My mom is a hairdresser. She’s ready to trim at any time, but not without a price. If I want one of her cuts (which I do– because they’re the best) I have to swear allegiance to her vision of style, forsaking all other cuts. My “shear” devotion was so strong that seven years ago, when I moved from California to Hawaiʻi, I decided to grow my hair out past my shoulders, only to be trimmed on my visits home. Fortunately I had a luxurious mane of shiny brown locks, prettier than both my sisters’ mops (or so mom promised). Plus my career in academia left plenty of room for what some thought was personal style and shaggy self-expression, but what was, in fact, laziness and the loyalty of a deep-rooted mama’s-boy. That furry fealty lasted until last year, when I moved to Mexico City to write my dissertation. Although I moved there to investigate the culture of Hip Hop, I ended up on my own Dickens-esque personal journey of learning, encountering four strange stylists on my hunt for a haircut.
First there was the Barber of Mexico Past, a half-blind octogenarian whose decades-old shop was closed down and turned into a porn shop overnight. He taught me something of a barber’s masculinity: quiet, stayed, and more interested in getting the job done efficiently than in bantering about it. He gave terrible haircuts, but wielded his straight-razor like a third appendage. He was only dedicated to his clientele as far as his rent was due, so after thirty years on that quiet street near Chabacano, he was all but erased in an instant. Not swept under the rug to be remembered later, but swept up and tossed quick. Mexico City is too big for too much community, so the neighborhood barbershop was too easily replaced by dildos and bootleg smut.
Then there was the Stylist of Uncomfortable Waiting who barely cared to make an opening for a walk-in. In her shop, telenovelas blared, and gossip rags, rollers and half-used bottles of nail polish cluttered the counters. Though meticulous, she took far too long to provide the simple service of buzzing me clean. Worse yet, as she worked, her husband launched into a didactic lecture on the underdevelopment of Mexico’s culture, blaming its failure on some global Jewish conspiracy. His harangue became so convoluted, he even implored that aliens were responsible for Mexico’s ancient architecture, as no native could have built something so impressive. The trim wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t worth the insanity of that cringe-worthy anti-Semitic, anti-indigenous rant. So even in a women’s salon, surrounded by the nostalgic sights and smells of visits to my own mom’s shop, I wasn’t able to capture that fabled place of salon sanctuary.
I visited the Ghost of Hipster Cool next. I have a general distrust for people my age. I seek the grizzled experience of elders, not the vanguard passions of youth. So I hadn’t considered a cut in any popular district. But after two failures, I decided to judge a shop strictly by its facade. The place had that spinning, blue, red helix out front and chrome and leather-upholstered antique barber chairs inside. They sold fancy-man mustache creams, and offered frosty craft-brewed beers with every cut. Unfortunately, the kid with the clippers spent more money on his own appearance than he did on any class on technique, or customer service. He refused to engage with me beyond 140 character sentences, and continually checked his Instagram while cutting my hair. He left my head a lumpy mess, even though I payed three times the price.
Finally, the search led me an hour outside the city. By Metro and bus I traveled to find the Barber of LesboFeminist Hip Hoppery and Neck Tattoos. As you might imagine, she was so perfect and so interesting, I could hardly stop asking questions about her life to ever enjoy my own barbershop therapy. I interviewed her for some two hours on Hip Hop, then requested she do with my hair what she deemed right. She nodded, and got to work. Not surprisingly, as well as with scissors as with the mic, she was adept at keeping heads right. I left with as good a cut as I’d expect from my own mom, a notebook full of notes and a CD of excellent rap.
To cut things short, if you want the perfect haircut you’re going to have to ask my mom to come out of retirement. If she refuses, and you’re not willing to travel to Mexico for the second-best snip just remember these rules:
1 | Your stylist ought to have plenty of experience, but shouldn’t be so old they can’t see the hairs they’re leaving behind.
2 | On the other hand, the slowest and most careful of cuts can be ruined by the company a stylist keeps.
3 | Location is never important; shops shouldn’t use your head to cover their overhead.
4 | When you find a stylist that wants to cater to your needs, allow them to add their artistry and expertise.
5 | You may never meet a psychologist with scissors, but you’re bound to learn something.
6 | And finally, if you don’t find the right salon at first cut, just keep chopping around.
Ruben Enrique Campos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and works in the Department of Ethnic Studies. He studies culture and society, usually with a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class inequalities. He’s currently writing his dissertation on the Hip Hop scene in Mexico City, where he lived and conducted intensive fieldwork for just over a year. Aside from constantly struggling to write, read and be a serious academic, he listens to music, reads comic books and exhibits a serious waste of potential.