Old Skool Within an Old Skool

IMG_0691The joke seemed somewhat more serious now that it was down to flipping the switch. We had to either commit to the $5 haircut, each one of us somewhat shaggy in their own way, sporting the long remnants of whatever style our respective hair may have had, or pass on the experience.
The sign was propped up against a fence out in Barrio Anita a section of town where the railroad runs close by and the horn peels as it comes into town breaking the otherwise dull sound of traffic in the distance. “$5 hair cuts.” Down the short dusty roads terminating at the tracks are various small workshop buildings and a few houses. My friend’s father had a workshop which he still maintains, various machines and tools surrounded by years of accumulated materials for various art projects, some finished works of art, others in process of being assembled. Outside on the porch a couch is set up and further stacks of potential art materials are stacked on shelves. Strange pipes, machine parts, scraps of the city that have so many stories yet to tell, so many potential arrangements in order to say something entirely new. The sun was coming down hard for a spring day, but the 90 degrees was somewhat cut by the breeze as well as the tall ice coffee we had assembled at an Ethiopian restaurant. “So, we’re going to do it?”
The barber shop was actually a barber’s college, located in the building of a school that had served the historically-black neighborhood of Dunbar Springs before being closed down. It seems that Tuscon is in the middle of some small war on its school districts, shuttering schools and playing with the student population in such a way as to allow for the launching of more charter schools and in some ways re-segregating, or at least ensuring that the new developments in the Catalina foothills would not be folded into the city system for this or that political reason which was explained to me but I just don’t have the capacity to hold on to other than the end result being that the people of Tuscon city proper get screwed by the outlying, and much wealthier, dwellers. The building was perhaps built in the late 1950s or 1960s as it had that international style that was popular after The War but was used for decades so does not belong to any one distinct time. We went into this old school, the cool terrazzo floor and the glazed tiles are both that sickly color so many institutions assume, perhaps an attempt to strike a mutually awful scheme in order not to favor one color palate over another in a way sticking it to the ideal of a common culture. The barber college was full of equipment and students, many of them bustling about since it seemed to be quitting time or the end of class, however it is that a barber college operates according to whatever schedule it keeps There was a lot of jovial laughter and jocular conversation, the majority of the student body were black or Latino with one Latina. We were both escorted to chairs and my friend got to have his hair washed before being cut (he needed it) and I was placed in a chair and asked as to what sort of cut I wanted, and then the instructor told me and my respective barber that I was getting the “gentleman’s hair cut.” I was covered and prepared and then the instructor and the student discussed blades, approaches, and the details of what was to be my gentleman’s haircut. “He has very fine hair, so you have to be careful how you fade it.” The student poked my head with a comb. “I never cut white hair before.”
“What?” exclaimed the instructor.
“Yeah, never cut white hair like…”
“You mean gray hair,” demanded the instructor. “He has a lot of gray hair.” I sensed some tension with the student and instructor, but also felt a wave of self preservation in that my hair was about to be transformed by someone not quite confident in his skill at cutting my “fine” hair.
The music playing was classic Sugarhill Gang…

The hip hip a hop a you don’t stop the rockin
To the bang bang boogie
Say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie the beat
I say hank can ya rock
Can ya rock to the rhythm that just don’t stop
Can ya hip me to the shoobie doo
I said come on

The Instructor broke into song and then moved to my hair and started to demonstrate how to cut fine hair with the student watching close. “Yeah, I’m learning, I’m learning” he said. At this time the school became very chaotic, the older Hispanic lady and two rather large teens who had been sitting patiently on what may have been old-style school chairs got up and collected one of the young men, a few others came by to talk to the instructor or the student, one guy asked the instructor if he could get the name of the church he had talked about but he said he had already given it to his dad, “cause I talk to him every week.” As the room cleared out, it was just myself and my friend in the chairs, our respective student barbers, the instructor, and another person who seemed responsible for the place since he was sweeping up and checking the equipment but had the authority in his good nature that he was involved in running this school.
Like any other work environment when the day is done, even if it isn’t officially done, the talk moves to a more casual tone, and while they obeyed the printed signs explaining “THIS IS A SCHOOL NOT A BARBER SHOP NO PROFANITY.” The conversation went fast and covered the price of drinks in clubs, the defining moment when all men became “scrubs” the type of women in clubs who expect a man to buy them drinks, “and I told her, I thought you were going to buy me a drink, I mean, I’m worth it, to which she just growled” and he pantomimed a woman in disgust with a curled upper lip poorly walking away in high heels.
“I been married twenty years, I ask her I want Frosted Flakes, with extra sugar, and she gives me Cap’n Crunch and doesn’t even pick the crunchberries out of it.”
The spirited discussion of sorts continued, there was a lot of hands being moved through my hair, my friend got up from his cut and the instructor said, “OK, let me run my fingers through your hair,” which was not a joke because he got his comb and checked the work of his student, calling over the other student to also learn what the cut felt like. “I don’t think I’ve ever had so many men running their fingers through my hair,” my friend joked outside.
We paid the bill, tipped our barbers and joked about how our new looks would impact our prospects in reproduction. Leaving the school, we returned to the warm evening, and had to hurry since I had a train to take to leave Tucson for LA in order to make my train to Portland and continue to see if the American landscape would indeed connect between this barber chair and whatever I was to do in Beervana.
While it seemed that the building that had for so many years that had housed a school was at least in that room being put to use, it seems strange that the old school now housed an old school style barber who played old school music as students learned the ins and outs of cutting white hair, gray hair, and fine hair. Do the many school closings in the city reflect more opportunity, or was the community robbed of a resource of this school and the many others that have been closed down or replaced with charter schools? The instructor appeared genuinely interested in this students and their lives. Cutting hair had made him a very rich man, and he was passing on those skills. Does this differ from people of other backgrounds taking the train out here and WOOFing, learning to microbrew, or tucking in their Liberal Arts education to do something with their hands. Perhaps schools as they are have become outdated, because they don’t teach the sorts of skill we need, the ones that impact our lives, the skills we need to build an environment to live in, feed ourselves and others, especially when the lights go out or the Internet snaps in two.
I made the train and left the city of cool music venues, college campus construction, water problems, fun bars and restaurants that appear to be abandoned on the outside but make the best burritos, and so many involved people trying to create life in a new way, whether farming or creating art, or learning to cut hair. I went and had a $6 beer at the train station bar to celebrate my $5 haircut. This may be perhaps the best haircut I have gotten in a long time, even if one side was a little uneven and the front sticks up a bit more than usual. And I think…

Like a can of beer that’s sweeter than honey
Like a millionaire that has no money
Like a rainy day that is not wet
Like a gamblin fiend that does not bet
Like dracula with out his fangs
Like the boogie to the boogie without the boogie ban


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