Then there was the time my father decided that he could save money by cutting my and my brother’s hair instead of sending us to the barber shop. He outfitted himself with a home barber kit of a rather primitive nature. There was a hand-operated clipper of the sort that at the barber’s was powered by electricity, a pair of official-looking scissors, and a comb thing that had a razor blade embedded within. There was even a little booklet explaining how to proceed.

Did I mention that my father drank?—a lot. Needless to say, he would be well-fortified before calling one of us to the basement torture chambers. You see, the haircutting ritual was to take place in the basement, who knows why except that the cleanup might have been fantasized to be easier than if the operation took place in, say, the kitchen. On the other hand, the screams of agony issuing from the victims were less likely to upset the neighbourhood when muffled by coming from the lower depths.

I mention the screams of the victims because screaming was precisely how my brother and I responded to the proceedings. Well, there was also an element of hilarity, laughter being one of the available responses to moral outrage. Needless to say, resistance was futile. One of us would be called first while the other awaited upstairs in trembling anticipation, amplified by the protests and agonies of the victim below. My brother was usually first, probably because of some notion that his advanced age—he was four years older than I—would set an example of stoic forbearance. I would say that those extra four years added a portion of vanity and hence protest, unknown, as yet, to me, though both of us certainly viewed the results of these home haircuts with dismay verging on horror. I think my brother was twelve or thirteen at the time this went on, so I would have been eight or nine.


Back to the process itself. First, there was the strangulating sheet pinned around the throat. This totally ineffective measure was intended to prevent hair clippings from going down the back. No such luck! Added to strangulation was the not unrealistic fear of being pricked by the safety pin that was used to fasten the shroud. My father’s hands were none too steady, a fact contributing considerably to what came next. The scissors—the official kind with the special thumb rest (only real barbers know why)—were employed to trim the top and sides of the shaggy locks. Well, you never knew when you might also be poked in the scalp by the unruly shears. Next came the strange razor-comb thing. There was some kind of attachment that was supposed to control the length of hair that was razored away, this supposedly contributing to an attractive taper leading to the barren neck. This is where the clipper thing came into action. We believed, and I think accurately, that this device did not actually cut hair, but rather grabbed it in a pliers-like grip, enabling the operator to extract it by the roots.

Now I don’t want you to get the idea that this was all about horror and pain. We really loved our father, as difficult, argumentative, and often single-minded as he was. We knew that he didn’t purposefully set out to cause us pain. After all, in his desire to save money he had the best interests of the family at heart, and he seemed to take an interest, dare I say delight, in the tonsorial equipment and its uses. This was similar to the seriousness with which he studied things like finding exactly the right cutting tools, sprinklers, and fertilizers for doing the lawn or for devising a system of his own for cataloguing and organizing our not inextensive library. Speaking of which, my father loved matched collections of books. While we were privileged to have a recent Encyclopaedia Britannica, we also had some strange collections like Larned’s History (of something or other) and other long-forgotten items which my brother and I regarded with amusement.


But my father loved books of all kinds, especially books of philosophy—he would quote Emmanuel Kant to us at the dinner table! We also belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club and some other club that brought us monthly classics like “The Reflections of Marcus Aurelius.” Politically and polemically he was on the far left. Working mostly as a grocery store clerk, my father was a stalwart union man. Though he considered himself loyal to the Democratic Party, he had strong socialist leanings, and I developed—you might say imitated—a similar political stance at a very early age. This was all during the Second World War, and my father was vehemently anti-war; he could bring us to tears with stories of wartime suffering, things he had read about.

Having lived through the depression, most working-class people loved Franklin D. Roosevelt When our Model-A Ford was sold, around 1945, there was still a Roosevelt sticker in the back window. I remember seeing it as a stranger drove away with the only car I had ever known up to that time. Then, in 1948, my father’s socialist views led him to praise and to vote for Henry Wallace When I read about Wallace these days, I am impressed with my father’s very progressive political thinking. He also had a great sense of humour, often imitating comic characters from movies we had seen. It was through him, and the Book-of-the-Month Club, that I was introduced to the drawings and writings of James Thurber, the great American humourist. I would still highly recommend “The Thurber Carnival” (1945), the book that brought us many hours of hilarity and, for sure, comradeship. We also read very grown-up books like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith 1941) and John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946).


