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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Cheap Haircuts

Haircuts, well, they’ve always been reasonably traumatic experiences for me. It’s a long story that I don’t care to get into. Anyway, given that, these days I tend to avoid haircuts. Whenever it becomes absolutely necessary to get one–and it does–I just try to go to a place that’ll make the experience as quick and as cheap as possible. Especially when it comes to the "cheap" part.

Yet even when I go into a place whose windows promise "$7 Haircuts," I end up getting charged $20 or more. I don’t know why this is. It’s not like I’m asking for anything fancy–I just want a few inches taken off the bottom, then be done with it. None of that foofy crap for me.

Then I remember Minneapolis. Like I said, haircuts have always been traumatic, and hair in general is simply something I’d rather not have to think about. So most of the time in Minneapolis, I just had a crewcut. Get one a year, then not have to think about hair again.

The way I saw it, nobody can screw up a crewcut, right? So instead of paying $10 (this was a while ago, remember–and the Midwest) to get a fancy-ass crewcut, why not just go down to the barber school? It was a half-mile walk away, on the outskirts of downtown. Very simple, no waiting, and it cost $2.

Even at the fucking Minneapolis Barber School, though, I couldn’t get away unscathed.

"That’s all you want?" the pimply faced kid in the orange "student" tunic would ask. "A crewcut?"

"Yes, please."

He’d roll his eyes then try again. "C’mon, let me do something nice for you. Make you look real good."

"I don’t want to look good. I just want a damn crewcut, so I don’t have to bother with how I look. Please."

We’d go back and forth, but he’d always give in and give me a crewcut. He had to. I was the man with the two dollars.

Up until recently, I’d walk past the Atlas Barber School without giving it a second thought. Even the "$4 Haircuts" sign in the window didn’t catch my eye. My hair had gone way beyond hippie in the intervening years, but my yearly haircuts now tended to be spur-of-the-moment affairs. The urge would strike some Saturday as I was walking past a barbershop in my neighborhood, and I’d go in and get it over with.

Then one day recently, as we were passing on our way to the tavern, Morgan paused, looked up at the sign through the plate glass window and said, "We should go in there sometime." She’d been needing a haircut herself.

"Okay," I said, before telling her about the place I went to Minneapolis.

On a Friday afternoon maybe two weeks later, we decided it was time. I needed to do something–I had hair dangling into my food and beer and getting sucked down my throat as I slept. If I only got a simple six inches lopped off, I’d be set for another year.

So we got a bite to eat, hemmed and hawed as to whether we wanted to take the Barber School risk, wandered through a park, considered going to the bar first, just to deaden the reflexes some, came damn near to the point of flipping a coin.

Finally, I said, "Look, it’s four bucks. We only want a trim. How much damage could they do, really? For four bucks?"

She agreed, we both shrugged, then walked through the front door into the blast of air conditioning, where we took a seat.

Atlas is a small, confusing place (for me, anyway). From where I sat, it seemed all the walls were either mirrors or windows, which kept me off balance. There also seemed to be a few free-standing walls, and the barber chairs looked like they were placed around the room randomly.

I couldn’t see anything off to the right, but ahead of me to the left, two people–or maybe three (damn those mirrors!)–were getting their heads shaved. Which I guess is something else you don’t have to worry about anyone botching up too badly for your four bucks.

The gray-haired man running the operation had a happy-go-lucky demeanor. He seemed concerned about how his students were doing, didn’t yell, helped out when it was appropriate or necessary.

We were called almost immediately. Morgan followed a young woman around a corner by some windows, and I followed a young, nervous, silent fellow, who seemed to be Eastern European. I’m guessing about the latter, given how little he spoke. Most all the speaking he did he did in whispers to the man in charge. They seemed to share a common language. The only thing he said to me during the 15-minute haircut was, "You have long hair," to which I replied "Yes, I do."

It was the first time I can recall being asked to stand through a haircut, even though there was a chair right next to me.

Over on Morgan’s end, she was listening to an older black gentleman tell the young barber-to-be trimming his hair all about the good ol’ days, when barbershops were community centers, where men would gather and sit around all day long discussing the news of the day.

An immense and immensely "flamboyant" man strolled in the front door and, without waiting to be called, made his own way back to a chair, announcing as he did so exactly what he wanted done to his hair, down to the exact type of razor he wanted used.

There’s a man, I thought, who knows just a little too much about his own hair.

When I was finished, I returned to my seat to wait for Morgan. That’s when the real show got under way.

"Where I come from," a voice boomed from around a corner to my right, "we learn to say ‘Please’ and ‘Excuse me.’ Didn’t they ever teach you that?"

Several people in the room began looking around, at each other, at the old man who was speaking, trying to figure out just who the hell he was talking to, as it wasn’t immediately apparent.

"You!" the old man said, apparently recognizing the confusion. It was the school’s proprietor he was talking to.


"Yes, you–didn’t they ever teach you ‘Please’ and ‘Excuse me’? When you bump into someone, you’re supposed to say ‘Excuse me.’"

"But I didn’t–"

"Yes you did! Just a second ago!"


"Right here!"

"Well, if it was right here," the proprietor said, gesturing at the chair where the young man who’d cut my hair was now working on his next customer, "then we were working. If we are working here, then it is you who should be saying ‘Excuse me.’"

Well, as you can imagine, things went downhill from there.

Meanwhile, the woman who was more or less having her head shaved was looking at the back of her skull in a mirror, and she was pissed.

"I said I wanted it tapered!"

"You said you wanted it straight," the quiet Asian woman who’d cut her hair explained. "You said you wanted it tapered, then you said you wanted it straight. Now you want it tapered again?"

"I never told you that!"

A man with only the lightest fringe of hair around the back of his mostly bald head came in and sat down next to me. We watched the various scenes working themselves out around the barber school in silence, but when the proprietor, trying to extract himself from his own confrontation, asked who was next and pointed at him, he looked over at me.

"Oh no," I said, "I just got my hair cut. I’m all done, thanks."

He looked very suspicious, and almost hurt.

The old man who was concerned about proper manners, having finally received a sort of an apology, stomped out, muttering, "That’s all he needed to do. That’s all I wanted to hear."

When the door closed behind him, the accused proprietor looked up from where he was prepping the bald man and said, "He’s crazy. I wasn’t anywhere near him."

Unbeknownst to him, however, the old man had snuck back in silently, and was standing in the doorway.

"You sayin’ I’m a liar?"

That caught everyone by surprise.

The woman whose hair was cut straight across the back instead of being tapered was raising high holy hell to anyone who would listen.

Two other customers, who had been waiting patiently, stood and fled out the front door.

Over in Morgan’s corner, the large flamboyant man was trying to prove something or another by going off on what an "Oreo" that Bryant Gumbel was and how he "probably married a white woman." (For the record, this man was as pasty white as you can be.) He seemed to be directing his comments at one of the black male students, who seemed uncomfortable and irked by the whole thing, finally turning on him and telling him quietly that it didn’t really matter who Bryant Gumbel wanted to marry.

It took awhile longer than mine did, but Morgan was finally finished. I didn’t mind that it took awhile–especially with a floor show like that. At the barbershop I’d been frequenting occasionally, the most I could usually hope for was long back-and-forths about the glories of Sinatra. While that was fine, it lacked the spark of this place–the threat of imminent mayhem.

We paid our cumulative $8 and left, happy with the haircuts. Not a thing in the world to complain about. Then we went to the bar.