I was at the barbershop around the corner from my apartment a few Fridays ago, getting my weekly skin fade. When my barber cuts my hair, he generally turns my chair away from the mirror, which is frustrating for someone like me who likes to check the progress of the person who is altering my appearance (I have a feeling that thwarting feedback as he works is precisely why he does this). The shop is a narrow room with four stations arranged in an L; my chair was the short arm of the L.
I was facing a station about 10 feet away, where a statue of a man was standing up and eating. I think it was French fries. His back looked like armor even through his T-shirt. He had handfuls of bubble ass, like something devised by a queer R. Crumb. He was black. He stared in the mirror as he ate, oblivious to my fixation.
A few minutes later, he made his way to the empty chair closest to mine. The shop would be a cramped coffee shop, an anemic boutique. If you’re sitting in one chair, you can reach the one across from you with your leg without even trying, as I learned when my barber swung me about 90 degrees and my foot hit statue man’s in the process. He apologized. I looked at his open face, a youthful and beautiful answer to the question, “What if Djimon Hounsou and Dawn Robinson from En Vogue had a baby?” He looked back at mine.
“Hey, you look like that wrestler,” he told me.
Please be referring to John Cena, please be referring to John Cena, whom I find so fucking hot that he hurts to think about, I didn’t say.
“Which one?” I asked.
“You know that guy...he’ll be on TV rapping?” he said. He waved his palm in front of his face and popped his neck in rhythm. I’m not familiar with John Cena’s music or his dancing, just his deliciousness.
“Hmmm, I don’t know...”
“Who’s that guy?” he said to what I’m assuming was his friend who was standing next to us.
“John Cena, that’s right!”
I was flattered by this guy’s attention even though its “no homo” caveat went without saying. I had to restrain myself from thanking him and telling him to get inside of me. I didn’t mention that the last time I heard this was a few months ago on a weekday afternoon and via the beer goggles of a drunk woman hitting on me in the independent drug store by the Graham L stop.
“Oh yeah,” I told him. “I’ve heard that before.”
Meanwhile, my barber gently rubbed shaving gel onto the lower part of my scalp before delicately holding my skin taut against a straight razor. Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low” blared too loudly for me to hear his breath in my ear.
I’ve been going to my current barber since around Christmas. I like him a lot. I just text him from home when I want to get one of his $15 cuts, and he’ll let me know when his chair is empty: “Come through.” The shop caters to a mostly black and Latino clientele—the first time my barber cut me, he tried to shape up my hairline with a straight razor and I stopped him, explaining, “I’m white. I can’t do that.” He laughed. The overall effect on my head isn’t radically different from what happens when I buzz my head myself the same length all around: in my barber’s hands, it goes from very short (No. 2 buzz) on top to nonexistent. It’s just detailing, really.
My current barber and I have intermittent conversations but they are never forced and he never pries. One time I asked him if he considers his job his art. He does. Sometimes he talks vaguely about the change he’s seen in this part of Williamsburg, just a few blocks from the Lorimer L. He grew up here and never left. The city came to him.
Mostly, we listen to the radio, and I value that time to catch up Hot 97’s playlist as I am rarely in a car these days. Sometimes I just listen to his interactions with whomever else is in the shop, these contorted conversations straining over the blaring treble of the broadcast. Sometimes his son calls and he’ll stop the music to chat on speakerphone. Recently, his son called asking about The Honeymooners, which he saw referenced on The Family Guy. “What does ‘Pow, right in the kisser’ mean?” a prepubescent voice squeaked. “It means he wants to hit her,” said my barber, turning grave. “But he doesn’t actually hit her.”
I think about being gay in the barbershop all of the time, but I never talk about it. I haven’t lied nor would I. It just hasn’t come up. My barber is the only person that I see on a regular basis, exchange more than a dozen words with (unlike, say, the baristas at the coffee shop at the end of my block), but am not out to. I am not intimidated by him—though he can be gruff and is often loud, his manner is typically as gentle as his hand.
