First Haircut of the Day
I lost my voice for the second time in my life. The first was on tour in Portugal and I had to find a way to sing in front of 500 people. Tell you about that some other time. Now I'm a teacher, which poses its own challenges, but at least I can whisper to my students and use hand gestures. One thing I can't do is use the phone.
So, my lovely wife calls my barber for me to make an appointment. He does walk-ins if you don't mind waiting, but it's not often I have a day off on a Thursday and I want to get the earliest appointment possible so we'll still have time to take the train downtown for kicks. He's saying he's booked Thursday morning, then I guess she charms him because he suggests I come in at 8:30, which is before he usually opens for business. I take it.
Was thinking about riding my bike over but I'm running late, so I drive. Park in the back where he shares a small lot with a shoe repair shop and a six-unit apartment building. Jogging from my car, I stop short just before the edge of the building because there's this little gust of leaves coming my way that seems unnatural. Sure enough, as I round the corner, it's my barber himself, using some kind of battery-powered leaf blower the size of a hairdryer to clean the sidewalk in front of his place before the day begins. He tells me to go on inside, he'll be in in a minute.
The blinds are still closed. No one else is in here. This is the first time I've ever been able to walk around the little room and really examine the things up-close hanging on each wall. Mostly it's magazine clippings of bad male haircuts with too much product in them. But amongst the clippings are some black-and-white photos of my barber back in his home country in perhaps the 1950s when he was a young man first starting out. Mostly the framing is inexpert, and there's not a lot of obvious rhyme and reason behind what's where. It's not slick in the slightest, and that's what makes it all the more charming.
My barber comes in, invites me to sit in the chair while he finishes opening up. I watch his morning rituals respectfully out of the corner of my eye. He opens the blinds, turns on soft music, oils his clippers. He generally asks me how teaching is going then gets down to business. We don't do small talk, so having laryngitis is no problem. Today, though, since I'm really thinking about him and his shop, I whisper, "My great-grandfather was a barber."
He smiles and asks me if I have a photo. I do, actually, at home. I tell him that I'll bring it next time. Just the other day I was remembering how I walked my great-grandfather over to introduce him to our neighborhood barber when we first moved to Kingston, so I think my great-grandpa would like the idea of me bringing his photo in here.
My barber procedes to give me an expert haircut. It's always first rate, but sometimes later in the day, when he's got others waiting, he's got to rush a bit. This is the first haircut of the day. All is calm. Every detail is attended to in an almost ritualistic way, as if this haircut will be set the bar for all the other good haircuts he will give on this day. And it does.
As I sit here, I think about something I often do because it is a touchstone subject in these transitional times. Actually, all times are transitional, but these times are uniquely balanced atop this paradox: the insistence on authenticity while every last thing is simulated. How can you simulate authenticity?
A great many new "authentic barber shops" have popped up. They're very popular, and why not? They look pretty cool and people seem to enjoy them. So I'm trying not to be too smug when I say this, but I'm going to say it anyway. I don't go to an "authentic barber shop." I go to a barber. He learned his trade in a foreign country, opened a two-seat shop in my neighborhood 50 years ago, and he's been doing it ever since. When his generation passes, it will be the end of something, and I don't take a single haircut for granted.
Authenticity doesn't exist. Everything is just what it is. I enjoy the corners of this world that do not purport to be anything other than what they actually are. I especially enjoy them when no flag has been planted for future seekers of coolness to become part of the hierarchy of "who found it first." Which is why I'm not telling you my barber's name or where his shop is, even though he's great and I'd recommend him to anyone on a personal basis.
He uses the big clippers first, then he starts getting more precise using the smaller clippers, then he gets out the scissors to make sure every last thing is in place. Then he uses the straight razor on my neck. That's the part I love the best. When else does your neck feel as smooth as after it's been shaved clean with a straight razor? After the straight razor, he uses a towel and a soft-bristled brush to clean up before he removes the apron and says, "Okay, my friend."
He has finished before nine. There's still no one else here. The magic of the first haircut of the day floats in it's own ether apart from the line of men who will wait to sit in this chair today. Men who swear by this barber for their own reasons, but perhaps we share a liking for the no-nonsense.
I could get grandiose and say he's rescued me from my scruffiness like Michelangelo rescued David from a chunk of marble. I could be mildly poetic and say he's made me feel more like myself. Or I could just state the obvious while I'm running my hand along the sweet spot where my hairline meets my clean-shavn neck: he's sent me back into the world looking a little better than when I came in. Is there really anything more you can ask for?
