“You don’t belong here. This is a men’s barber shop,” the stranger said in a firm but quiet voice. “You should leave now.”
Of course, he was right. I was out of place in the old-fashioned barbershop. I was an intruder in this all-male enclave. But I had known that before entering this bastion of masculinity. No matter how much the gentleman urged me, I had no intention of leaving. Despite his disapproval, I was determined to have my hair cut in this retro establishment.
I had searched a long time to find the right place. Many of the barbershops listed in the Yellow Pages were too modern; they wouldn’t satisfy my need. I also ruled out those located in shopping malls—too public. Others were in unsavory parts of town. I crossed them off the list as well. It was only with the help of a new found friend that I discovered the Old Time barbershop. It was located on a busy street in an older section of the city. A sign in the window proclaimed it had been in business for nearly one hundred years. It was ideal—just the kind of shop I had been looking for.
I’ve been fascinated by men’s haircuts since I was seven years old. That’s when Dad took me with him one Saturday morning while he was getting his hair cut. Mom was out of town—in Baltimore taking care of her sister, my Aunt Lil, who was recovering from surgery. She left Dad in charge of me and my brother Johnny. Since Johnny was fourteen and more or less able to take care of himself, that meant I got to accompany Dad while he was running errands. Ordinarily he never would have taken me to the barbershop—it wasn’t considered a fit place for girls my age—but this time he had no choice. It was the first and only time I had been inside a barbershop, until today, that is.
That experience left a lasting impression. Nothing bad happened. On the contrary, I had a great time. Old Mel, the head barber and proprietor, let me dip into the candy jar ordinarily reserved for young boys getting their hair cut. Dad stopped at the news stand next door before we entered and bought me a cherry Coke to sip while we waited. The older men congregated in the shop made a big fuss over me. I guess they didn’t see little girls there very often.
Anyhow, while Dad was waiting his turn I witnessed the haircut that became permanently etched on my consciousness. Among the customers was this cute looking younger guy. He must have eighteen or nineteen, waiting his turn like everyone else. Unlike the others, he had fairly long greasy hair that was slicked back to resemble Elvis. I later learned that this style was known as a “D.A.”, short for duck’s ass. I thought he looked cool, in a rebellious delinquent sort of fashion. He stepped up to the big barber’s chair and announced that he was joining the army the following week and wanted his hair cut in a military style. Old Mel said he would be happy to oblige. The older men cheered and remarked that this young fellow (I later learned his name was Tony) was in for quite a shearing.
Along with everyone else in the shop, I watched, totally mesmerized, as the barber revved up his clippers and ruthlessly amputated Tony’s dark, slicked-back locks. It was a raucous scene. The old men hooted and applauded as Mel clipped the young man’s hair close to the scalp. Tony grinned, seeming to enjoy being the center of attention. I was amazed at the transformation unfolding before my eyes. I’d never seen anything like it. After buzzing the back and sides of Tony’s head, leaving only the slightest trace of his dark hair, using a very different technique, Old Mel concentrated on the remaining locks on top. Instead of running the clippers over his head, Mel inserted his comb horizontally and sliced off the two inches of hair poking out through its teeth. It wasn’t long before I saw that he was carving a perfectly flat surface along the crown of Tony’s head. All the men applauded when they saw what Old Mel was doing. “That’s what I call a real flat top,” one called out. That’s how I learned the name of this amazing haircut.
By the time Old Mel finished, Tony scarcely resembled the guy who had taken the seat twenty-five minutes before. No longer a darkly handsome delinquent; he now looked like an all-American military man. Everyone cheered when Old Mel removed the white cape from his shoulders and Tony stepped down from the chair. The barber refused the dollars Tony offered, saying a free haircut was the least he could do for such a patriotic young man.
Dad was the next customer to take his place in the big chair. His was just a regular haircut, a longish comb-over to hide his bald spot, not nearly as exciting at Tony’s flat top.
When Dad was done, Old Mel looked in my direction. “Looks like you’re next, little sister,” he said, inviting me to take the place just vacated by my father. I was momentarily confused. Dad hadn’t said anything about a haircut for me, but I complied with the barber’s command, rose from my chair, and timidly climbed up into his big chair. Old Mel had me sit on a booster seat so I would be taller. Then he spread the white cloth around my shoulders and fastened it behind my neck just as he had done for Tony and Dad. He undid my braids and began combing my long brown hair. He called to my father, “How about a nice flat top for your daughter, Dick?”
