Home > Fiction > The Price of the Haircut
Published: Fri Apr 15 2005
Eva LundsagerUnder Constant Still (detail), 2017–2021, oil on canvas
The Price of the Haircut

On Monday, an unarmed black teenage boy was shot in the back and killed by a white city policeman. On Tuesday, there was a race riot in our city, a good-sized one. On Wednesday, the mayor formed a committee to discover why there had been a race riot, and on Friday he held a news conference to announce the committee’s findings. The mayor told us (we were watching the news conference at David’s house, because David’s house had the biggest TV and was furthest from where the riot had been) that the committee had initially believed the race riot had been caused by the black, unarmed teenage boy being shot in the back and killed by the white city policeman—because there had been other unarmed black teenage boys shot in the back and killed by white city policemen, fifteen in the last five years to be exact, and because, of course, the riots had happened the day after the boy had been shot—but the mayor put the matter to us as he’d put it to the committee: that this was too familiar, too obvious; that riots had been caused by events like this too many times already; and that would-be rioters would be desensitized, bored even, by such a thing. The mayor had scolded the committee for their highly unimaginative findings (and we were a bit ashamed of ourselves, because we, too, had assumed that the riots had been caused by the shooting).

In short, the mayor told the committee that its initial findings were no good and that they should go back and find something else. And so they did, and this time, the mayor told us, the committee had found the true cause of the riot: it had been caused by a barber named Gene who charged eight dollars for a haircut and who had said something racist while giving one of these eight-dollar haircuts and the customer who had been getting the haircut had responded in kind and word had gotten out and one thing had led to another and finally to the riot. The mayor brought out charts and graphs that showed exactly how one thing could lead to another, and he also brought out eyewitnesses and experts who testified that, yes, indeed, this barber was to blame for the race riot, and then they showed us an enlarged picture of Gene, who had a good head of white hair and a thick white mustache and large glasses with translucent plastic frames and who looked much like all our grandfathers— which made sense, since each of our grandfathers had also said not a few racist things in his time—and all in all, the presentation was convincing in the extreme. The mayor concluded by saying that he was certain this revelation would help begin the difficult racial healing process and restore confidence in our unjustly criticized police officers, and then the news conference was over.

“Wow,” we said, turning off the television set. “Eight-dollar haircuts.”

Because for years we’d been paying fifteen, seventeen, sometimes twenty-plus dollars for a haircut, and the haircuts were never good, weren’t ever good enough to justify the amount of money we’d spent on them, and often, after we’d had our hair cut, we’d sit around telling each other that the haircuts didn’t look that bad, that maybe if we parted our hair differently the haircuts would look better, and that in any case the bad haircuts would eventually grow in, and it was embarrassing for us, grown men all, to have to sit around and lie like this, to ourselves and each other, about our awful, expensive haircuts. It was emasculating, if you thought about it, and we did, all the time: we thought, for instance, how we could never imagine our fathers sitting around telling lies about their haircuts, how this was another way in which we’d failed to live up to their example, and how if we were to continue to get such bad haircuts then our self-esteem would be totally and permanently in the crapper and if we were to continue to pay so much money for those bad haircuts then our sons wouldn’t be able to go to the best colleges, either, and would end up like us, graduates of cheap state universities who had unfulfilling jobs and sat around fretting about bad, overpriced haircuts.

Because they really were bad haircuts, and we really had paid way too much for them. Trent had paid fifteen dollars to get a severe Roman-centurion haircut that Marc Antony might have been jealous of; Michael had paid seventeen dollars to have his sideburns butchered so badly that one was gone entirely and the other had somehow gotten longer, thicker, more muttonchopish; David had paid twenty-five dollars to get a haircut that was all business in the front, all party in the back. Right after he got that haircut, David ran into his ex-wife on the street (all of our wives had left us, and although they, our now ex-wives never said as much, we all knew they had left us in large part because of our bad haircuts, and who could blame them really? Who would want to be with a man with such an awful haircut, and who could respect a man who had paid so much, time and time again, for such an awful haircut?) and she took one look at him and said, “Hey, nice haircut.”

 “Really?” David said.

“No,” she said.

“She actually said that,” David told us. “And then she laughed. It was a mean laugh.” David was wearing a baseball cap when he told us this story—he was, like the rest of us, over forty and too old to wear a baseball cap—but none of us called him on it, because of his truly horrific haircut and what his wife had said about it, and believe me, our empathy for him was huge, especially mine: because I can’t even tell you how bad my haircut was, and how much I had paid for it. Even now, it’s too difficult to talk about.

But maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much to have such bad haircuts— we’d resigned ourselves to having bad haircuts, we’d known no other kind—if we didn’t have to pay so much for them. If we only had to pay eight dollars for our haircuts, then it wouldn’t be nearly as awful, nearly as humiliating. It would be like we were getting a deal on our bad haircuts. That was our thinking.

“But wait,” Trent said. “What about the riots? Are we really going to give this racist barber our business?”

He had a point and we spent a highly engaged few minutes discussing the matter. Because the riots really were horrible and life-changing for so many people—so many abandoned and not-quite abandoned buildings set on fire; so many white motorists pulled out of cars and beaten; so many department stores ransacked and looted; so many black men harassed, beaten, shot at with rubber bullets, maced and arrested by police in riot gear. So many restaurateurs and nightclub owners who had risked all by investing in the impoverished but architecturally significant part of town where the riot had taken place; so many of these brave pioneers who had gutted and refurbished these architecturally significant buildings and who had turned them into brewpubs and sushi bars tricked out with Italian marble and complicated track lighting, who had made a successful go of it and had managed to convince, with their many off-duty police officers as security, white suburbanites that it was safe to come back into the city again, at least for a few hours on a Friday or Saturday night—these people were ruined, too, or at least their investments were, or at least their investments were until the city came through with the no-interest loans it was promising to these restaurant and nightclub pioneers. Yes, the riot really had been horrible, and were we, as right-minded, left-leaning, forward-thinking men of the world, were we really going to patronize the hateful barbershop that had caused all this misery and destruction in our city?

Because we really were right-minded, left-leaning, forward-thinking men of the world. For instance, the day after the riot we had all leapt into action. David, who teaches history at one of the underperforming city high schools, sent his ninth graders to the school resource center to watch filmstrips of civil disturbances from throughout our nation’s history. Trent, who works at the main branch of the city library, scrambled to set up a display of books by Malcolm X, Larry Neal, Maya Angelou, and other radical, black writers, even though it wasn’t anywhere near African-American History Month. Michael, who’s a waiter at a local steakhouse, began soliciting and accepting donations from his customers on behalf of the dead black teenager’s mother and father. Me, I work in a silk screening shop, and we had all these T-shirts left over from the last riot—twelve or so years ago now—that read No Justice, No Peace, and I put them in boxes outside the shop, with a sign on the boxes that said the T-shirts were free to any socially conscious citizen who wanted them. But was all this enough? Wasn’t it also our duty to do something pro-active and civic minded in the wake of the riots, like not get our haircuts, no matter how cheap they were, from the racist barber who had caused the riot, as the mayor had so clearly demonstrated?

But as David argued, that was easy for the mayor to say: because he had an excellent haircut, and no doubt he had an excellent haircut because he had the money to pay for it, and because it was easier to get an excellent haircut after already having had previous excellent haircuts, and you could only get those previous excellent haircuts if you had the money to get them in the first place. And then there were the four of us, who could not afford and had never been able to afford the kind of haircut the mayor had, who were permanently shut off from the world of excellent hair by virtue of our middling salaries and our long history of bad haircuts, and yet we were also doomed to pay too much for these bad haircuts, much like the black people who rioted were doomed to pay too much, for instance, for lousy foodstuffs at the understocked and overpriced neighborhood grocery store, the only grocery store they could go to, because it was the only one within walking distance and few of the residents of the neighborhood could afford cars. Because when you thought about it, David said, we were helpless, just like the rioters were helpless; we were caught in a vicious cycle, just like the rioters were in a vicious cycle; we were desperate, just like the rioters were desperate, and desperate people do desperate things, things they probably shouldn’t. Yes, desperation made the rioters riot, and desperation would make us get eight-dollar haircuts from the racist barber, too.

Well, it was a spectacular piece of logic all right, and we sat there quietly for a while, as if the logic were something beautiful in the room, something so very beautiful that it was the exact antithesis of our so very ugly haircuts. We sat there awhile, admiring the logic, contemplating it, not wanting to disturb it until David, who owned the logic and had the right to decide how long we would sit there in silence, admiring it, finally broke that silence and said, “Come on, let’s go.”

