Getting your hair cut in Baytown, Texas
Fifty years ago, getting a haircut was a whole different experience than it is today. Nobody was handing you a beer while you waited. Then again, I was ten years old so maybe that wouldn’t have been the best idea.
In Baytown, every male pretty much had one of two haircuts: either the Flat Top or the Don Draper. The Don Draper sounds like the better option, but believe me–just because it works on Jon Hamm doesn’t mean it’s going to work on you. It’s still you from the hairline down, after all.
Likewise, there were two options when it came to getting that haircut. Many, maybe most, of the macho males could be found at the Trophy Barber Shop, which is miraculously still in business. True to its name, the Trophy is festooned with all manner of dead animals, lovingly preserved for patrons to view while waiting for their scalping. As a kid, I found this weird. Since nobody in my family hunted, we were already strangers in a strange land. But waiting for someone to come at you with scissors after viewing a roomful of stitched-up animal corpses was just…that little something extra.
Anyway, I only went to the Trophy a handful of times. Most of the time, my father would march me around the corner from Texas Avenue to a place that was to become the defining shrine of small-town barber shops: Tommy Cranford’s.
Cranford’s was the real deal. First off, it was dark. Most of the light came from the plate glass window, and Tommy’s chair was closest to it. Otherwise, it was a cavern of stained green linoleum. Second, it smelled of talcum powder and bay rum, slapped liberally on your face and neck to settle in and sting your flesh after your near-beheading. Third, it had an air hose louder than a Who concert that must have been hooked up to a Cessna, a piece of WWII-era equipment worthy of my grandparents’ house. And fourth, it had Shemp.
Not the Three Stooges guy. This Shemp was a massive, middle-aged, legless African-American man. Shemp lived on a wooden cart, and had two jobs: picking up hair from the floor, which he accomplished with a whisk broom and dust pan; and shining shoes. Since patent leather was considered pretty exotic by Baytown standards, mostly Shemp just swept up. He had an ever-present fat stogie lodged in the corner of his mouth which was rarely lit, mostly chewed. To my 10-year old eyes, Shemp was terrifying.
Oh, the man wasn’t mean or threatening at all. He was gruff, but that was understandable under the circumstances. He rarely spoke and spent a lot of time parked in the corner of the shop, reading the sports section. Just when you had forgotten he was there, out he would scuttle to sweep up the hair clippings. Then return, Buddha-like, to his spot.
David Lynch could have directed this barber shop.
Tommy Cranford always cut my hair without asking for any input from me. I don’t think it was because I was a kid–he just never asked anybody their preference. I think Tommy knew a couple of standard small-town cuts, and he just sized you up as you eased into his heavy, red-leather chair and gave you whichever he thought best suited you. And you’re in Baytown, so why the hell would you want to look different anyway? That could be unwise.
Tommy worked the scissors at a leisurely pace, but when it came to shaving your neck, he wasn’t messing around. He had a set of lethal-looking electric shears that he would buzz dangerously close to your ears, reminding you that bolting from the chair, or moving a millimeter for that matter, was ill-advised. For a good portion of my adolescence, there was a crease in my left ear that came about during one such ill-advised move. Eventually, I learned to take on the aspect of a marble statue. Statues don’t bleed.
I guess this early experience sank in, because to this day, I don’t see the point of hair styling. When it comes time for my monthly haircut, I go to either Great Clips or Super Cuts, plunk down my fourteen bucks, and let ‘er rip. On those few occasions that I went more high-end, the stylists don’t seem to know what to do with me. The poor young lady at Bird’s Barbershop was at a complete loss.
“So, what are we doing today?” she mused doubtfully, pulling my graying hair down over my ears.
“Whatever you think looks best,” I said, throwing caution to the wind. And sure enough, without direction, she replicated the same boring haircut that has graced my head for the last thirty years. It’s as if there’s an inlaid pattern up there that will not tolerate deviation.
So back to the haircut mills I go. But on those rare occasions when I smell talcum powder and bay rum, my mind instantly flies to Cranford’s. You can take the boy out of Baytown, but…