My heart was racing when I heard those words. I’d never had short hair, never even had an honest to goodness haircut. When my bangs got too long Mom trimmed them at home; that was all. But I was ready. I wasn’t the least bit scared; quite the contrary, I was thrilled. I had always been sort of a tomboy; never really into girlish things like Barbie dolls and tea parties. I thought it would be so cool to have my hair cut short and flat on top—just like Tony’s. I couldn’t wait until Old Mel began my haircut.
He switched on his clippers and held them close to my head; all I could hear was their buzzing in my ears. I sat perfectly still, but quaking inside, breathlessly anticipating my very first professional haircut. But before things went any further, Dad spoke up. “Not today, Mel. Midge would kill me if she got home and saw I let you cut Mary’s hair off.”
“Well, Midge wouldn’t mind if I gave your daughter a little trim, would she?” Old Mel asked.
“No, I suppose not,” Dad replied. “Just don’t cut off more than an inch.”
The barber proceeded to even the ends of my long hair and trim my bangs. He was careful to follow Dad’s instructions, cutting only half an inch or so. When he finished you could hardly tell I had had a haircut. I was bitterly disappointed, almost on the verge of tears.
The customers all chuckled when Old Mel removed the cloth and I sadly stepped down from the chair. I realized, even at that tender age, I had been the object of crude barber shop humor. Old Mel never really intended to give me a flat top; Dad had played along with the joke. I didn’t much like being the butt of their hilarity. I was embarrassed, but smiled shyly and tried to hide my dejection. “Come back when you’re older, honey,” one of the men called as we left.
When we were outside, alone together in the car, I asked Dad, “Why couldn’t I get my hair cut like you did?”
“Because you’re a girl, sweetheart,” he informed me. “When you’re older your mother will take you to the beauty parlor where she gets her hair done. That’s the place for girls.”
When Mom got home from her trip to see Aunt Lil she inquired about my week. I told her about my trip to the barber shop. “And what did you do there?” she asked.
“First, Daddy got his hair cut,” I told her. “Then the barber said it was my turn, but he was only joking.” I left out the part about Tony’s exciting haircut. I said nothing about wanting to get my hair cut like his. Somehow I realized, even at that tender age, that there was something unseemly about a girl wanting her hair cut that short. The fact that it was forbidden only made it more enticing in my eyes, but I knew enough to keep this longing to myself.
I think Mom noticed how the barber shop encounter had affected me, or perhaps Dad said something to her. Anyhow, she took me with her next time she went to the beauty parlor. She let Barbara, the beautician, style my hair into a short bob, a big change from the pigtails I had worn up ‘til then. Everyone said I looked real cute with my new hairdo, but it was not the style I hungered for. I knew I would have to wait before until I got older to get a proper flat top.
In school my best subjects were math and art. My teachers all said that I showed a real talent for drawing. Occasionally, in the privacy of my room, I sketched the scenes that I fantasized about. One day Mom confronted me with two of my drawings. “Mary, I’d like to talk with you about these pictures.” The first one was a life-like portrait of Tony as I remembered his teen-age good looks. “Who’s this?” she asked.
“Oh that’s a guy who went to my school,” I fibbed. “I drew him in art class. It was an assignment.”
“You made a fine portrait, honey, but I don’t recall ever seeing him at your school,” she continued.
“That’s because his family moved away. He only went to our school for a short time,” I told her.
“And what about this one?” she asked, holding out a pencil sketch of a girl who looked a lot like me sitting in a barber’s chair about to have her hair cut.
“Oh that’s my illustration for ‘Bernice Bobs her Hair.’ You know, the short story where Bernice gets tricked by her mean cousin into getting her hair cut short.”
“Yes, Mary, I remember the story. But the girl in the chair, is that you?”
“Well, kind of,” I confessed. “I sort of used myself as the model.”
“Mary, honey, I’m concerned. You’ve kept your hair short ever since I took you to the beauty shop when you were seven years old. All the other girls in you class have longer hair. Sometimes I wonder why you want to be different from the rest. When I was your age I wanted nothing more than to fit in with the group. I wore the same clothes, adopted the same hair style, even smoked cigarettes because the other girls were doing it.”