We went. Went to get our haircuts from the eight-dollar racist barber who was responsible for the riot that had torn apart our city. But we didn’t go with a collectively light heart, don’t think that we did. No, rest assured we were a very grave bunch as we piled into Trent’s station wagon and drove over to Gene’s to get our haircuts. We were somber, all right, full of the enormity of what we were doing, the significance, the complexity, and, in some way, we felt more human than we ever had before. Because if, as someone once said, to be human is to be compromised, then we were feeling very human indeed. Because there was the half of us that wanted our cheap haircuts, that felt we deserved them, were owed them by someone—society maybe; but the other half of us knew that what we were doing was very wrong and that we’d have to do something to make it a little less wrong, a little more forgivable, something that might enable us to explain away and justify our actions later on. Not that we had second thoughts about getting our cheap haircuts (we didn’t, and would not be deterred), but we all agreed that something had to be done to make it known that we were not just garden-variety bigots getting our hair cut for eight dollars at the racist barber’s. We needed to assure people—ourselves, too—that we were against what we were doing even as we were doing it. Trent, who is the most politically active of our group and who has spearheaded many a protest in our city and who owns his own bullhorn and who even, at that very moment, had generically worded protest placards in his car, suggested that, after we actually got our haircuts, we picket the barbershop to express our outrage, etc. It was an interesting idea all right, except that it might leave us a little too exposed as hypocrites and we didn’t want that, any more than we wanted to pay exorbitant prices for our bad haircuts. Michael, who as mentioned waits tables and is very much concerned with gratuities, suggested that we shouldn’t leave the barber a tip, but this didn’t seem a big enough gesture, especially since we never tipped any of our barbers and certainly had no intention of tipping this one. Finally, we decided to do the very least we could do: we would keep our ears open, our eyes peeled, so that we could explain later on how very awful it was at the racist barber’s, how we had no idea how severe the problem was and how horribly racist the barber actually was and you could easily understand how he had caused the riot, and now that we knew, we had no intention of ever, ever letting him cut our hair again, even if the haircut was incredibly cheap, only eight dollars, which was something of a miracle if you considered it in the context of all the other, pricier, albeit not racist barbers.

There was a big crowd milling around outside the barbershop when we pulled up. This was not unexpected. In fact, in the car we had discussed what we would say to the big crowd milling around outside the barbershop. We assumed that the crowd would be there to express their outrage at their barber and how he was responsible for the riot that had rocked our city, and we also assumed the crowd would largely be black, and since they were largely black they wouldn’t be able, right off, to understand the difference between us and the regular patrons of the barbershop, might even mistake us for the bigots who had caused the riot, etc. But that was far from the case, as we would make clear. Because even though the barbershop’s neighborhood was largely white, none of us lived in that neighborhood; the white people who lived in that neighborhood were called Appalachian. At least Trent, whose ex-wife worked for the city census bureau, said that was what they were called, officially, and this was what we called them in public and around people we didn’t know very well. When we were talking among ourselves, we called them poor white trash, and we would explain to the black protestors that we were as scared and distrustful of the people in the neighborhood as they were, and, aside from the color of our skin, we were as different from the regular patrons of the barbershop as they, the black protestors, were. And if the black protestors then asked, as they no doubt would, why then, if we were so different from the bigots who normally frequented the barbershop, were we going to get our haircuts there? It was a good question, and we would admit this to them, right before we would hand over the figurative microphone to David, who would then put forth his theory about the vicious cycle of our bad, overpriced haircuts and how this made us much like the rioters and maybe the protestors, too, who probably had their own variation on that vicious cycle, that vicious cycle which made us close kin, brothers, really, and as brothers couldn’t they cut us a little slack? This would work. We were certain of it. Because of course the black protestors would be able to see our haircuts, which were, as you know, incredibly bad.

There were two problems with this plan. One, the protestors weren’t black; they were white. We found this troubling in the extreme. Where were they, the black people of our city? Had they not watched and listened to the mayor’s televised press conference? Had they not heard the committee’s findings, had they not scrutinized the very convincing charts and graphs? Had they not taken to heart the testimony of the experts and eyewitnesses? Had they not seen the picture of Gene? Did they not care that this racist barbershop was the cause of the riot that had rocked our city? Were the black people of our city this politically apathetic? Were they content to leave their civic and political and social well-being in the hands of these white protestors? Yes, it was a blow to all of us, because David’s theory had been so convincing and we had all begun to feel a special kinship with these black people, had begun to feel that their race and our hair were like an enormous door, and on one side of the door were the questions and on the other the answers, the answers that had always been kept from us. But maybe, we thought, we could open the door together. Except that the black protestors we’d expected weren’t here. Did they not want to open the door? It was mysterious all right, and we didn’t pretend to understand it, just as we didn’t pretend to understand why getting overcharged for awful haircuts made men like us so very unhappy.

