Mexican Haircut by Ray Gonzalez

My father used to take me to Juarez to get a haircut. As an eight year old, I dreaded the way the Mexican cutters mishandled me on the barber's chair, jabbing my ears with their scissors or shaving my head too short with their faulty electric razors. The chair swiveled rapidly as they worked me over and I would get quick glimpses of the huge barber shop packed with customers and barbers smelling of cheap men's aftershave and those mysterious smells packs of men give off when they are trying to look handsome together.

The worst part came when the barber led me to the sinks in the middle of the long room and dunked my head in hot water to wash my hair before cutting it. I was shocked by the plunge into the steaming mixture of shampoo and tap water, then came up gasping as the barber gripped my neck and dug his knuckles into my scalp, making sure the grime of a childhood in the desert came off. Without my eyeglasses, the rows of chairs looked like white ghosts, customers draped in white sheets, the barbers outfitted in blue and white uniforms-a chatter of Spanish rising in volume as old friends walked in and old friends tipped their cutter generously on the way out, dirty jokes and curse words reverberating through the metallic applause of scissors that kept a clipping rhythm throughout the place.

My father knew several of the barbers well and Chucho was a favorite of his--the man's huge stomach pressing against the back of the revolving chair as he ran his electric razor over my father's head to shape the perfect crew cut. One time I stumbled blindly from the sinks with soap in my eyes, my barber pausing in the crowd to talk, leaving me to find my way back to my chair. Unable to see without my glasses and suffering watery eyes, I ran into Chucho cutting my father's hair. The fat man, who wore his hair in a greased ducktail, laughed at me and said something to my father above his whirring razor. My blindness must have been obvious because both men pointed me down the foggy aisle of occupied chairs. I don't know how long it took to get back to mine, but the shock of tripping over cowboy boots and freshly shined leather shoes as they stuck out into the aisle on foot rests, told me I was in a world of men that had its distinct space and way of doing things.

My barber returned laughing at something and muttering Spanish words I didn't understand. He wiped my head roughly one more time, then shocked me again by slapping my face with stinging cologne, though I was too young to shave. I don't know what he spread through my clean hair before starting to cut it, but it burned my scalp. As a boy, my parents never allowed me to grow my hair long, so I don't know why the Mexican barbers spent so much time on me. I closed my eyes as the long blades of the scissors clipped the top of my head and the barber pushed my neck forward with his icy fingers to get to the area under my collar.

The electric shavers in Mexican barber shops were always dull because they cut me down to size with a scraping that left my vulnerable scalp sore, but clean. Even though I couldn't see well, one of my favorite things to do and the signal the torture was almost over, was to watch the hairs fall off my head onto the blue striped sheet I was draped in. I would squint and the hairs would come into focus as they landed on my covered chest and arms. When I thought the barber wasn't watching, I would shake the sheet and watch the hair fall to the floor. It was one of the last stages before my glasses were handed back and I had my freedom.

One of my last haircuts in Juarez made me stay away from barber shops for the rest of my life. I swear I have not gone into one on either side of the border since. As I sat covered in the sheet, blurry shapes went through their social rituals across from me. I was starting to get bored when I felt my barber get very close to the back of my head--an unexpected slip of his rhythm. I jumped as his scissors cut the top of my ear. I had been nipped before, but this was the worst because blood started pouring down the left side of my neck onto the white sheet. I could see the huge bloodstains without my glasses. The barber quickly twirled my chair to face him. I don't remember what he looked like because I was stunned by the blood. He grabbed a steaming hot towel from a warming tray and held it against my ear. This caused further pain and I cried out. My father must have been sitting in the next chair because his large figure quickly appeared. As the barber removed the bloody towel, my father dabbed my ear with a cotton ball and both men laughed. The barber splashed a green, smelly paste on my ear and the pain almost threw me out of the chair.

I pulled the blood stained sheet off me and did the one thing I could never do in front of my father--ran out of the crowded barber shop, having grabbed my glasses and a couple of cotton balls from the counter. I leaned against our parked car down the street, held the cotton to my bleeding ear and waited for my father who took forever to come out. By the time he finished his haircut, plus a shave and plenty of socializing, my ear had stopped bleeding.

I shall always associate the smell of cheap cologne with my father's car and the fact he rarely spoke to me when we went somewhere together. He certainly didn't say a word as we waited in heavy traffic to cross the international bridge back to El Paso. It was hot that day and I kept rolling the windows down to get the smell of the barbershop out of the vehicle. I don't think it went away because the presence of a silent father and his son returning from being cut in a fine Mexican barber shop hung in our house for a long time.

Ray Gonzalez

Poetry by Ray Gonzalez