Mom wasn’t accusing me of anything exactly, yet her interrogation served as a warning to me. She seemed to suspect something was wrong. Had she somehow become aware of my fascination with barbershop haircuts? Was this her way of cautioning me not to be too much of a nonconformist? I took the hint and let my hair grow longer. By my senior year it reached beyond my shoulders and I’ve kept it that length ever since.
It would be more than twenty years before I set foot in a barber shop again, but the memory of that afternoon—the jovial bonhomie of the male customers, the remarkable make over I witnessed, the electrifying experience of sitting in that enormous chair, the nervous excitement waiting for my hair to be chopped off—remained with me, still fresh after the passage of two decades.
As I went through high school and college I kept watching for guys wearing flat tops. Unfortunately, they were few and far between. This was the era of long hair for guys and nearly every male I knew followed to the prevailing fashion. If only they had known how appealing I found men with their hair clipped so short and so wonderfully flat.
And then, slowly, men’s hair styles began to change. You saw more guys with short hair. Many of them decided to shave their heads completely. Bald Michael Jordan look-alikes soon competed with the long-haired male fashion plates. Although I loved short hair on men, the bald look left me cold. I was fixated on flat top and nothing else.
In college I did date one guy with a flat top. I spotted Gary in my Intro Psych class and found a seat two rows behind him in the large lecture hall. From that vantage point I could look down and admire his distinctive haircut. He was meticulous about his grooming. Unlike most of the men on campus, he never had a hair out of place. He also appeared with a fresh haircut every three weeks, never letting his cut look overgrown. After a month of observing from a distance I felt bold enough to move into the empty seat next to him. That was the beginning of our brief friendship.
I figured Gary for an athlete and I was right. He ran on the track team and hoped to learn how to use psychology to improve his athletic performance. Before class there always were a few minutes to compare notes on homework assignments and discuss upcoming tests. We made a date to study for the mid-term exam and he said the cram session improved his grade. Out of gratitude, I guess, he took me to a concert the next weekend. The more time I spent with him, however, the more I discovered we had little in common. He was totally dedicated to his sport and cared nothing about literature, art, or film. We really had very little to talk about. He was like an empty box wrapped with pretty paper. I liked his exterior—nice haircut, fine body—but nothing else appealed to me. We never actually broke up, but after the end of the semester we never saw each other again. Still, I hoped I might eventually find a guy with the winning combination—the requisite flat top and a fine mind beneath it.
After college I went to work at the Commonwealth Bank. People always said I had a good head for numbers and I guess they were right. It turned out I also had a good head for banking. In short order I was promoted to assistant branch manager, a position that put me in touch with some of the bank’s preferred customers. I kept a vigilant watch out for men with short haircuts. There was one—the owner of an auto repair shop—who caught my eye. He was a good bit older than me. His salt and pepper hair was cut into a really sharp flat top. He definitely wasn’t my type, but I flirted shamelessly with him anyway. Much to my dismay, he didn’t seem to get the message.
None of the bank’s other clients caught my attention because none of them had the right haircut. At night, alone in my apartment, I dreamed of ways to find men with the desired look. Hanging out in bars was one possibility, but I had heard too many stories of women being assaulted after being picked up. I knew men with flat tops were most likely to be found in the military, but there were no bases nearby. I toyed briefly with the idea of enlisting, then rejected that option. The vision of me standing at attention in a military uniform was just too ridiculous.
When the internet age dawned I spent hours on line hunting for photos of men with flat tops. It wasn’t long before I had assembled a folder filled with pictures of studly men all wearing flat tops. Then I discovered a few photos of flat topped femmes. Some of them looked like tough biker chicks that no one other than a biker guy could love. But a few were really excellent—hot, not at all butch—the kind of girls any fellow would want to date. That got me thinking about getting a flat top for myself.
Soon after that I started checking out barber shops. Walking through the mall one evening I spotted a newly opened unisex shop. Its wide windows allowed passersby to view everything that was happening inside. My pace slowed as I scanned for a male customer being sheared like Tony—the scene I recalled so vividly from my younger days. Nothing much was happening that day, but I returned regularly, finding a bench across from the shop where I could observe without being too conspicuous. Over the next month I saw just about every kind of haircut imaginable, but not one flat top. Apparently the unisex shop was not the place where guys went to get their flat tops restored.