Speaking of men like us, that was the second problem with the white protestors: they weren’t protestors. We realized this after we’d piled out of Trent’s station wagon and moved closer to the throng. These people had no signs or placards, were holding no megaphones nor chanting any chants. No, they weren’t even a throng. They were merely waiting in line, quietly, to get into the barbershop. They were customers, would-be customers, and more than that, they weren’t the Appalachians from whom we were prepared to distinguish ourselves. No, they were middle-class white men wearing moderately expensive running sneakers and white ankle socks and khaki shorts and polo shirts, just like us, and, just like us, they all had very, very bad haircuts.

Well, we had no idea, no idea how epidemic this problem was, no idea that there were so many men like us, and it stunned us to be in such a large community of man. It made us mighty uncomfortable, to be true, and for several minutes we stood off a bit from the line, as if the line had nothing to do with us. Because we had for years thought of ourselves as antagonistic to the larger community, whatever that larger community might be. Our haircuts had made us outsiders, rebels if you will, which was the only good thing we could ever think to say about them. And so you can understand why we didn’t get in line right away. But that seemed silly after a while, because we so obviously belonged in the line, our haircuts told everyone that we belonged in that line, and in this way our haircuts betrayed us again. And so we gave in and did apparently what one does when one finds oneself in a community of man: we got in line with the rest of the community and waited to get our cheap haircuts.

It was a very tense wait. At first no one spoke. At first, we all stared straight ahead at the badly cut back of the man’s head in front of us. Then, after a few minutes, David asked meekly if anyone knew anything about Gene. Someone said that he’d heard he had been a prison barber, that he was a white supremacist with Aryan tattoos. This was dismissed right away as mere, obvious rumor. Someone said that he, Gene, was continually aphoristic and sometimes the aphorisms were racist and sometimes they weren’t. This fit in with our earlier impression of Gene as grandfatherly, and we were quiet again for a while as we thought about our grandfathers and our mixed feelings about them, too, and then Michael said something vague and generic about the riots, how he understood why the riots had happened and how he didn’t blame the rioters one bit. It was difficult to disagree with this, and we didn’t, and everyone murmured their assent until Trent wondered out loud where all the black people were, wondered why they weren’t protesting and picketing the barber shop, chanting angry slogans, that kind of thing. All of us in line agreed that we found this somewhat curious. And then someone piped up and said he’d heard that there were large crowds of black people at the police headquarters downtown, picketing and protesting the white cops’ shooting of yet another black teenage boy in the back. This got everyone in a bit of a lather. Because hadn’t these protestors listened to the mayor’s news conference and the committee’s findings? Were they, too, guilty of not thinking outside the box? It seemed like they were guilty of this, and now that we thought about it, the riot itself hadn’t exactly been innovative, either. Because what had earlier seemed impressive—momentous and important and life changing—now seemed obvious and tired: the same old looted grocery stores and white people pulled from cars and beaten, etc. Now that we thought about it, we were ashamed of the riot, too, as it was pretty much the same old same old. “That riot was a disgrace,” I said. “What were those black rioters thinking?”

I didn’t stop there, either: no, I went on, and gave voice to what had always disturbed us about the black people in our city, those black people who had rioted and who were now down at the police headquarters for absolutely no good reason; who never seemed to appreciate our right-minded, left-leaning, forward-thinking, albeit sometimes theoretical and moral as opposed to active support of their struggle against oppression and who never responded to our friendly “yos” and “what ups” when we greeted them on the street; who never seemed to appreciate how uncomfortable these greetings made us, who never seemed to understand how fraudulent we felt saying, “Yo” and “What up,” but that we suffered it because we wanted them, the black people of our city, to know that we were on their side, rhetorically speaking, that we were willing to meet them on their linguistic turf. But they never seemed to appreciate the gesture, never responded in kind; or, if they responded at all, it was with awful, withering glares that made us wonder if there was something wrong with these black people, if they really knew who was on their side and who wasn’t and if they really wanted our help, if they wanted help at all, and for that matter if they even wanted to help themselves. And then there were their haircuts—the hair extensions and the high fades and the cornrows and the old school pick-in-the-hair afros—these haircuts that were so very expensive and, we thought, so very ugly, and yet they got these haircuts on purpose: unlike us, who had no choice, these people made a conscious decision to pay too much for their ugly haircuts, and not only that, they didn’t call them haircuts. Oh no, one didn’t cut hair, one cut heads, which we found more than a little barbaric, and which made us wonder—again, again—what was wrong with these black people, these black people who were now, with their intentionally expensive and hideous cut heads, protesting down at the police headquarters when they knew full well that the riots had nothing to do with the police and had everything to do with Gene, and so I spoke for all of us when I asked, at the top of my lungs, “What is wrong with these black people?”

