I’ve always preferred the barbershop over today’s modern salons. There’s something about them which make me wax nostalgic. It must be the scent of musk wafting, the metallic buzz of the shavers, or the endless old tunes playing – from Skeeter Davis to The Lettermen – which add a wistfulness to them. Or it must be the barber himself, the once young novice who used to work in the old barbershop my father went to, now running his own business, hair streaked by greys and whites, adding a sense of familiarity to the enterprise and an old-school nonchalance more polished, glitzy, and often kitschy salons (or whatever they call it these days i.e. haircutters, hair spas, styling, artisan makeovers) lack.
While women venture to parlors that smell of perm, dye, slightly burnt hair from curling irons, and hair spray, gentlemen flock to barbershops for masculine affairs: young boys crying as fathers scold them to sit still while the barber shaves their pre-pubescent sideburns; cramped waiting areas littered with magazines on cars or tabloids carrying vulgar headlines and covered by scantily clad women; fellow patrons who smell of smoke mixed with alcohol and pomade; conversations between barber and client over business, loyalties, infidelities, basketball, boxing, cockfighting. It’s a man’s world, one deeply steeped in tradition, and one which continually resists the modern salon’s penchant for fads.
The barbershop is where young boys observe their father’s friendly chatter and tipping etiquette (my father always told me to tip big); where the old widower recalls his younger years with much amour now that all his children are abroad; where talk over politics, corruption most of all, is most welcomed (the taxi is the next best place) and the profanity-laced, heated arguments between barber and client is inevitably resolved; where not only cut hair accumulates, but also stories, the kind we all know the barber carries and shares to others, the kind we’ve been advised to take with a grain of salt but still duly entertain. I often wonder how many times the barber must have mixed up a story or associated an anecdote to the wrong person.
After all, the clientele is diverse: businessmen, mostly Filipino-Chinese, who arrive in their swanky SUV’s; corporate executives who look far removed from their profession in their plain shirts and khaki shorts; blue-collar workers with their backpacks and wearing their dusty sandals; seminarians and priests; the occasional butch lesbian; the discreet, gay man; brothers; fathers and their sons. Most of these people can perhaps afford the swankier, or more updated salons where conversation is easier to decline, but prefer the homey service of their local barber’s place, where they can sit back and relax with no pretensions.
Perhaps, that is the true reason many still go to their childhood barber. After a student’s long day in school working on projects or preparing for the final examinations; or a young entrepreneur’s exhaustion from managing the hardware store, dealing with importers and suppliers; a man tired of taking the brunt of a wife’s nagging, picking up the kids after school….After all of the day’s concerns, young and old men would simply like to linger languidly in the solace of a place offering something they simple and familiar. The disconcerting talk with high-browed receptionists, the check-ins, the signatures, the flamboyance, the machinations, the choice of hair oil treatment, or hair gel; blue towel or green towel, menthol or chamomile, all the salon promos and whatnot: they are baggage to a man who simply desires a haircut.
The trip to the barbershop offers residual effects no modern salon can offer. It’s a place where time stops and one can expect really good music, dexterity from the barbers, stories of the imaginative sort, the familiar scent, an exchange of pleasantries, and the complimentary massage to honor loyalty and understanding between two men. All things familiar but never old. All things good but never contrived. You really could not ask for more, and usually, a hefty tip is in store. It’s the least you can do for an experience that quite frankly, goes beyond the tangible customer service so many salons are desperately trying to achieve.