A few guys—JFKs Sr. and Jr., Don King, Clint Eastwood—are lucky enough to find that one true ‘do and smart enough to stick with it. Others—Rudolph Giuliani, Bill Gates, and Dave Barry—champion nerdly hairstyles with a blend of bravado and self-parody.
But most men huddle in terror of their next encounter with the shears. Having put away the Boy’s Regular of childhood and survived the hormonally induced loopiness of adolescent experimentation—checked that senior picture lately, buddy?—they cling for years, decades, for lifetimes, to goofy follicular arrangements, out of fear that a change would leave them looking even goofier.
“Tighten up the sides and back, leave the top pretty much the same, you know, make it look good,” they tell mystified barbers and stylists.
Haircut paranoia can breed extremism, especially if you lose your trusted scissors-wielder. For years, a pal of mine kept his obsidian mop in a set of middling bangs (think Brian Wilson before the nervous breakdown) that looked to be his haircut, the way Keith Richards’ looks like his. But when my friend sayonara’d the girlfriend who’d introduced him to her haircutter, she got custody of the coiffuriste. As a result, my friend hasn’t gone under a blade since George Bush was in the White House. His locks have lengthened from frat boy fop to samurai nape knot to full-tilt ponytail. Last time we spoke on the phone, he claimed he was sitting on his mane. Unless romance strikes again, he may go into his grave like a Sikh onto the pyre, with yards of hair coiled beneath him.
Another gigantic source of male hair anxiety is allopecia, or male pattern baldness, the inherited trait that causes domes to chrome. Some fellows accept their vanishing hairlines, others go to Rogaine or zoysia plugs or rugs. Many embrace the cult of the comb-over, tenderly arranging their thinning crops in ever more arcane arrays to camouflage ground long gone barren.
Lucky me, I’m not a member of the No-Hair Club for Men. I’ll be sitting pretty, or pretty hairily, for the rest of my days. However, this does not exempt me from fetishizing my hair. A lifetime of awful ‘dos—some inflicted, some selected—has left me in particular dread of getting it cut, so I practice that most masculine of self-defense skills—avoidance. I’ve stretched the tonsorial interphase from quarterly to half-yearly to annual, each year producing a lush mop and each year getting it mowed.
But even this schedule demands a haircutter I can trust, and I thought I’d found one for life. Through the end of the ’80s and into the ’90s, Laura listened patiently to my gibbering instructions, then did what she always did: hack it off, albeit in a style that would grow back without recalling Ish Kabibble. Every December, a week or so before Christmas, I’d lean backward into a shampoo tub, sit before the mirrored wall, and bliss out.
Until Christmas 1994, when I arrived at the shop to learn—the horror!—that Laura had quit cutting heads to finish a degree in business. I was tired, and tired of feeling shaggy, so I went along quietly when the manager directed me to a fellow name of Freddy who spoke in the staccato accents of Astoria, Queens. After a brisk wash, he had me set my eyeglasses on the counter and began to cut.
And talk. My God, could Freddy talk. He was a throwback to the yackblaster barbers of my childhood, men in rayon Shirt-Jacs whose jaws never stopped flapping the whole time they tortured my lank strands into flattops, crewcuts, and the “collegiate” cuts only ever seen on high-school kids. The haircutter droned on, his nasal blather inducing the urge to doze. In a myopic haze I watched clouds of curls drop from my mirror image. I was entering brain-lock when Freddy suddenly barked, “Okeydoke, my friend, howzat?”
I squinted at the mirror. No, I thought, it couldn’t be that bad.
I got my specs on.
It was that bad.
It was worse.
Freddy had given me the massive quiff, the shaven sides, the fettuccini tendrils roiling down past my collar: On the Cheeseball Haircut Scale, he had gone 10 for 10 to produce a flawless Joey Buttafuoco.
It didn’t help that in the beak department, the celebrated Mr. B and I share an aquilinity usually seen only on ancient Roman coins. All I needed was a curled lip, a pair of lizard-skin cowboy boots, a satin jacket with a bowling pin appliqué, and a statutory rape conviction to complete my new look.
In shock, I emitted a neutral mumble, paid my bill, and fled, trying to mash Freddy’s craftsmanship flat. The next day I skulked to Pete the barber, up at the mall. “Short back and sides, take down the top, you know, Make It Look Good.”
Pete, who dispenses a lot of crewcuts to the inmates of the Defense Mapping Agency, did his best. When I got home, my wife remarked that I now looked like Joey Buttafuoco’s attorney. Nine months passed. Now in the dog days of summer, I sniffed the sweat in my nascent ponytail and decided I’d had it. Too hot. Too heavy. Get it cut. Get it all cut. But how, and where?