Then I met Tessa. She was the proprietor of a newly opened tattoo parlor and the first woman I ever met with a flat top. Her arms were covered with colorful tatts. Each ear was pierced multiple times. She wore a black tank top, tight-fitting black jeans, and heavy Doc Martens. Her hair was dyed a blatant platinum. Her cut was badly overgrown with dark roots showing. Still, it retained the distinctive flat top profile. She was a far cry from the average customer at our branch. Everything about her appearance cried out “butch,” yet I was intrigued.
I think she was surprised by my friendly approach. I suppose she was used to rude treatment from other bankers. We chatted for a while after I opened an account for her business. She surprised me by inviting me to join her for a drink after the branch closed. She must have mistaken my interest in her lifestyle as a sexual overture, which it wasn’t, but I accepted anyway. It was nearly closing time and soon we were chatting over beers in a dimly lit tavern a block away from the bank. It was not the kind of place I usually frequented, but I wasn’t going to let that interfere with my quest for the haircut of my dreams.
As soon as I began grilling Tessa about her unique haircut she realized my interest was focused on her hairstyle, not her tattoos or sexual orientation, but she didn’t seem to mind. That’s when she told me about the Old Time shop where she got her hair cut. “It’s a great place,” she confided. “Jack really does a terrific job. I’m overdue for a trim right now, but I’m super busy running my place and haven’t been able to get free,” she said. “I should just lock the door and take off for an hour, but I hate the thought of missing even one new customer.” I thanked her for the beer and started to leave. “You thinking of getting your hair cut like this?” she asked, pulling out her driver’s license which showed Tessa wearing a freshly cut flat top.
“I might be,” I admitted. “I’ve been thinking about it.”
“That would be so rad!” Tessa exclaimed. “You would blow so many minds—imagine, a lady banker with a flat top.”
“Yeah, that’s my biggest problem. I’m afraid my boss and all the senior bank management wouldn’t approve. It would be too extreme for them.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” she agreed. “But you should do it anyways, just to get the satisfaction of freaking them out.”
“That might be fun,” I conceded, “but then I’d be unemployed.”
“You could come work for me,” she offered.
“That’s very kind, Tessa, but I’m good at my job and know nothing about tattoos. I’m even scared of needles. I’m afraid I’ll have to decline your kind offer.”
The next day, after the bank closed, I drove past the Old Time just to satisfy my curiosity. It looked interesting. I found a parking place and strolled down the block pretending to be a casual sightseer. The shop was closed so I had no qualms about peering through its big front window. It didn’t look too much different from the place Dad took me when I was seven—three big old-fashioned barber chairs arrayed against one wall, half a dozen plastic chairs for those waiting their turns on the opposite wall, a massive old-style cash register near the door. It brought back memories of that day, many years ago, when I was first introduced to the allure of the flat top.
I had not yet decided to become a patron—my fear of unemployment was still too strong—but the possibility of getting my hair cut in this traditional barber shop suddenly converted my juvenile fantasy to a real possibility.
That night in the privacy of my apartment I dreamed once again about getting my hair cut in a flat top. This time the setting was the Old Time. I walked through the door, stepped boldly up to the chair, took a seat, and ordered the barber to give me the haircut of my dreams. Of course, then I had to imagine a scenario where my boss didn’t fire me for violating company policy forbidding weird or extreme hairstyles.
A possible solution to my problem came a month later during a mandatory training session on the company’s non-discrimination policy. We were instructed that supervisors could not discriminate against employees because of their race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation. Some wise guy asked if that meant we had to be nice to fags and dykes. Everyone except me laughed, but the trainer took his question seriously, explaining that even if we disagreed with a person’s lifestyle choices we couldn’t harass or punish them for being different.
A light bulb went off in my mind. Perhaps I could keep my job with the haircut I hungered for if I pretended to be a lesbian. Adopting a masculine hairstyle might be defended as part of my sexual orientation. Maybe I would be protected by this non-discrimination policy.
When the session was over, I sought out the trainer, an attractive African American woman whom I thought would be sympathetic. “Can we speak confidentially?” I asked.
