A CUT ABOVE THE REST
One of life's greatest enjoyments is getting a haircut. I'm talking from a man's point of view. Woman go through an entirely different process, more of a ritual, than men. But I think the average man does not realize how utterly relaxing and comforting a haircut can be, especially in a Panamanian barbershop
When I was boy, my Dad would take my younger brother and I to the barbershop every Saturday to get a trim, whether we needed it or not. During summer vacation from school, we would get a heinie, also called a crew cut or a buzz cut. The crew cut, the term I preferred, was perfect for the hot, humid summers I spent in southern Minnesota. I never had to comb my hair, it dried quickly after a couple of hours at the public pool, and my parents could easily check for head lice, or even worse, ring worm. When a ring worm epidemic struck, we were not allowed to go to the public pool or even to movie theaters. The reasoning for the ban on movies was that you could contract ring worm if you leaned your head on the back of the theater seat, and we all know that children never sit still at movies
During the school year, our hair was allowed to grow back to a length that could be combed and kept in place with Wild Root Cream Oil. How I hated that concoction, which always smelled medicinal and made your hair shine.
My Dad, my brother and I frequented the same barber shop for years, all during my grade school and high school years. The shop was located under a hotel off the main street of town. The entrance to the shop, reached by a cement stairway, was adorned with an old-fashioned barber pole. I never understood the reason for the barber pole or what it meant until recently when I read the following on line description in Wikapedia:
The origin of the barber pole is associated with the service of bloodletting. During medieval times, barbers also performed surgery on customers. The original pole had a brass basin at the top (representing the vessel in which leeches were kept) and bottom (representing the basin which received the blood). The pole itself represents the staff that the patient gripped during the procedure to encourage blood flow.
The red and white stripes symbolize the bandages used during the procedure: red for the blood-stained and white for the clean bandages. Originally, these bandages were hung out on the pole to dry after washing. As the bandages blew in the wind, they would twist together to form the spiral pattern similar to the stripes in the modern day barber pole. The barber pole became emblematic of the barber/surgeon's profession. Later the cloths were replaced by a painted wooden pole of red and white stripes.
The man who owned the barber shop was Art Southerland and he was already an old man with thinning hair when I starting getting haircuts at his place. There were three other barbers and all the chairs were the old fashioned white ceramic type with leather seats and backs, a foot pump to raise it, and a lever to lean the back almost level with the seat for anyone wanting a shave. A lot of men, usually retirees, liked getting a shave every morning. And of course there was the ever present leather razor strop attached to one side. I was always fascinated when one of the barbers stropped a straight edge razor back and forth first on one side of the strop and then on the other. The razor slapping against the leather made a pleasant sound, one of many sounds I enjoyed at the barbershop.
The barbershop floor was tiled with what I called a chicken wire pattern. If I stared too long at the floor, the wire would appear three-dimensional and I would have to avert me eyes. On Saturdays, the barbershop was always busy and we usually had to wait our turn. The shop was lined with old rockers and a few straight back chairs. I always liked sitting in one of the rockers, even when I was younger and my feet didn't reach the floor. It didn't matter which barber I would get. They all knew me, my brother and my Dad. After I climbed into the chair, the barber would always turn to my Dad, and say, “What'll it be Norm?” Of course, my Dad's response would depend on the time of the year. He would answer, “Another heinie, or a trim all around,” as the case happened to be. My Dad liked the term “heinie” for some reason and I would always crane my neck to catch the barber's eye and tell him, “A crew cut, please.”
The most painful haircut I ever had happened the summer I spent in my hometown before heading off to college. My Dad and Uncle Harry decided to take me fishing with them at a lake near the Twin Cities. Uncle Harry had an outboard motor and we rented a boat. We ended up spending most of the day bobbing up and down on the lake trying to catch pan fish. We did catch a few but I caught too much sun. I really got a bad sunburn, not only on my arms, but on my neck. I did have a hat, so my face was partially spared. Two days later, it was time for a haircut. When I sat down in the chair, I told the barber my neck was sunburned and to be gentle when using the clippers or a comb in that tender area. I doubt if he understood how tender my skin was, because I nearly screamed whenever he touched my neck. I was in agony the entire time and I had to sit there and endure the pain in order to have a haircut. I vowed first of all to never get another bad sunburn and second to avoid getting a haircut in case I had forgotten my first vow.
When I attended the University of Minnesota, there was a barbershop a block away from the dormitory where I stayed. It just so happened that the barber was the uncle of one of my new friends at the dorm. My friend went to the trouble of introducing me to his uncle, I suppose to drum up business for him. Even though the barber always greeted me by my first name when I walked over for a haircut, my knowing him had no affect on the price of a trim.
My worst haircut experience occurred while I was in the Army. The first day of basic training, our platoon was marched over to the base barbershop. We marched everywhere. We all got our heads literally shaved. You could see every bump and indentation on our sheared scalps. The shearing took about two minutes and the barber only used electric shears, about five or six passes was all it took. Despite the shock of losing our hair and feeling bald and exposed to the elements, we still had to pay for the shearing. Subsequent haircuts were not as close cut, but still more extreme than the crew cuts of my youth.
I spent three years in the Army and at least twice a month, some sargeant would remind me and the other low ranking members of our platoon that we needed a haircut. The NCO would walk behind us and flip his forefinger up across the nape of our neck and declare, “Haircut!”
Part of my Army tour I spent in the Canal Zone – that is where the Panama Canal is located in case you didn't know. Not much changed with regard to haircuts on base, but we had the option of getting our haircuts in Panama City. That was a novel experience to me and for the first time in my life I began enjoying haircuts. I could speak Spanish so telling the barber what I wanted was no problem. All of the Panamanian barbers used combs and scissors to cut hair. They had different kinds of scissors for doing the side of your head, and another kind to thin out the hair on top of your head. They used a straight razor to trim your sideburns and shave a clean line across the nape of your neck. They even had a small pair of scissors to do eyebrows. That was the first time I had ever had my eyebrows trimmed.
All in all, getting a haircut by a Panamanian barber was truly delightful. The barber never hurried and often the haircut would last 30 or more minutes. I remember the almost hypnotic sound of the snipping scissors. I would close my eyes, relax and breath in the aroma of the hair tonics and aftershave lotions that permeated the air. When the barber was finished, he would unpin the paper strip wrapped around my neck used to prevent hair from falling down my back. I would get a thorough brushing, and a last run of the comb through my hair. The linen drape would be carefully pulled from me and shaken to one side. I would rise from the chair feeling rejuvenated and slip the barber the normal fee plus a generous tip. As I walked out of the shop, I could hardly wait until I needed another haircut.
I eventually moved to Panama and was able to continue getting great haircuts. Recently, I have been spending more time in West Palm Beach where my children live. The haircuts here are quite expensive, but at least most of the barbers are women, which I appreciate. Women barbers have a nice touch and they do love to talk. But I don't get a haircut to hear good conversation, I want to be pampered by a barber who knows how to use scissors and can lull me into a tranquil state with his art. That is why I strongly believe that haircuts in Panama are a cut above all the others.