Around the time of the basement haircuts, my brother decided that his head was misshapen. By an arrangement of mirrors he was able to see his head in profile and from the rear. What he thought was that the back of his skull protruded more that it should, creating what he called a “sheltered nook.” Of course, no one else saw this imagined deformity as he did, but it created in him a hope that his hair could be so arranged as to hide or at least minimize this unpleasant feature. Surely no young woman of desirable looks and status would want to be seen in the company of a sheltered nook. He told me that I, sadly, shared this physical anomaly, probably a family trait. I either didn’t believe it or didn’t care. After all, I was only nine or ten years old. As a teenager, he was, I suppose, naturally and normally obsessed with his appearance. The truth is that it wasn’t long before he got over it, and the sheltered nook was relegated to the annals of history—as were the basement haircuts.


No doubt, my father decided that the struggle over the haircuts was not worth the change saved. Either that or he just forgot it about one Saturday and decided to have another drink instead. Thus, we went back to the old barbershops where getting your hair cut was not all that much better than my father’s efforts. Maybe you were less likely to be jabbed with the scissors or to have a safety pin stuck into your throat, but the tissue paper collar and the shroud-like covering—all purported to prevent hair clippings for going down your back—were there to be endured. The buzzing clippers shaving the back of the neck always reminded me of the butcher grinding hamburger, and I expected blood to flow. The application of some brightly coloured and highly perfumed “tonic” was the finishing touch, not to mention always having your hair combed in an unfamiliar and objectionable style. Maybe the barbers those days were too old and too jaded to have any sympathy with kids. I remember one whose name was Sig—good Lord! probably short for Siegmund or Siegfried: “Sig’s Barber Shop” The most notable feature of the establishment was the ominous ticking of the pendulum on a large wall clock. Like the pendulum in “The Pit and the Pendulum” it was marking the remaining minutes of your tortured captivity. Sig, like most barbers of the time didn’t say much of anything. His conversational abilities were probably reserved for his adult male clients. After all, what is there to talk about with an eleven-year old? Politics? Women? Baseball? I don’t think so, at least not back then. Anyway, who can complain? The cost was anywhere between 35 and 75 cents, and the follow-up was the rush home to jump in the shower, to remove the scratchy bits of hair down your back and the girly-smelling hair lotion, or whatever it was.


Nowadays, I pay a lot of money to get my hair cut or, rather “designed,” not by a barber but by an attractive young woman “stylist.” The process includes a cup of tea, a shampoo, a scalp massage, some lovely aroma therapy scents, pleasant conversation, and a brightly lit and fashionable “salon,” buzzing with activity. The old gender divisions of “barber shop” vs. “beauty parlour” are long gone. I know that my father would not have countenanced any of these modern innovations. Haircuts, after all, were a man’s business; men cut men’s hair, and manly conversation was the only source of enjoyment. Short, well slicked-down hair was the mark of a gentleman, just like the hat, the suit and tie that he always wore when leaving the house.

I’m thankful that getting a haircut can now be a pleasant, even enjoyable experience. So I say, hang the expense, bring it on! The results are usually very satisfactory—but I confess, I still  go home for a shower right after.


About tdurrie

An aging radical with thoughts about society, education, arts, politics, and food.
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  1. darrenbond says:

    Hilarious, love it!

  2. What a delightful illumination of the changes in our times through an expose of haircutting techniques past and present. While you seem pleased with the upgrade from your childhood suffering to your modern day pampering (in spite of the fact that the present day services still require the same post-operation neck-cleansing showers), I suspect that the former sufferings provided unparalleled opportunities for camaraderie with your brother. Nothing bonds like a shared pain in the neck.

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