“Sure, what’s on your mind?”
“Well, I have a friend who’s a lesbian,” I began. “She has a very short haircut and styles it like a man. She wears suits and ties to work. She says this is part of her homosexual lifestyle. If she worked for our bank would she be protected by our company’s non-discrimination policy?”
“That’s an interesting question,” the trainer replied. “I recently heard about a case that might apply to your friend’s situation. An African American man with outstanding credentials applied for a job with one of our competitors. He was well dressed and well spoken, but he wore his hair in long dreadlocks. When he didn’t get the job he sued claiming discrimination because of his race. Long story short, he won his suit and got the job. I think your friend could claim that a man wouldn’t be fired for having short hair so neither should she. She could claim gender discrimination or bias because of her sexual orientation.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said. “My friend will be glad to hear that.”
“Good luck to her,” said the trainer as she reached out to take my hand. “Tell her she can count on me if she wants to work for this bank.” Her knowing smile assured me that my lie hadn’t fooled her. She knew the story about my imaginary friend was really a description of my own predicament.
Even with that encouraging information, it took me another month to work up the courage to actually venture into the Old Time barbershop.
I chose a Friday thinking that would give me the weekend to get used to my new haircut before reporting for work on Monday. On Thursday I stopped by Tessa’s tattoo parlor. If she was surprised to see me, she didn’t let on. “Hi Mary, you going to join the tattooed sorority at last?” she cheerfully greeted me. “I’m sure I can find a nice design for you.”
“No, Tessa, not today,” I laughed. “I need some advice.”
“Sure, be glad to help,” she smiled.
“I’m going to get my hair cut tomorrow,” I confided.
“At the Old Time? In a flat top?” she eagerly inquired.
“Yes and yes,” I admitted.
“Can I come along? For moral support?” she offered.
“If you’re not too busy,” I replied.
“Do I look like I’m too busy?” Tessa asked. “Besides I can always make time for a sister like you.”
“I was thinking about three-thirty,” I told her. “That okay for you?”
“That’s perfect,” she declared. “I’ll meet you there and introduce you to Jack the barber. He’s the one who specializes in flat tops.”
“That would be great. This is a big step for me and it would really help to have you there to hold my hand,” I explained.
“You can count on me,” she said as she took my hand in hers.
I had plenty of unused vacation days, so I took Friday off. I washed and styled my hair, thinking it might very well be the last time I ever had long hair. I selected a sheer white blouse and some sharp black slacks. I wanted to wear something special for this memorable occasion. With two hours to go. I began to fret, worrying what my parents might say when they saw me. Mom probably would say, “What took you so long?” She probably was the first person to discover my obsession, although she never acknowledged it. I feared that Dad would be heartbroken seeing his darling daughter wearing a man’s haircut. I resolved not to let these concerns deter me.
At three o’clock I began getting ready. The Old Time was fifteen minutes away—I had timed it. I didn’t want to get there ahead of Tessa. Twenty minutes later I pulled up in front of the shop. I waited in my car until I spied the tattoo artist parking her Yamaha motorcycle. I left the car and embraced my friend.
“My, don’t you look nice today,” she remarked. “You might think this was a special day.”
“It is a very special day, one I’ve been anticipating for twenty years.”
“Well, what are we waiting for, sister? Let’s go in.”
She took my hand and we marched through the door together. Two barbers were busy cutting the hair of their customers. Three men, all of them middle aged or older, were waiting their turns. All seven heads turned in our direction as Tessa and I entered. I’m sure the sight of two women entering their masculine domain was a surprise, if not a shock.
The younger of the two barbers, the one I assumed was Jack, greeted my friend. “Hey Tessa. Back so soon?”
“Hi Jack. I don’t need a haircut right now, but I’ve brought my friend Mary. She’s in need of your services.”
“Well, sit right down ladies. You can see there’ll be a bit of a wait.”
We found two vacant seats and joined the others who were waiting. The older gent sitting next to Tessa appeared rather agitated. “You don’t belong here,” he mumbled.
“What did you say?” Tessa challenged him.
“I said you don’t belong here,” he repeated with more emphasis. “This is a men’s barber shop. There’s a beauty parlor down the street where you can go.”
