The Peace Corps is not known as an arena where style is a priority, but a person still has to have their hair cut every once in a while. Since coming to this country I have been known to hold out for a good long time before cutting my hair, even though the bushiness is very uncommon here in Armenia. Because of the cold I can’t wear Birkenstocks and so this hippie-hair makes me feel, at least a little like a real textbook Peace Corps volunteer.
The first time I was at site I asked a friend from work to take me to his barber. He said no problem and set me up an appointment. As I arrived I started feeling nervous, glancing around for any male friends who may have seen me walk in the door to this place that could only be referred to as a “Salon”. There were posters of beautiful people with what I assumed to be beautiful hair, and flashy looking, well-packaged goops, goos and sprays in shimmering glass cases. The man who greeted me could only be referred to as a “stylist”. After performing a surgically precise hair procedure on me that lasted some 45 minutes (using various tools and spray bottles of liquids for which I could only guess at their contents) he beckoned me to follow him into a back room. Glancing at my hair in the mirror (strangely it looked the same as when my buddies in college used to cut it after a few beers, only scissors) I followed. I was horrified at what I saw. It looked like some torture machine chair. As he reached up to the top of it and turned on some water spigot at the top of the chair he told me to sit. Being out of my element (at a salon in a foreign country) I followed his order and sat down, thoughts of Chinese water torture running through my head. Drip…drip….drip…drip… As he wrapped a fluffy towel around my neck (the first time I’ve felt a “fluffy” towel since being in country) he pulled my head backwards and held it fast. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. Apparently at some places (salons) they wash your hair after cutting it. The feeling was rather pleasant as he massaged my scalp and rinsed my hair clean. But as I rose and paid the man (an exorbitant amount of money) I left the place with a sinking feeling rising in my stomach. What had I just done? Thousands of years of male evolution; hunting and gathering, fighting wars, wrestling, etc… had just been sullied. I had spit in the face of my genetic code and manly responsibility. I vowed to never again engage in such an egregious affront to masculinity.
As my hair once again reached culturally unacceptable lengths I asked some old men playing chess on the street where they got their hair cut. Surely these men, veterans of great wars, the fall of the Soviet Union, and years of hard labor would not be caught dead in a “Salon”. As they pointed me in the correct direction (actually 4 different directions) they finally decided on the best place and I set out, hoping to make some incremental jump in the pecking order of men. As I walked, thoughts raced through my head. I envisioned walking into the sacred establishment and sitting down in an old chair with ripped upholstery, striking up some conversation about local politics or nagging wives. I imagined them (most not being barbers, but just locals hanging out to shoot the breeze) inviting me to stick around (my neck still itchy from the residual hairs recently trimmed) to share some coffee, or vodka and salted meat. This would be my return to that most comfortable of places, the fraternity of men. What I found when I arrived was something quite different.
As I entered the barber shop, through the haze of cigarette smoke I made out a group of grizzly men wearing stained white jackets and lazing in their chairs (the upholstery was ripped at least.) The television was booming out an Iranian music channel at a deafening level, to which no one seemed to be paying any attention. No one reacted to my entrance. I finally approached the first chair and tapped the man on the shoulder and asked if I could get my hair cut. He grunted something incomprehensible to me and motioned with his head to the next chair. I approached the next chair in line to the same reaction. This continued until I got down to the second to last chair. (Didn’t these people realize that I was an American in a foreign country; easily taken advantage of and willing to unquestioningly pay an improperly high amount of money for a service, merely to avoid a run in with the locals?) The ancient man rose to greet me and bade me sit. Reaching into his little drawer he produced the thickest glasses I have ever seen. I would venture to say that they were thicker than a half-deck of playing cards. As he leaned in to inspect my head, he asked the obligatory, “how do you want your hair cut” and I replied tersely, “shorter everywhere, sir” full well knowing that he was going to have his way no matter what I requested.
He reached into his drawer and pulled out a pair of rusted, soviet era electric clippers. As he plugged them in and started on the side of my head I felt the first sting of what was to be a very long and painful episode. The clippers didn’t so much “cut” my hair, as the motion of the blades (probably due to age, lack of oil, and a poor and intermittent electric supply) is better explained as “gripping and pulling” my hair out. If any of my humble readership remembers the “flobee”, it was kind of like a terribly rusty version of that. As “clippers” gripped and pulled out uneven chunks of my hair and follicles, he finished the first side of my head and proceeded around to the back. But much to my chagrin he had to pause as the cord ran out of length. It wouldn’t even come close to reaching the other side of my head. Instead of the normal slight tilting of the head so common in all hair cutting establishments, he bid me to lean up out of the chair and slump my whole body towards the outlet from which the clippers were plugged. As he continued to work on the further, previously unreachable parts of head, I was afforded plenty of time to think about how many others had bent over in this same position and wished they kept a $.75 extension cord on hand at all times.
I’ve heard that as one receives a tattoo the pain lessens as the process moves forward and the nerves numb. My viciously violated hair follicles were beginning to thankfully sink into this stage when he finished and told me to sit up straight. I felt a fear similar to being at the dentist as he rifled through his drawer for some other cutting implement. As he pulled out the rusty straight razor and began rubbing it with a band of leather I thought to myself… this is it, this is where I purge myself of all the embarrassment of my trip to the stylist. After all isn’t this how they cut “the doughboys” hair in the trenches of WWI or the hair of “our boys” flying the B-52s in the next?
I was expecting some sort of shaving cream or some other lubricant… but I was sorely mistaken. As he leaned in close to inspect the nape of my neck, I came to the instant realization that with the sub-zero temperatures in the room (true with all buildings here in winter) this action, combined with my goose bumped neck was a recipe for excruciation. As dread overtook me, he began dragging the dull, freezing cold blade up the length of the back of my neck. I wanted to cry out, but in such a testosterone filled arena as this it was simply out of the question. As one can imagine the blade didn’t do its work in merely one pass. The man’s focused determination to rid me of all my hair (and top layers of skin) was impressive as every pass would become more and more rough and excruciating. As he finished half of the back of my neck he paused. Maybe thinking that this straight razor had a absurdly short cord attached to it also, he pulled up my chin to start with the face shaving portion (Again, keep in mind there is no shaving cream or even heat in this room.) I knew I had to end it. I had to surrender. I pulled away and told the purveyor of my pain that, “I didn’t mind a little stubble, now and again.” Though with my language skills it would probably have been more properly translated as, “me short hair like back neck face my.”
I assumed this statement would lead at best lead to an ending being brought to this episode or at worst to a civilized dialogue, but as his reply (from which I understood few words) lead to a raised-voice excoriation of my audacity, the other “barbers” began moving in to see what was afoot. As he pushed my head back down into position I resisted. There was a bizarre back-and-forth battle between the strength of his pushing motion and that of my neck. The absurdity of the situation was only heightened when another barber reached in to help his colleague. I was finished. With two men holding me in position now, I had no choice but to concede. They finished their devils work on the back of my neck, but were good enough to forgo the face shave (the shaving of my hereditary Irish neck beard would have been difficult to endure… I don’t think I would have made it.) I didn’t even wait around to see if my previously dreamed about post-haircut vodka, dried-meat, and brotherhood of man would materialize. I threw down the same amount of money I had provided the stylist for his distinguished services and left. The cold air was not so cold that day as it mixed with the warmth of regained my masculinity.