Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tales of the Koko Lion, Part 18: The Mexican Haircut

"What lies behind us and what lies before us

are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."


In 1961, I was 5 years old. John Kennedy was President. The high point of each week was Sunday evening when Tinkerbell flew onto the TV screen and christened an eruption of cartoon colored fireworks with her little fairy-wand at the start of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color." It was the only color TV show on any of the three networks.

My father, Eugene, was still fairly present then. Still almost a regular guy, which is to say he hadn't quite formulated his other persona, that of Gino, the mysterious international car dealer. Soon he would detach and start taking his month-long trips abroad, to England and Italy, and other exotic lands.The young man who took my brother and I for haircuts in Tijuana never really came back after that. So it went for my father, who fell head-long into the void of an alter-ego who would never again allow him to settle for a "regular" life...

Dad parked the Chevy in the Woolworth's lot just off Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana and walked us down the side street to the big barber pole. I saw myself reflected in the painted front window, in the glass of the brass-handled front door, a slightly shabby little boy on the verge of tonsorial splendor. The bell announced our entry, and the faces of neatly dressed gentlemen seated along the right wall turned to us for a moment, looking up from their Mexican newspapers as they waited their turn with their favorite of the three barbers. There was an air of conspiratorial relish, the energy of a fraternal initiation of two little shavers, made all the more special by the familiar foreignness of it. The rites of manhood crossed language and borders.

An awaiting gentleman, enjoying his paper and his cigarette, and having all day to get his weekly trim, waived us through with a smile, like a driver in a slow moving line of cars.

"Ahhh, Señor..." said the barber officiously, turning the big scrolled iron barber chair towards me, snapping the seat with a hand towel, "Por favor..." motioning to take my place. No, "momentito," holding his hand up to pause me, "Esperes, por favor..." He wheeled on one foot, dipped down, and arose holding a deep green tack-upholstered leather booster seat, which he set on the chair, re-inviting me to take my place.

The barbers looked like family, well-groomed professional men, with their white short-sleeved doctor's shirts, shiny black hair and mustaches. Mine was the youngest and portliest, with no grey at his temples, manning the far chair. He turned me to face the long mirror and marble mantle, the array of multi-colored potions, balms, and astringents, like the exotic line-up of liquors behind a bartender in a ritzy hotel. There were all sorts of gadgets and accessories, each with more possibilities than the other. Graduated vials, sculpted bottles, ornate containers; mysterious, vaguely surgical-looking devices, ostensibly for the purpose of making a man all that he could be, and more.

He snapped and whirled a sheer white cotton dropcloth around my chin like a toreador, like the framed Correos posters on the wall. It settled down on top of me with perfect gentle gravity. Sweet-smelling. Calming. He gathered the sheet up around my neck and wrapped it, once, twice around with soft white crepe paper, sealing my neckline securely with a clip. Then he went to work.

The scissors snipped rhythmically, with metallic precision. It seemed no stroke was wasted, even when no hair was cut. His fingers felt like big warm rubber knobs, pushing and turning my little boy's head like a grapefruit. He smelled of cologne himself. The electric trimmer snapped on and buzzed at my temples, lightly scraping around my ears as he folded them over. Everything so precise, so assured.

Then came the coup de grace. With all the professionalism afforded to his most mature patrons, he took his soap mug from the mantle, and with one raised eyebrow and some steaming hot water, proceeded to whip up a rich lather with his brush. He tillted my chin forward, and spread the warm, fragrant lather behind my ears, and around the nape of my neck, then quickly, setting down the mug, he reached into the front pocket of his barber's shirt, and unfolded his abalone shell handled straight razor. He stropped it to a sheen on the broad leather belt that hung from the side of the chair, and resting his little finger on the back of my head, meticulously shaved my neckline.

Afterwards, he wiped the excess lather off with a warm towel, unwound the paper seal from around my neck, and whisked around my tingling neck, ears, and shoulders with a soft, powdered brush. There was a slap of lightly perfumed hair tonic massaged into my fresh haircut, and a firm, definitive final combing. Then he turned the great chair slowly to face the mirror.

The seated gentlemen lowered their papers and looked up.

"Ahhh..." the men admired simultaneously the perfectly groomed little gentleman in the mirror that I been transformed into at the hands of this craftsman as he lifted the cloth off of me, and I basked in the sensation of a real haircut and shave.

In a way, I wished I could stay with that brotherhood of Mexican barbers, in their warmth and professionalism. The propriety they afforded even a little boy. But after I played out front, squinting on the hot sidewalk, peeking in until my brother's haircut was completed, we rode back to San Diego with our Dad, who could never quite muster the self-assured comfort around his young sons that seemed so natural to that family of Mexican barbers. We rode back in silence across the border at San Ysidro. Back to our "regular" lives.