I didn’t know what to say, but Tessa was ready to take him on. “I don’t believe you said that,” she declared in a loud voice. “This establishment is open to the public. Jack must serve anyone who walks in the door with the price of a haircut. He cannot discriminate. You may not like it, but that’s the law.”
The barber chimed in. “That’s right Jake. I can’t discriminate. Tessa is a good customer of mine and I intend to serve her friend when her turn comes.”
Jake got to his feet. “Well Jack, you may enjoy doing business with these lesbians, but they make my skin crawl. I believe I’ll come back another time,” he said as he shuffled out the door accompanied by another disgruntled male customer.
“Sorry ladies,” Jack apologized. “Some of these old timers can’t get used to the changes.”
“No problem, Jack,” Tessa replied. “A shorter wait for us.”
I had never anticipated any trouble, but I was glad Tessa was there to defend us. She obviously was more used to asserting her rights than I was. If it had been up to me, I probably would have left after Jake voiced his complaint.
Jack quickly finished the haircut he was working on and welcomed his next customer. The second barber, I learned his name was Dominic, soon did the same. That left me the next in line. Tessa must have sensed my nervousness because she took my hand. “Nothing to worry about, kiddo. You’re in good hands here.”
“Yes, I know that. It’s just that I’ve been anticipating this haircut since I was seven years old. I can’t believe it’s nearly here.”
“Wow! You’ve really got a thing about haircuts,” she observed.
“Not all haircuts, just one particular type. You know the one.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about girls like you—ones who get turned on when their hair is cut real short. You sure you’re not a lesbian?”
“I never thought I was, not until now at least.”
“You ever make it with a guy?”
“Once or twice,” I admitted.
“Let me guess. It was nothing special.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I thought that would change when the right one came along.”
“Saving yourself for Mister Right. And how long did you plan to wait?”
“I don’t know.”
“You ever consider that the right one might be a woman?”
“Not until today.”
“We’ll see about that afterwards,” she promised.
I noticed that Jack had removed the cape from his elderly customer and was brushing off any stray hairs. He looked in my direction. “You’re next Miss Mary,” he said.
Tessa and I rose together. She escorted me to his empty chair. “Step right up, sister. It’s your turn to shine.”
Jack returned from the cash register. “What’s your pleasure today, Miss Mary?”
I was momentarily tongue tied, but Tessa answered for me. “My friend has come for a flat top. I told her you’re the best.”
“Is that so?” he said, addressing me.
I’d been practicing my reply all day so the words came from my mouth easily. “Yes, I’d like you to give me a flat top, please.”
“Well, miss, I need a little more information. You see there’s several kinds of flat tops—the high ‘n tight, the fade, the standard.”
I was rather bewildered. I didn’t know there was more than one type of flat top, but Tessa spoke up on my behalf. “Mary’s a beginner. She needs a standard flat top. Leave it on the longish side. She’ll tell you if she wants to go shorter.”
“What number guide do want me to use?”
“Why don’t you start with number two? She can tell you if that’s short enough.”
I didn’t really know what they were talking about, but I gathered the numbers had something to do with the length of the cut, with the lower numbers being shorter. I was willing to go with Tessa’s recommendation.
Jack wound a strip of tissue around my throat and spread the cape over my shoulders, snapping it snugly at the back of my neck. “Not too tight, is it?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” I replied, hoping my nervousness did not show.
The barber began combing my hair. I watched in the mirror as he carefully arranged my shoulder-length locks. They looked better than they had in some time, every strand neatly in place. Lots of women probably envied hair like mine; they would think me crazy to ask for such an extreme makeover, but this haircut was not going to be influenced by other women’s opinions. It was something deeply personal—for me alone.
Jack stood next to the chair with his scissors in hand. “You ready?” he asked in a serious voice.
“I’m very ready. Let the cutting begin,” I announced with a flourish.
Jack wasted no time. He approached with his shears, ran his left hand across the top of my head, capturing a long strand of dark hair, and abruptly snipped it off scant inches above my scalp. “That’s it. Can’t turn back now,” I thought. Even if I wanted to change my mind, which I didn’t, now there was no way to avoid a seriously short haircut. My barber casually tossed the severed hair onto my lap and returned for a second swatch next to where he had begun. In a few seconds another long strand was added to the collection in my lap.
