape the haircut one must be quite without hair that one cannot see and reach; and herein possibly is the reason for a fashion which has often perplexed students of the Norman Conquest. The Norman soldiery wore no hair on the backs of their heads; and each brave fellow could sit down in front of his polished shield and cut his own hair without much trouble. But the scheme had a weakness; the back of the head had to be shaved; and the fashion doubtless went out because, after all, nothing was gained by it. One simply turned over on one's face in the barber's chair instead of sitting up straight.

Fortunately we begin having a haircut when we are too young to think, and when also the process is sugar-coated by the knowledge that we are losing our curls. Then habit accustoms us to it. Yet it is significant that men of refinement seek the barber in secluded places, basements of hotels for choice, where they can be seen only by barbers and by other refined men having or about to have haircuts; and that men of less refinement submit to the operation where every passer-by can stare in and see them, bibs round their necks and their shorn locks lying in pathetic little heaps on the floor. There is a barber's shop of this kind in Boston where one of the barbers, having no head to play with, plays on a cornet, doubtless to the further distress of his immortal soul peeping in through the window. But this is unusual even in the city that is known far and wide as the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

I remember a barber--he was the only one available in a small town--who cut my left ear. The deed distressed him, and he told me a story. It was a pretty little cut, he said,--filling it with alum,--and reminded him of another gentleman whose left ear he had nipped in identically the same place. He had done his best with alum and apology, as he was now doing. Two months later the gentleman came in again. 'And by golly!' said the barber, with a kind of wonder at his own cleverness, 'if I didn't nip him again in just the same place!'

A man can shave himself. The Armless Wonder does it in the Dime Museum. Byron did it, and composed poetry during the operation; although, as I have recently seen scientifically explained, the facility of composition was not due to the act of shaving but to the normal activity of the human mind at that time in the morning. Here, therefore, a man can refuse the offices of the barber. If he wishes to make one of a half-dozen apparently inanimate figures, their faces covered with soap, and their noses used as convenient handles to turn first one cheek and then the other--that is his own lookout. But human ingenuity has yet to invent a 'safety barber's shears.' It has tried. A near genius once invented an apparatus--a kind of helmet with multitudinous little scissors inside it--which he hopefully believed would solve the problem; but what became of him and his invention I have not heard. Perhaps he tried it himself and slunk, defeated, into a deeper obscurity. Perhaps he committed suicide; for one can easily imagine that a man who thought he had found a way to cut his own hair and then found that he hadn't, would be thrown into a suicidal depression. There is the possibility that he succeeded in cutting his own hair, and was immediately 'put away,' by his sensitive family where nobody could see him but the hardened attendants. The important fact is that the invention never got on the market. Until some other investigator succeeds to more practical purpose, the rest of us must go periodically to the barber. We must put on the bib--

Here, however, there is at least an opportunity of selection. There are bibs with arms, and bibs without arms. And there is a certain amount of satisfaction in being able to see our own hands, carefully holding the newspaper or periodical wherewith we pretend that we are still intelligent human beings. And here again are distinctions. The patrons of my own favored barber's shop have arms to their bibs and pretend to be deeply interested in the Illustrated London News. The patrons of the barber's shop where I lost part of my ear--I cannot see the place, but those whom I take into my confidence tell me that it has long since grown again--had no sleeves to their bibs, but nevertheless managed awkwardly to hold the Police Gazette. And this opportunity to hold the Police Gazette without attracting attention becomes a pleasant feature of this type of barber's shop: I, for example, found it easier--until my ear was cut--to forget my position in the examination of this journal than in the examination of the Illustrated London News. The pictures, strictly speaking, are not so good, either artistically or morally, but there is a tang about them, an I-do-not-know-what. And it is always wisest to focus attention on some such extraneous interest. Otherwise you may get to looking in the mirror.

Do not do that.

For one thing, there is the impulse to cry out, 'Stop! Stop! Don't cut it all off!


'Oh, barber, spare that hair!
Leave some upon my brow!
For months it's sheltered me!
And I'll protect it now!

'Oh, please! P-l-e-a-s-e!--'


These exclamations annoy a barber, rouse a demon of fury in him. He reaches for a machine called 'clippers.' Tell him how to cut hair, will you! A little more and he'll shave your head--and not only half-way either, like the Norman soldiery at the time of the Conquest! Even if you are able to restrain this impulse, clenching your bib in your hands and perhaps dropping or tearing the Illustrated London News, the mirror gives you strange, morbid reflections. You recognize your face, but your head seems somehow separate, balanced on a kind of polka-dotted mountain with two hands holding the Illustrated London News. You are afraid momentarily that the barber will lift it off and go away with it.

Then is the time to read furiously the weekly contribution of G. K. Chesterton. But your mind reverts to a story you have been reading about how the Tulululu islanders, a savage but ingenious people, preserve the heads of their enemies so that the faces are much smaller but otherwise quite recognizable. You find yourself looking keenly at the barber to discover any possible trace of Tulululu ancestry.

And what is he going to get now? A kris? No, a paint-brush. Is he going to paint you? And if so--what color? The question of color becomes strangely important, as if it made any real difference. Green? Red? Purple? Blue? No, he uses the brush dry, tickling your forehead, tickling your ears, tickling your nose, tickling you under the chin and down the back of your neck. After the serious business of the haircut, a barber must have some relaxation.

There is one point on which you are independent: you will not have the bay rum; you are a teetotaller. You say so in a weak voice which nevertheless has some adamantine quality that impresses him. He humors you; or perhaps your preference appeals to his sense of business economy.

He takes off your bib.

From a row of chairs a man leaps to his feet, anxious to give his head to the barber. A boy hastily sweeps up the hair that was yours--already as remote from you as if it had belonged to the man who is always waiting, and whose name is Next. Oh, it is horrible--horrible--horrible!


(The end)
Ralph Bergengren's essay: In The Chair

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