My hair’s quite long now, although when I say “quite long,” I mean it’s grown past the top of my collar in back, covers my ears, and hangs in my eyes if I don’t comb it back.
That’s as long as I’ve ever worn it in my life. I used to wear it about as long while I was in junior high and high school, then cut it a bit shorter while I was in college. The reason? There was a barber on my college campus who would cut my hair the way I asked him to. In my experience, this kind of barber is a rare bird indeed.
The first barber I remember going to was the kind who asked me what I wanted when I sat down, then hung a sheet around my neck and did a rough approximation of what I told him without ever stopping to ask if he was doing what I liked. What I ended up with was his idea of what a teenage boy’s hair should look like. Keep in mind this guy was born in the 1930s.
This has happened at virtually every barber I’ve ever tried: I sit down, they ask what I want, I give them what I think is a description that’s good enough to start with, and that’s the last time they ask before giving me the haircut they think I ought to have. I end up looking nothing like I did when I came in. Getting my hair cut is nearly always an unsatisfying experience.
There was this one guy I went to a couple years ago who did a great job on my hair. Weirdly, barbering wasn’t his lifelong career. He told me he had sold electron microscopes all his life and, after he retired, he took up barbering to keep busy. He was really good at it, too. He was one of those people who could effortlessly keep a conversation going and, while he did, he would continually ask me about whether he was cutting my hair the way I liked. Eventually I saw him often enough that he knew how I liked it, and we just had interesting conversations after that. And of course he stopped barbering and I haven’t had a decent haircut since.
But back to my college campus barber. He was a classic. I think his name was Jerry. He didn’t talk much, but he knew what to ask, he got my haircut just right, and after one or two visits he didn’t have to ask how I liked it. That was the first time in my life getting my hair cut wasn’t a huge pain in the ass.
For the middle twenty years of my life, I was in the military, where I was prohibited by federal regulation from letting my hair grow longer than an inch and a quarter. During those years, I didn’t think of a visit to the barber as “getting my hair cut,” but rather as “getting my head mowed.” Cutting hair is a learned skill. Mowing hair is not. The approaches used by military barbers to mow hair differed a bit, but most of them simply put a number three comb on an electric clipper and swept it up my head from the sides to the top. When all my hair was more or less the same length, they would switch out the number three comb for a number two and work on the sides, then blend the back and sides with a number one comb. I was so sure this took no skill at all that, for the last five years I was in the military, I did this to myself in the mirror once a week. As far as I could tell, I got about the same results.
When I got out of the military, I did what most guys do: grew a beard and let my hair grow. When my hair got a little too shaggy, I’d visit a barber to see how he did with it. Or her; I’ve been to almost as many women and men to get my hair cut. I must’ve visited dozens of barbers around town by now, but I can think of just three who cut my hair in a way that I was really happy with.
After a couple years with the beard, I ditched it, but kept getting my hair cut.
For the past two or three years, getting my hair cut has been a chore that I haven’t looked forward to, so two or maybe three months ago I stopped doing it. The hair in the back is now so long that it’s got an amazing flip to it that I never knew it had. I have to admit I like it. If I keep growing it out, I have the feeling that I’ll eventually have to find a stylist to maintain it. Or maybe not. I saw an older guy at a tavern the other day with hair as white as new-fallen snow that fell past his shoulders. He’d obviously been growing it out for years. It didn’t appear to be styled at all, just combed and brushed, and it looked pretty good.