Three minutes of continuous cutting was all he needed to transform the hair on my crown into an uneven patch of two-inch tufts sprouting toward the ceiling.
A glance in the mirror revealed a curious sight. I sat with the short hair on the top of my head standing erect while the hair on the sides and back retained their original length. If it hadn’t been such a serious moment, I would have burst out laughing at the ridiculous-looking mullet I now wore. This was a long ways from the look I desired, yet I knew I must endure this painful transition before reaching the desired outcome.
Jack must have sensed my distress because he assured me everything would turn out all right. “Not to worry, sweetheart,” he said, “I’ll soon have you looking shipshape.”
Next, he set down his scissors and grasped a sinister looking clipper hanging from a hook beneath the counter. He selected a plastic attachment from an assortment on the shelf and snapped it over the clippers’ blades. I blanched when he switched on the power and the clippers began buzzing. I knew this was a necessary part of my flat top haircut, something I had never personally experienced. It was kind of like riding a rollercoaster at an amusement park. Intellectually, you know the ride is perfectly safe, however, that doesn’t prevent emotions taking over your rationality. I closed my eyes, determined to resist the temptation to cry out.
I felt the clippers pressing against my neck, heard the pitch of their buzzing deepen as they began chewing into the thick hair on the back of my head. I opened my eyes to see Tessa flashing a thumbs up sign from across the room. “This is what you want. This is what you dreamed about. It’s gonna be all right,” I told myself.
Jack concentrated on the job in front of him. He continued running the clippers up the back of my head, steadily expanding the cropped area. I couldn’t see how much hair he was removing, but it felt like hardly anything was left.
I thought back to the scene in Old Mel’s barber shop when Tony received his pre-induction flat top. My situation was similar, yet different. The men who remained in the Old Time shop watched my haircut with undisguised fascination, but the good-natured esteem that Tony received was absent. Instead, they gaped at the spectacle unfolding before their eyes. They obviously had never witnessed a similar display, not for a woman. I was their unscheduled entertainment for the day. They probably considered me some sort of deviant. No doubt my drastic makeover would be the main topic of conversation in this shop for days to come.
Finally done clipping the back, Jack shifted his attention to the right side of my head. He began above my jaw, expertly steering his clippers up through the longer hair covering my temple and around my ear. Thick clumps of severed hair dropped from its blades and rolled down the cape before coming to rest in my lap. Now I could see how little hair remained attached to my head. Just as I suspected, the pale skin covering my scalp gleamed beneath a brief dark stubble.
My barber shifted his focus to the left side of my head, clipping it in the same fashion until both sides matched. Now the woman sitting in the chair only faintly resembled the one who walked in the door half an hour ago. The hair on both sides of my head was shaved close to my scalp. Only the hair on top retained some length, and I knew that would soon change.
Jack exchanged his clippers for a squeeze bottle and aimed a spray of water at the top of my head. After the crown was sufficiently dampened, he used a stiff brush to force every strand to stand upright. The image in the mirror was a remarkable sight. I scarcely recognized myself. I knew my haircut was not yet finished, but I was beginning to get an idea of what the finished product would look like. My excitement was growing. I checked the urge to feel the cropped top. There would be enough time for that when my haircut was done.
I glanced across the room at Tessa. She was beaming from ear to ear. She raised her hand above her head and, with her palm open flat, passed it back and forth. I saw her mouth the word “shorter” over and over, encouraging me for the next stage.
Jack interrupted our silent communication. “You ready, Miss Mary?” he asked.
“Sure,” I responded. “Don’t want you to stop here.”
“Okay. This part is the most crucial. I want you to sit real still so I can cut the top perfectly flat.”
“I won’t move a muscle,” I promised.
I sat motionless as Jack reached for his clippers. He removed the plastic guard that shielded the blades when he sheared the sides and back of my head. I heard him switch on the power. He approached with the clippers in his right hand and a black comb in his left. He inserted the comb horizontally into the line of hair above my forehead. Slowly, deliberately, he passed the clippers along the comb, cutting off all the hair that extended above the teeth of the comb. Bits of severed hair dropped on my forehead and nose, but I didn’t dare brush them aside. My barber then moved his comb further back on my head and repeated the same procedure. At long last I was receiving the same treatment that young Tony had undergone twenty years ago. I wondered if he had felt the same thrill I was experiencing.
