I expected a good haircut like Scout’s barbershop East Nashville do but the experience was opposite. It’s always been six or eight weeks since my last cut, and I always want the same thing, which is to get my hair back to the way it was when I last had it cut by DeWayne. DeWayne mans the chair next to the bastard in this three-chair barbershop in Oak Grove, Oregon, an unincorporated suburb of Portland that doesn’t boast a multitude of options, so I have to take what I can get. Of course, my solution should be to get my hair cut by DeWayne every time, but this is one of those antiquated places that doesn’t take appointments, which means my options are to come through the front door, declare “I’ll wait for DeWayne,” have a seat, and wait for DeWayne to finish his last charge. Or I can just get my hair cut by the always-available John.
John seems to think I’m his client anyway, since upon entering he quits watching the western on TV, gets off his chair and gets the bib-like robe ready as though it’s a forgone conclusion I will have my hair cut by him and not wait for either of the other barbers. All this makes it even more awkward to do anything but grab a seat in John’s chair and start my hand-wringing.
I’ve never felt comfortable here. The third barber, “Elvis,” whose chair is farthest from the door, has greased-back Elvis-like hair, a style that clearly dates to his glory days, and he wears thick glasses that somehow contradict any sense of style this hairdo might offer him, which would’ve been decades ago anyway. Every barber has his name carved into a piece of wood above his chair—I can see DeWayne’s and John’s clearly—but I’ve never seen Elvis’s, which is probably the result of his chair being farthest from the door and the idea that if I ever learned his name I’d have to stop calling him Elvis. I vaguely think of this as his place, which probably has to do with the photos of classic American Graffiti-style cars that take up most of one wall, hundreds of them, each 8 x 10 of a purple Chevy or orange Impala or candy apple Thunderbird framed in faux wood and screwed with two philips bolts to the wall. The pictures are as evenly spaced as bricks, making it hard to look at any one and instead making the focus the overall majesty of so many in one spot. If this view is majestic to anyone, it’s Elvis.
The luck of the draw has landed me in Elvis’s chair only once, and I remember the experience as uneventful, the work competent. We didn’t talk much. He made a pass at what each of these guys would call conversation, some variation, amongst the clips and combings, of “What are you up to these days?” Whenever they ask this, I’m acutely aware of the other two barbers—not to mention their seated clients—listening in, all white men between forty and eighty, no doubt curious about this new guy who may or may not belong. I usually tell them where I’ve travelled recently with my wife, who’s an artist—which might arouse suspicion if it weren’t for the fact we’re always traveling to middle-of-the-country places like Fort Worth and Des Moines, which I like to think gives our enterprise a sense of down-home goodness that’s hard to doubt. It’s not like we’re going to San Francisco.
DeWayne, the closest to my favorite of the three, always responds whenever I mention a Texas trip, “Have you ever seen that water slide outside Houston?” Apparently, there’s some record-setting water park in the Galveston area, and DeWayne has it in his head as a sort of Valhalla of destinations. “I love water slides,” he says, even though he’s not the prototypical water park attendee at sixty-plus, round as a beach ball and with a stoic air that reminds me of a Jeeves character from an English drama. DeWayne understands he’s here to serve, and of the many times I’ve found myself (by the grace of god) in his chair, I’ve never been unhappy with the results. Our admittedly minimal conversation about health care also has me believing he’s somewhat to the left of the rest of the shop, which doesn’t hurt my esteem for him, or my willingness to give him money.
But why would they care if I care? That seems to be the prevailing sentiment, despite DeWayne’s sometimes “Hello” when I enter. John always looks like a bored kid slumped in his chair, with an expression that says, “You gonna make me get up?” I’d be happy to leave him there, but I need my mop cut and DeWayne is always tied up with some octogenarian who’s probably going to screw him out of a tip. My haircut is thirteen dollars, and I usually tip three or four with little or no consideration to the job performed but instead to the amount of singles in my wallet.
Which brings me to my current abomination, this master work of John’s. John cut my hair the time before too—a weird instance when both he and DeWayne were available and for some reason DeWayne demurred—and John offered a slapdash effort with much the same effect as my current coif the result. John nodded along as I went through my instructions—very short, but not buzzed, on the sides, and a little longer on the top. Clean up the ears, keep as much sideburn as possible, and again, you almost can’t take too much off the top, so long as it a little longer than the sides. “Block or natural in the back?” he said, and I responded, “Natural,” because I don’t know, and natural sounds better. So John finished my hair and gave me the ostensible “final approval” by turning the chair 180 degrees and letting me look, instead of at the conclusion of Little House on the Prairie, at myself in the mirror. I suspected strongly it was too long, but it was shorter than when I’d come in, and it was hard to tell what was really going on with the part on the wrong side, and I never really feel like I can question his work. So I said, “It’s fine,” and paid my seventeen dollars and got out the door.
