I went to my neighborhood barbershop the other day for a periodic trimming.
It is interesting to me to see how fussy younger men seem to be about their hair. They'll go on endlessly about how short in the back, how close around the ears, how long at the sideburn. I've always found it difficult to describe exactly how I want my hair cut. Maybe it's generational, but usually "Like this, only shorter" is about as descriptive as I get.
That's why I like to go to my barber, Gregor. He's been cutting my hair for many years and by now knows what I want without my saying anything. Like a bartender familiar with a regular patron's favorite drink - "The usual?" - he knows just how I like it.
So I was disconcerted when I entered the shop and didn't see Gregor. A stranger had taken his place.
"Is Gregor not in today?" I asked hopefully.
"Gregor not work here anymore," barked the stranger in an accent vaguely reminiscent of an Ian Fleming villian. "You need haircut? I cut."
He rather forcefully guided me to the chair which suddenly had taken on the aura of a waterboarding table. "How you like?" he demanded.
"Uh, like this, only shorter?" I stammered.
"Like this, only shorter..." he muttered in disgust, then started to spit on the floor before remembered where he was.
"So, what happened to Gregor?"
"I buy shop. He not here now. End of story." The more he spoke, the more he sounded like a KGB agent. "My son is barber now. He here in afternoon."
He snipped away for a while humming what may or may not have been the Soviet National Anthem. He seemed to know what he was doing, though, so I sat quietly and hoped he didn't cut off my ear as a souvenir.
After a few minutes of silence he whispered "Your old barber is watching." I could see in the mirror that he was looking out the front window. "Across street."
I couldn't turn my head at that moment because he had a straight razor pressed against my neck, so we both sat there frozen for a few seconds. "I hope there no trouble." he said, and returned to trimming my short hairs which were now standing up very nicely. I had a the sinking feeling that I had wandered into the motion picture "Eastern Promises".
How far, I mused, would a barber go to protect his "turf"?
He finished up quickly and pulled me out of the chair. "You go now," he said while collecting his fee ($2 less that Gregor charged, I noted.)
"Is there a back way?" I asked, looking in the mirror to inspect what turned out to be a highly satisfactory haircut.
"No," he said, shaking his head sadly. "No back way."
"Okay, then, see you later," I said as I made my exit.
"Maybe", I heard him saying to himself. "Maybe."
As I walked into the bright sun of a gorgeous Manhattan afternoon, I squinted across the street to see if I could spot Gregor. When I didn't see him I turned to go home and ran right into --- Gregor!!!!
"Uh, Uh, Hi! How are you?" I tried to sound as upbeat and non-betrayal as I could.
He didn't smile.
He just kept shifting his eyes accusingly from me to the barber shop. We stood there uncomfortably for a moment. Then I broke.
"I didn't want a haircut. He made me. He pushed me into the chair. I fought and fought, but..." I noticed his hand going into his jacket pocket.
This is it, I thought. Brought down in my prime. By a haircut.
"Here," he said, holding out a business card. "I work here, now."
I took a look at the card. It listed another barber shop around the corner. "Sure, great. This is great." The relief in my quavering voice was palpable. "Next time."
"Yes," he said pointedly. "Next time."
He started to go, then looked back and pointed to my head. "Like this, right? Only shorter."