I closed my eyes for half a minute because I wanted to concentrate on the intense sensations coursing through my body. This moment was the realization of a dream I had been nurturing for twenty years. At long last I had taken control of my destiny. No longer would I worry over what other people might say about my desire for an unconventional hairstyle. As the old rock and roll song said so well, I was letting my freak flag fly for all the world to see. No doubt there would be repercussions. My parents would be shocked. I might encounter difficulties in my job. But I would face them head on, no longer willing to hide, no longer unwilling to admit who I am.
Jack continued patiently clipping the hair on top of my head in the same deliberate fashion. I felt the eyes of the male customers following this stage of my haircut. I struggled to maintain my composure. I didn’t want to reveal the intense emotion I was feeling. I saw Tessa watching me from across the room. She was beaming her support in my direction. I felt a surge of affection for her unlike anything I had ever known.
When my barber reached the back of my head, he exchanged his clippers and comb for a brush. He began vigorously brushing the top, until every hair stood erect. I stared at my image in the big mirror on the far wall of the shop. For the first time I beheld my new image. I looked like a new and very different creature—not the least bit masculine, but an attractive woman with very short hair.
I started to rise up out of my seat, but Jack placed a restraining hand on my shoulder. “We’re not done yet, Miss Mary. I’ve got some more work to do. Once again he switched on the power to his clippers. He resumed cutting the top, this time without using the comb. The passed the buzzing blades across the flattened surface of my head, skimming off another fraction of an inch.
Again he rested his clippers. This time he offered me a hand mirror so I could inspect the finished product more closely. I stared at my radically revised image for a long minute.
“I hope that’s what you wanted,” Jack said, obviously waiting for my approval. “I can take it shorter if you like.”
“No, no. It’s perfect,” I exclaimed. “It’s just the way I wanted.”
“Glad to hear that,” he beamed. “Just two more things to do.”
I was puzzled. I thought my haircut was done. “What are they?” I asked.
“First, I need to shave your neck. I do that for all of my customers.”
“Sure, go ahead,” I told him.
He unsnapped the cape from my shoulders, then removed the tissue he had placed around my neck twenty minutes earlier. He spread a mound of white foam on my neck and carefully shaved it off with a straight razor. I quaked inside when his sharp blade pressed against the skin on my neck. I remembered Old Mel doing the same thing for my father. It brought back memories of that day when I first ventured into the barbershop with my father. I wondered what Dad would say if he saw me now.
“Now for some grooming advice,” Jack informed me after he had wiped away the remaining foam. “If you want to keep your flat top looking sharp you’re gonna need to use some styling wax. You want me to show you how?”
“Yes, of course,” I answered.
My barber reached into a cabinet behind the chair and opened a blue jar. From it he scooped out two fingers of paste, which he began massaging into my scalp. Then he grabbed his brush and administered another series of vigorous strokes.
He stepped back and declared, “All right young lady, your haircut’s finished. I hope you’re satisfied.”
“Very satisfied,” I answered. “You’ve done an excellent job.”
With that my barber removed the cape from around my neck, dumped the accumulated clippings to the floor, and released me from his chair. Tessa rushed across the room, extended her arms and engulfed me in her strong embrace. “You look awesome,” she whispered in my ear. When she stepped back to inspect my flat top more closely, I pulled her close and kissed her, not a polite peck on the cheek, but a full-on, hungry mouth-to-mouth smooch.
That’s when I heard the applause begin. I looked around and saw that the two barbers and five customers were applauding. They were cheering for both of us. It was clear that they approved of my new hairstyle and of the affection Tessa and I displayed toward each other.
“Remember Mary, you need to come back in three or four weeks to keep that flat top looking sharp,” Jack advised me.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” I answered.
Tessa thrust two twenty dollar bills into his hand. “My treat,” she explained to me.
We walked out the front door holding hands, with our matching haircuts proudly on display.
I turned to Tessa. “You think you can give me a small tattoo to celebrate this occasion?” I asked. “I’m feeling very brave today.”
“Sure can, babe, but first we’ve got some personal business to take care of,” she declared as she passed her hand across the top of my head.
I smiled and grinned. “Oooh, I love it when you do that,” I said. “It feels so good.”