I was a barber once.
My dad brought me a used machine one day. I had used hair clippers before, but this was the first one I owned. It was unpleasantly loud when I first turned it on. That was a sign that it was unhealthy, and that it needed some tweaking. Normally, I would be disappointed. But this was my very first machine, and I would do everything to make it work. That afternoon, I took it outside for some initial tuning. I did this outside in order to spare everyone the noise. I had been outside for about half an hour when a tall guy approached from the street. He was a little older than me. “Can I get a haircut?” he asked. Throwing restraint aside, I offered him a seat – our large tin trash can. I quickly went to work. Bzzzz! Brrrrrr! I was excited. He was my very first customer.
He returned the following day. I hadn’t done exactly what he wanted, he said. He was a polite guy. I had agreed to give him a haircut we call a “Punk.” It’s a style I not only could not do, but one that I also hated. And I attempted to do it the very first time I used my clippers. Now here was an innocent guy with messed up hair. There was no way to correct it, but to shave him bald. You see, bald was certainly not his style. He walked away a very disappointed man. For me, it was a big blow. When you are a barber in a small community, your best ad is your most recent customer. So my very first ad was a bad review, and it was a mobile one for that matter. Very mobile.
I went back to the drawing board. I had five heads at my disposal at home (minus my mom), and I could practice as much as I wanted. My siblings were especially willing. They let me try all sorts of things. I drew lines on their heads. I trimmed their hair short, very short, uneven – I tried everything. And if something didn’t work on someone, I just shaved her bald. Poor sisters! But I picked up the skill very quickly. It turned out I was pretty good at cutting hair. With time, I became better and better and, with more confidence, I began looking for customers. That was the beginning of my hair business.
I really had it going. I liked music, and I would have a speaker right by my tin “chair,” playing loud house music. And if a customer liked reggae, I always had Bob Marley. I knew most of the people well, and I would have lively conversations with them while I gave them hair transformations. They really enjoyed it, which was a relief for me because it was partly a cover-up operation. My machine was very loud and not too efficient. The music helped drown out the noise, and chatting up my customers ensured they didn’t notice it took 30 minutes to get a haircut that should only take 12 minutes. They loved it. And I went big.
I specialized in the “brush cut.” I loved this style so much I convinced staunch baldies to try it. I was especially good at lining up hair (we called it “shaping”). Lining it up took the brush cut to a whole new level. With time, people came to me just to get their hair lined up. The popularity of this simple thing brought an opportunity which I pounced on. I created a walking ad – my friend Dale’s* head. This was a free practice court on which I tried many different styles. In return, Dale got free haircuts. One time, after some experimenting, I rolled out the “Spider Web,” a brush cut with a spider web drawn through it. My ad only had to parade it for a day before people came rushing to my house. “I want a web!” they would say. I loved to see their happy faces as they left with webs on their heads. But sometimes they were sad when I had to say “Sorry, my machine is broken.” The fact that I couldn’t cut their hair made me sad. But they didn’t leave me sad. “I don’t care if it’s broken! Just try, please!” they would say.It’s things like this that made me come to love being a barber. I had become pretty good at it, and the experience was even more enriched by the interactions I had with my customers. I really had come a long way.
On one particular day I was playing Bob Marley, sitting on my trash can right outside my window. I was pretending to clean my machine while I waited for the next customer. He finally showed up.The tall guy walked towards me from the street. After an eternity, he arrived and asked for a brush cut. I offered him a seat. We were both silent as my right hand carefully ran the clippers over his head. We were having a silent conversation together, picking up from where we had left off. His hair and my machine did all the talking. Finally, after 12 minutes of conversation, he got up. I handed him a mirror. “Sharp!” he said, after staring intently at it. He then proceeded to hand me a million dollar note. It would only buy a single loaf of bread in our economy at that time. But to me it was a million bucks. It did feel like a million bucks.
*Dale is a pseudonym.