At his barber shop in Paterson, New Jersey, Louis McDowell gives Michael Young a haircut. Photo: Martha Cooper, 1994.
My barber in New Orleans works a few blocks from Preservation Hall. His building sits across from the French Quarter, tucked inside the Tremé. He’s got this fat painting of Louis Armstrong sitting by the door, above a replica of that photo featuring Harlem Renaissance authors posted on a stoop; and, just under that frame, there’s a deed for the property, which my barber calls the remnant of a black neighborhood turned blue.
Faubourg Tremé was the first town of free black people in the States. It was founded at the close of the eighteenth century, back when New Orleans held most of Louisiana’s emancipated people of color. The city then was a smoothy of black and Latin influence, and the Tremé testifies to that tradition—but you can only notice its history, my barber swears, if you knew about it before you got here.
Now, the Tremé largely consists of white folks renting for the weekend. And white folks snapping photos. And white folks cruising up and down Esplanade, half drunk on group bike tours. My barber’s learned to work around it: he cuts white hair, too. He says the tourists aren’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t mean that he is, either.
Much has been made of the black barbershop’s role as a locus of community; what’s sometimes left out is the craftsmanship that goes into the barbering itself. Black hair is hard to do. It’s a hassle and an art. A crisp fade isn’t something to cast off: a haircut is an intimacy, a delicacy, and a lifeline. A good cut is a lot like sex: you could probably, honestly, find it just about anywhere. But to find someone who can navigate your contours, caring for the curves of your particular shape—that might take a minute. Many live their whole lives without it.
Coming up in Texas, my first barber was a black guy, a veteran and a friend of my father’s, and also a homophobe and an apologist. He’d start with a tirade against social services, or reparations, or women’s rights, before transitioning to Jewishness, and Hollywood and the weather. But he’d fade you up like no one’s fucking business. He cradled my head like a sculptor. I came to associate his art with a brutish, inert, many-armed ignorance.
Your hair, he told me, should only ever be done by a black man. No one else will do you justice; they don’t have it in them. And I agreed with that for years—he was my context and my citation—until I finally fixed my carburetor and the price of gas dropped and I never made it back to his block.
My next barbers were Dominican. And then Japanese. And then Puerto Rican. A Vietnamese lady clipped my ear and the gash felt raw for months. For a while, I saw a Pakistani man, a guy who grew mint in glass jars by the register, until one day I arrived and he simply told me he didn’t cut hair anymore.
Nowadays, whenever I’m in Houston, I frequent a Thai shop in the suburbs. It doesn’t look like much of anything from the outside: it sits in a strip mall, crammed behind a taqueria, and they’ve got four or five or six barbers inside, lazing through magazines and smoothing their nails. There’s a karaoke box by the register. Their clientele is almost exclusively white, but the price list has only two words in English: “buzz cut.”
After my first cut, from a woman who plainly told me my hair was “garbage,” I ended up in a younger guy’s seat. He was fit and tall, with a drawl I’d come to associate with a particular brand of drug dealer. When he found out I lived in New Orleans, he asked whether I’d be up for carting cigarettes from the city. I could buy them there and drive them back to Houston, and he’d slip me a cut of his sales.
We’d make a killing, he said, because Asians love smoking, and I smiled and grunted with something like a nod as he clipped at the top of my neck.
He told me he passed through Baton Rouge often. He had some girlfriends around town. When he asked how I felt about that, I grunted again. But then an extraordinary thing happened: his bluster disappeared, and he turned silent. Contemplative. The cut took upward of an hour. Afterward, he took off my glasses and knelt to look in my eyes. He said I should’ve seen myself, I didn’t know what I was missing, and then, having paid me that compliment, impossibly, unmistakably, he smiled.
He gave me his card. I just sat there, confounded. I didn’t know whether to tip him an extra fiver or what.
It’s rough going, describing the significance of a crisp cut and what it can do—but it’s like everything else that no one needs until they’ve actually gotten it. I’ve had whole weeks, whole months, turned around after leaving the shop, and feeling the air on my head, and knowing this one thing about me had changed. It might sound dubious or romantic or whatever, but, apportioned correctly, in moderate doses, a feeling like that could change your whole life.
Of course, I haven’t seen that guy since. I keep showing up and he’s always away. Inevitably, my regular in Texas has become the old woman clipping in the next chair over.
She’s only graced me with the necessary pieces of English (“ten dollars”), and her cuts last usually just under five minutes. She bobs my ears between her palms. Occasionally, she’ll pinch me. She grabs my neck and she flicks my ears and I’ll sit there, thinking: this old fucking lady.
But I always come up from her chair looking decent. Good, even. I’d be a fool to expect more. And whenever I thank her, which I try to do with all possible sincerity, she nods with a certainty, a knowingness, that transcends language altogether.
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
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