I immediately suspected that I’d said something inappropriate, because everyone started shuffling their feet nervously and even David, Michael, and Trent wouldn’t meet my eyes. I thought about apologizing for what I had said, was about to point out my haircut and how truly horrific it was and how it often made me say and do things I shouldn’t. It made me, for instance, often speak for the four of us, for the collective we, instead of for myself alone. It somehow seemed less lonely to speak for four men with bad, overpriced haircuts than just one. At first, we all liked it, me saying “we” instead of “I,” but the more we thought about it, the more pathetic a coping device it seemed, and we all agreed that it was odd and awful that something designed to make you less lonely ends up making you more so. And we also agreed that I should stop referring to us as we and start referring to the four distinct individuals we were. And I tried, we all knew I tried, but I often failed, I often slipped up and still spoke for the group, and I blamed that on my awful, overpriced haircut, too. 

But it turns out that I didn’t have to make excuses this time, because a man with an extraordinarily wide side part said, “It kind of makes you angry, the whole thing,” and then someone with a greasy, uneven brush cut went one step further and said he knew what it was to get angrier and angrier until there was nothing to do with the anger but let it out. There was more vocal assent to this, and a couple of men in line, men with the worst of the worst haircuts, gave each other high fives. One man who had large, trapezoidal bare patches in the back of his head wondered out loud why the line wasn’t moving. Had anyone gone into the barbershop or come out? he wanted to know. One person had gone in, it turned out, but hadn’t come out yet. So, had anyone seen Gene’s work? No one had, and this made things even more tense. What happens if his haircuts are worse than the ones we already have? one man with nasty-looking razor cuts on his neck asked. What happens if the mayor got it wrong, if the haircuts are more than eight dollars? another man wanted to know. They had fucking better not be more than eight dollars. The man who said this smacked his meaty right hand into his left palm, and it was like a call to arms, and the whole line suddenly took up this call to arms, and saying we could not take it anymore, we had been pushed too far, all of a sudden we were on the verge of our own riot. Because you can’t push people around for too long. You can’t treat them like second-class citizens forever. You can’t expect them to just sit by and take it. You can’t.

When the door opened, everyone became profoundly quiet. Then a cheer went up. Because we could see the guy who’d had his hair cut, and it wasn’t bad, not bad at all! It wasn’t perfect—there were stray hairs peeking out on the sides, and his receding hairline had been slightly accentuated instead of obscured—but all in all it wasn’t a terrible haircut at all, and it gave us great hope: you could almost feel the crowd elevate a little, rise up at the sight of his haircut and in anticipation of the next question—not, “Did Gene say anything racist?” but “Did it only cost you eight dollars?”

“It did,” the man said. “It really did! I gave him a ten and I left him a dollar tip and I still have a dollar left over!” Here he waved the dollar bill at us, over his head, like a flag.

And would you believe the world changed a little bit, right then? It became a little brighter, a little more hopeful, and all of us in line changed a little bit, too, became a little brighter, a little more hopeful, and a little more generous, a little more empathetic. We would be better, happier people from there on out, we were certain of it. We even felt more generous toward the black protestors, no matter how deeply buried they were in denial and self-deception and self destruction. After all, who were we to judge? We were where we needed to be, and maybe they needed to be down at the police headquarters and maybe at that very moment they, too, were massed in front of a door, waiting for their old bad helpless lives to die and their new ones to be born. Maybe, like us, they were watching that door swing open for the first time; maybe, like us, they were waiting patiently in line to cross that threshold, so happy to finally leave the question and enter the answer.

See what's inside AGNI 61

Brock Clarke is the author of four novels and short story collections. His fifth, Exley, is forthcoming from Algonquin Press in October 2010. (updated 6/2010)

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