It took a full thirty seconds at home to realize it was way too long on top, leaving me with a cut like someone from the Pet Shop Boys, which would be great if I still had the hair to pull it off. Alas, I’m well on the path to baldness, and I’d spend the next month trying to disguise the length by strategically styling it so no one would notice. I swore, if the next time I was cursed with John, I wouldn’t be so timid.
And of course, the next time I went in DeWayne was genuinely busy, and John gave me his brief “You gonna make me work?” look and got up and snapped the blue wrap pissily against the chair and I took a seat. In what seemed like three minutes, John turned me towards the mirror to give me “final approval.”
I ran my hand through my hair, pretended to give it consideration, and said, “Can you take a little more off the top?”
This brought the dirtiest look I’d ever seen from John. He seemed to take a moment to pull himself together, let out what I’ll call an emotional burp, and swiped through the very top of my hair with his scissors, maybe six or so chops, which took about fifteen seconds. Then he looked at me in the mirror as though to say, “Is that enough, your highness?”
It still seemed too long, but I didn’t know what else to do. The guy had a scissors in his hand. So I said, “It’s fine,” paid my bill (still with the tip!) and got out the door.
When I got home, I realized this cut was worse than the last. That final barbaric (note the root) swipe through my hair had indeed made it shorter on top, but the middle ground between the top and sides was horrendously long. This created a kind of alluvial shelf at ten and two o’clock that would’ve looked Bozo-ish if it weren’t so high up. I thought about walking right back in there and asking for an adjustment, but after combing through it a couple of times I decided I’d stick it out until my next cut, which would not be by John.
Why do I go to this barbershop? The short answer is the same as why I always take a seat in John’s chair when I’m stuck with him, and why I’m reluctant to ask him to improve on his initial cut, and why I give each barber the same tip: because I don’t want going to the barbershop to be complicated. This place is about thirty seconds from my home, and always has a chair open. Who knows what kind of nonsense I’d find at House of Hair up the street, the only other stylist around and where I imagine women getting all manner of color and extensions? It just doesn’t feel like I’d be any more at home there than here.
But convenience isn’t the only reason I keep taking a seat in John’s chair. It’s also because I weirdly like this bastard. I like him in the same way I like our neighborhood. Nobody drives through Oak Grove and is envious of the people who live here. The main road, McLoughlin Boulevard, is too wide, and features miles of car dealerships, gun shops and strip clubs. There’s a strong sense of almost-homelessness about the people on McLoughlin, waiting at bus stops, riding automatic wheelchairs through crosswalks, grown men pedaling BMX bikes with a strange aggression. Anytime I give directions to our house, I almost have to say, “Take a left at Walmart.”
This is not the neighborhood Kel and I imagined moving to after we quit our Chicago experiment in 2008 and drove a rental truck back to Oregon, where we’d been happy enough for five years previously. We’d been loath to leave Oregon in 2007 but felt our hand forced by the pricey Portland housing market, which wouldn’t allow us entry. When we came back to the state, amidst the Great Recession, we found housing prices more reasonable, but still not low enough for us to buy in one of Portland’s many tony neighborhoods. When we found a 2080 square-foot home on short-sale in an unincorporated (read: low property tax) neighborhood called Oak Grove a mere twenty minutes from downtown, we knew we wouldn’t do better and placed our bid. I look around every day and marvel that we got a place this big, this sunny, with this much property, for this price.
Still, we find ourselves in Portland as often as possible, skirting any real emotional ownership of Oak Grove for the area more in line with our interests. Whenever we go to the downtown library, or to Powell’s, or take advantage of one of the zillion worthwhile Portland restaurants, one of us is bound to say, “Why don’t we live here again?” Oak Grove isn’t everything we want—we’re in Portland and not, made it but not quite. Even our address teasingly reads “Portland, OR” since Oak Grove is unincorporated and therefore not technically a city. I admit I like that people make false assumptions about where we live when looking at our return postage.
I suspect John didn’t get everything he wanted either. Something in the slump of his shoulders as he sits in his chair, his eyes darting to me as I walk in, then getting up and making a show of not wanting to do his job. The weekends no doubt end too quickly for him, prices continue to rise as his clientele declines, his family tunes him out. John is what anyone could become if we let some of the disappointments of life take root. My own aren’t far from the surface some days, and I wonder if people can see them as I think I can see John’s. Because, in the end, if we can see someone else’s so readily, whose are they?
I’ve decided, as I’ve managed to make it six weeks since my last John decimation, my next cut will be by DeWayne come hell or high water. I’ll walk in, John and I will lock eyes, and I’ll say, “I’ll wait for DeWayne.” He’ll look surprised, but he’ll quickly adjust, grab the sports page or keep watching TV. I’ll deal with the coldness until DeWayne is done with his current charge and I can climb into his chair. It will be awkward, but it has to be done. We both have to live here.