It's a mid-September Sunday, I've been working at home most of the day. I take a break and look online to see if I can find a good donut shop closer than Randy's or Primo's. Literally every donut shop within a mile of my house has a good review on yelp, can this be possible?
So, I'm riding my bike on the empty Sunday sidewalk, humming this Peruvian melody I heard in a documentary film and tried to peck out on the piano this morning. I've got this monologue in my head floating over the Peruvian melody while the imaginary camera documents my lazy peddling, as if I myself am in my own documentary.
"There are so many excellent donut shops," I say. "I kind of like how I'll drive out of my way to get a good donut. At the same time, there's something about trying to find a reasonably good donut within bike-able distance that appeals to me. Is there anything more pleasant than riding your bicycle slowly on a Sunday, in search of a reasonably good donut? I'm Adam Snyder, and this is my Los Angeles."
The donut shop is in a Venice Blvd strip mall. I chain my bike to a No Parking sign, measuring the height of the pole with my eye. It would take three people to lift it up and over the No Parking sign. I don't think this kind of collaboration is going to happen on Venice Blvd in broad daylight within the 4 minutes it will take for me to go in-and-out of this donut shop.
One of the things I love most about LA is its multi ethnicities. You can tour the world in this city, and some days it feels like you're part of this grand experiment in how to help prove to the planet that we really can all get along. So it's not the multi-ethnicity of the place that throws me, but the sad resignation of the customers. There's no body else in this place as truly psyched as I am at this moment to get a donut. They're just getting their sugar fix and maybe looking for a place to sit a while because they need to get out of their apartments and they don't feel welcome in starbucks.
I can't believe this place has cro-nuts. Just a month ago I was reading in the Times how people were paying over $100 apiece for these things because they were such a hot item. I get one to share with my lovely wife later. She's at an upscale photography event this afternoon, which is how I could justify bike riding to a donut shop to begin with.
For my own afternoon fix, I'd like a simple jelly donut. Much like back in New York you need to try a plain slice first to assess a pizzeria, a jelly donut is a good point of departure when getting to know a donut shop. (It's not that it needs to taste like real fruit, but it needs to taste like real jelly, you know what I mean? If it looks like plasma and tastes like corn syrup, no bueno.)
The woman says they don't have any jelly donuts. I'm realizing as I'm looking in the case how few donuts they actually have. Maybe, to be fair, it's a late Sunday afternoon so it's not the best time to judge this place.
"We have lemon filled," she says,
but that's not really a suitable baseline substitute for a jelly donut, so I ask her:
"What's your favorite?"
"I never tried a donut," she says, "too sweet."
"You work in a donut shop and you've never tried a donut?" I say.
I'm smiling at her when I say this, and my voice is friendly, but this means points off. When you're in a donut shop and you ask "Which one?" the counter person should be able to point a knowing finger at, say, the Boston creme, and say, "This one, right here." If their tone of voice suggests a love-hate relationship, like this donut is going to be their freaking downfall, all the better.
I quickly select a chocolate old-fashioned just because it's the best-looking one in the counter. She puts the chocolate in a bag, and the cro-nut in a broken styrofoam container. We complete the transaction, I put both in my backpack and head back outside into the brilliant sunlight of the dirty parking lot.
My bike is still on the pole. As I unlock it, remount and start riding back, the Peruvian melody pipes back up, and so does my internal monologue.
"Another Day Another Donut, I sometimes say. Some days this is more appropriate than others, like today for example."
I ride past Sony Studios. I have the sidewalk to myself. Elsewhere in Los Angeles there are people in cafes, seeing and being seen. One reason I like Culver City are the ample opportunities to have some space for yourself even though you're surrounded by the big city. That's just where my head's at these days.
Back home my dogs greet me at the door. I greet them back, pull my bike into the living room, then get down to business with a cup of coffee and this chocolate donut. It's stale on the inside but I eat it anyway.
My lovely wife comes home and finds the styrofoam container waiting.
"What's this?" she asks.
"The good news is it's a cro-nut. The bad news is I already tried their chocolate donut and it gave me a stomach ache."
She tries the cro-nut.
"It's pretty good," she says.
I try it too.
"It is pretty good," I say.
We make short work of it.
"Forget those people in Malibu with their wine and cheese," I say, "who loves you baby?"
I give her a kiss and get frosting from the cro-nut on her ear.
We both know the answer to this question.