The guys who populate his shop tend to be more respectful than most I’ve encountered in similar environments. Before I had my barber’s number, there would be times that I needed a cut when he just wasn’t around so I’d go to the shop a few doors down, which was newer, yet somehow more rundown. I never heard anyone say anything homophobic in there, but the sexism was unbearable. One day a woman in tight jeans and an ample ass walked by and shut down the place. It was as if these guys hadn’t seen a female in years, and it’s not like she was done up or a circular model or anything. One guy left the shop to follow her. The ensuing discussion on bitches was punctuated by the guy cutting my hair proclaiming, “I pray to God that when my daughter grows up, she won’t have an ass.” But if she does, then what? I didn’t ask.
The guys in the shop I go to now talk about women, of course. I assume they say things that they wouldn’t if said women were in their company, but there is something lighter and more amused in the collective tenor. My barber told me about attending March’s Freestyle & Old School Extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall. He is Puerto Rican, I am not, but I grew up in South Jersey, so Latin freestyle was a big part of my childhood. “Stevie B is one of my favorite artists of all time, period,” I told him. “Oh, he was there,” he said, hurrying past the music to focus on the social scene. He told me about meeting a woman who was pressuring him to make out in the balcony.
“I’m not trying to do that,” he said. “I hate kissing in public, I’m not even like that,” he said.
“Oh, I am!” I could have responded. “I am always making out with guys in clubs. I am always that guy.” (It’s not something I’m particularly proud of but four out of five times, I’m that guy.) Declaring my gayness could have contributed to the conversation. But it wasn’t exactly necessary, and I didn’t do it.
I would never lie about being gay unless I found myself interrogated in Uganda. I like to think that I’d combat hatred wherever and whenever I’m faced with it, but situations are harder to sit through than ideals are to conceive. If someone said something about faggots, I’d have to say something back, but I’d fucking hate the awkwardness that would follow while the rest of my hair was cut, or the awkwardness of my half-cut, kicked-out head. I’d hate to find out that my barber is a bigot who doesn’t deserve my gay money. I’d hate to have to cut off this good thing we have going. I hope we never have to discuss Mister Cee.
For all I know, though, my barber is already aware that I’m gay. Strangers are sometimes confused about my sexuality, probably owing to my size and the way I dress, but I believe that any ambiguity is generally quashed by the time I am done speaking an entire paragraph. At the barbershop, though, I am uncharacteristically terse.
And so I was when the statue attempted to engage me further. I had an excuse this time, though: I was high on his unwitting flattery. I dropped 16 years and started high-fiving myself and arguing with myself about how to sustain the conversation and if it could possibly even go in a direction that would satisfy me in the end.
In contrast to strife-ridden me, he was affable and seemed content, like someone who was just growing out of a high schooler’s enthusiasm for everything. He sprawled as much as a person could on a barber’s chair, thoughtlessly comfortable. There was an openness to him that, in a different context, I would explore the fuck out of. He couldn’t have been over 25.
He talked and I bent over in my head. My external response to him consisted of a Morse code of nods and smiles, which probably looked pretty gay, actually. He talked about how big John Cena was, and I was like, “Drool, I knowwwwwww,” internally. This guy had an enviable frame himself, which he acknowledged when he told me about his fitness regimen and accompanying diet.
“I only eat four things,” he started. “Pussy...”
And then, I didn’t hear the other three things because, “Pussy,” just kept looping in my head as I rolled around the floor of my skull laughing. Maybe I saw his lips say “chicken breast” as one of the other three things, but who knows. I was distracted by pussy. Pussy. Pussy. Pussyyyyy. Pussy. Puss puss pussyyyyy. Like Grace Jones in Boomerang.
“Yo, this fat chick tried to give me her number last night,” said this flawless being who was sculpted by several gods in a collaborative effort. He was addressing my barber now. He had moved on. “I didn’t take it, though, and now I’m kicking myself.”
“I got one of those, too,” my barber said.
“Oh my god, I just fucked a cub before coming here,” I could have said. “He was probably 5'8", 210 lbs., and hairy as fuck. Thick. Juicy. You can smell him on me. Literally, if you want.” But they wouldn’t have wanted and I’m not sure if my contribution would have enriched that conversation anyway.