Quandary begat contemplation. What if a guy could try on a series of haircuts? Thanks to computers, many hair parlors can slap a digital ‘do across your mug on a monitor, but I wasn’t thinking simulation. I wanted the real thing. I wanted to cram as many styles into one day as I could; I wanted to walk in hairy and walk out bald.
My search for hair-born metamorphosis led to the Graham Webb International Academy of Hair in Arlington, Va. It’s a cinch to find; all you do is drive up Wilson Boulevard until you come to the clot of cig smoking, coffee-slugging young people with arty hairstyles.
Academy President Robbie Rich said it would be up to Creative Director Gerard Kierans to make the call on the multiple cuts. From the moment I saw him, I knew my bald desires were in good hands. The son and grandson of haircutters, Kierans is an amiably piratical Londoner with a shaved pate, a flourishing ginger beard lightly spiced with salt and pepper, and two thick silver rings in each ear. He looks like a forward-fashion Captain Kidd.
The $8,500 Webb course runs 1,500 hours, which can be completed in 10 to 18 months, depending on an enrollee’s energy and schedule. Gerard selected two senior students, Rebecca Haenle and Paul Boback, to perform my surgery. He would supervise, as the school’s instructors do when students are cutting heads real or artificial. (The $9 fee for a trainee cut attracts a steady stream of clients willing to sacrifice their hair on the altar of education and save a few bucks at the same time.)
The games began on a Friday morning, hot and dry. Gerard decreed it best to lose my brown-and-grey mottle; a dark dye would show up better in the pictures taken by photographer Charles Steck.
Rebecca and Paul went into a tag-team attack, brushing glop into my roots with Coach Gerard leaning over their shoulders. “Don’t leave it on too long,” he said. “That stuff can burn.” As soon as my scalp began to tingle, the student stylists rushed me to a sink to shampoo out the pungent potion. They got to work right away.
“We want to get a lot of altitude into this,” Paul explained back at the chair. “We really want to bouff it.”
He unholstered a massive dryer and began to reverse-blow my now startlingly red-brown hair. When he’d finished, we both goggled. I—or at least, my hair—had acquired the look of James Brown, circa 1973. I felt so good I wanted to jump up and kiss myself. I walked to the photographer’s ad hoc studio amid smiles and laughter, my own included.
A rhythm established itself. After the photo, a strategic pause.Then the tactical deployment of scissors, electric trimmers, blowers, and copious amounts of what Gerard and the kids called “product.” Gerard prefaced one complex arrangement by saying: “We’ll be using a lot of product on this one.” One substance that saw heavy use was referred to by Rebecca and Paul as “concrete in a can.”
And so it went, style upon style, identity upon identity, cultural signifier upon cultural signifier: Mikey Ramone (punk-rock pudding bowl), J. Michael Gecko (predatory arbitrageur slickback), Mister Insensitive Ponytail Man (waist-length Les Dudeklike extension), Billy Ray Dolan (Li’l Abner goes new wave), Aging Bauhaus Boy (circa Flock of Seagulls, with just a hint of the early Tony Curtis spit curl), and, for the penultimate pose, a Travis Bickle mohawk, first in a football-camp variation with the Washington City Paper logo sliced into one temple, followed by a classic 1977 model.
Using an electric razor whose whine carried me back momentarily to the confines of Mayo’s Barbershop in Berwyn, Md., Paul scraped either side of the mohawk to the skin. Rebecca helped shore up the foundation with pink lavatory soap. (“This works,” Gerard said. “Trust me. I was a punk.”) As they labored, someone paused behind the bustle of bodies and hands to remark in an English accent, “Allroight. Mykes me feel loik I’m back ‘ome.”
The deed done, I looked in the mirror, I scared my mohawked self. Are you talking to me? You talkin’ to ME? YOU TALKING TO ME?
Again the photo break, again the swirl of shmateh around my shoulders. For the final treatment, Dr. Rebecca was attending. She drove the electric razor down my midskull median strip like Don Garlits at Aquasco, and with her associates cheering her on, flicked away the last remnants of my former hair.
I’d closed my eyes to savor those last few touches, and now I sat still, feeling the air circulating between the tops of my ears and the sides of my scalp. Gerard dusted me with talcum powder. I shook my head. Not only did nothing move; my skull felt lighter, less encumbered, clean and streamlined. After a cueball portrait, I posed with my student cutters and their teacher.
The school day was ending. As they punched out, the apprentice stylists waved goodbye to one another, burdened by their big gearbags. The lights went out at the mirrored workstations. I stepped into the late afternoon sun and stared at my incredibly shiny reflection in the glass academy door. What the hell, I thought. It’ll grow back.