Haircut day: even under perfect circumstances this isn’t something a pre-teen boy looks forward too. For me, my dread of haircut day would begin well in advance of the actual experience; I knew what was coming. The whole process—getting in, getting the haircut, and getting out—was traumatic. I hated the stupid-looking haircuts that no amount of Brylcreem could disguise. I hated leaving the barber shop in pain—every single time. I hated the feeling that I might be turned into a pillar of salt if I gazed on certain people-and-things-of-the-world which existed in close proximity to the barbershop. I hated our traumatizing trips to Kansas City’s, Moler Barber College.
The Moler Barber College we patronized was located in Kansas City, Missouri. Moler, a chain, had schools in several major cites across America. It was a place that would-be barbers learned the high-craft of cutting men’s hair . . . and of torturing young boys. The college stood in a worldly part of downtown KC; no place for the naïve or innocent.
There were four boys in our family, I was the oldest. As we grew and cutting our hair at home was no longer a viable option, my parents started shopping for a bargain. They found one in Moler Barber College. You could get a cheap haircut if you were willing to let students do the work. Sounds good on the surface, but there was a price to be paid for trying to save a few bucks on our grooming needs. . . .
Despite my father’s best efforts to get a decent and safe parking space near the barber college, it never failed that we ended up having to walk several blocks to get there. This meant we had to run a gauntlet of certain people and things: there would be evils to confront before achieving our goal. Dad had his work cut out for him on haircut day.
Depending on the fate of the particular day, we would encounter either of two things first: the area’s beggars or burlesque houses.
A contingent of [to use my father’s language] beggars—all men, some homeless, some with disabilities, some just old-fashioned winos—homesteaded territory near the barber college. They spent their daylight hours soliciting spare change from passers-by. The men never got money from my dad and seldom if ever asked for any. I’m guessing that, based on his physical size, my father didn’t present as an easy and/or friendly mark to them.
The closer we got to the group the more edgy Dad would become. The homeless and the winos didn’t seem bother Dad much at all: it was the sub-group of men with disabilities that got to him. I remember that there was one guy in the group—a regular—who had no legs at all. He used one of those old garage-creeper type devices (a piece board with casters) to get around, propelling himself with his knuckles and fingertips. That guy just scared the bejesus out of my 6’ 6” father.
Every time we got anywhere close to the group Dad would bark at us, “Don’t look at them, kids! They don’t want you to look at them. Just keep going—come on!” He would usher us past the group as fast as he possibly could. Like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, these men seemed to point my father towards a future that he feared the most: one of disability and dependence. Just the mere presence of these men was enough to scare the hell out of my father—seeing him like this rattled our cages as well.
After we made it past these poor souls, we had another hurdle to jump: the burlesque houses and their lurid promotional posters.
Even though they weren’t open for business at the time of day we went for haircuts, that didn’t mean you completely missed the show. Large black & white glossy prints of exotic and powerful women, with conical breasts, tiny waistlines, and sporting a variety of props, covered the doors and windows of these tawdry establishments. Dad looked like a bear swatting at honey-bees as he tried to be several places at once in an effort to cover our eyes with his hands and redirect our attention as we negotiated our way past these images of sirens who would later that day lure good family men to their eternal damnation.
Having to pass by this sidewalk peepshow alwyas upset Dad, but not to the degree that encountering the beggars did. His concerns here were more in the moment: there was always the possibility that the images might inspire his young sons to ask certain questions—that he wouldn’t be comfortable dealing with—or result in us to repeating what we’d seen to our mother when we got back home.
Tolls had to be paid and chances had to be taken if the cheap haircuts were to be had.
Having passed through the valley of the shadow, we would arrive at Moler Barber College. A new sort of fun would then begin.
One by one we Kinnard boys would get called to the barber chair. Out of necessity—or possibility just to humiliate us—we would be instructed to sit on a wooden plank that rested on the arms of the barber chair. I assumed this was done to show us what tiny, insignificant, and powerless beings we really were.
The student barber would then toss a sheet around us—like some third-class toreador would toss their cape before they botched a bullfight.
Next a clip-on tourniquet of gauze would be fastened securely around our necks. This was apparently done to make young men acutely aware of their Adam’s Apple bobbing up and down as you swallowed with worry. As tension-building device, the gauze choker worked extremely well.
A pointless query would begin the sacrificial ceremony, “So, how would you like it cut young man?” I could have told them anything, because it simply didn’t matter: the school only offered one kind of haircut, a bad one.
About the time that you were lulled into a false sense of security by the steady hum of the clippers—thinking perhaps this was the one time everything would turn out right—you would feel the inevitable pinch as the skin on the back of your neck caught between the fast-moving blades.
“Sorry!” the student butcher would exclaim. I could sense him laughing behind my back. “Hang on; I’ll get something to stop the bleeding.”
The would-be Torquemada would then shake out a handful of some kind of vile astringent-smelling liquid, which I’m pretty sure was only meant to be used as either a paint remover or a perhaps base for some kind of chemical weapon. The remedy burned like hell-fire. And despite my willing them not to, tears would roll down my cheeks as I gritted my teeth and screamed bloody-murder on the inside. I didn’t want my torturer to see that he was getting to me—or for my father to see that I was weak.
I suppose that all this might not have been so bad if we eventually ended up with decent-looking haircuts, but that was not the case. Amateurs were cutting our hair and it showed. Let me give an example of how bad it was: During one of my last visits to Moler I asked for a cut in the style Mr. Spock from the brand-new television series, Star Trek. I was assured that this was exactly what I’d get. What what I ended up getting was something that made me look like Alfalfa of the old Little Rascals shows.
Mentally, physically, and morally, there was a steep price to be paid for these cheap haircuts. Looking back on it now, it’s a wondrous thing that I didn’t develop a constellation of phobias from the experience of haircut day at Moler Barber College. What a way to save a buck!
Yes, I’m fully aware that I’ve picked on Moler a lot in this post and I apologize to any ‘good’ barbers they turned out. With that said, I remember clear as day that they nicked the back of my neck—badly—seven darn haircuts in a row at one point in time, so I feel that gives me the right to sound off about them!
When I used the word, beggars, in this post I mean no harm to those who are less fortunate. This just happens to be the word my father used at the time—along with a whole bunch of other folks, I’m quite sure.
I meant what I said earlier about Dad’s morbid fear of becoming disabled. He and I talked about this many times throughout his life. He didn’t obsess on it, but when it came up—usually becuase of something visual—he would grimace and tell me very seriously, “Georgie, I never, ever want to end up like that. I’d rather be dead and gone.” Dad didn’t get his wish: in time he would become personally acquainted with disability and end up having to ‘live that way’ for several years.
“Visiting Dad” is a series regarding my father and my relationship with him, as seen through my eyes. There will be no set time-line to this series: it will consist of random excerpts of life written as the mood strikes me. It is my intention to post to this series each Friday for a few weeks . . . we’ll see where it goes from there.