My best friend Mycah went off to find a barbershop he’d seen earlier in the day while his wife, Ashley, and I went in the other direction to find the Museum of Chocolate. He had to see about a barber the same way Will Hunting had to see about a girl: sentimental, a little earnest and stubborn enough to let you know he was on to something good. Chocolate museums and barbershops sounds like the makings of an adult funhouse, sure, but this was Old Havana and we were on vacation — and after several weeks on the road in Cuba eating Moros y Cristianos and bathing only intermittently, we were all due for a clean-up and some confections.
Ashley and I bought a round of cold chocolate drinks and made our way in the direction of her husband. We found him seated in one of the two chairs in a spartan barbershop on a cobblestone street. There was an old-fashioned towel warmer, a few unrecognizable hair products on the counter, mirrors on three walls and, taped up at the far end of the shop, a poster of Fidel Castro. “Socialism or death”, it read. On the bright side, there were none of those ‘90s studio shots of people with dramatic fades, blonde highlights and altogether better hair than me.
Mycah was grinning like a guy who just ran the table in billiards. A barber, easily in his 70s or 80s, practically danced around him, trimming his hair. The old man was stocky and cheerful and also grinning. We were all grinning at this point, except for the French guy in the other barber chair, who was getting a cut from a guy who appeared to be a hair cutting apprentice. The barber leaned Mycah back for a shave, all the while smiling and floating on his toes. And after a quick splash of aftershave and some mentholated powder, it was my turn.
As he leaned me back for a shave, the old man started humming Sinatra’s “My Way”.
I see haircuts as a part of regular upkeep, somewhere between a chore and a satisfying ritual. In the past I’ve tried to stick to one barber, but I often find myself in another city or country or part of town wanting a haircut — so I just get it wherever’s convenient. Sometimes it’s good; occasionally I’m made to look like a hick. The part that I least look forward to is explaining in great detail my very straightforward haircut, which looks exactly like almost every other guy around. It’s like when a cab driver asks for directions to Brooklyn. There are only a few bridges, my friend; the goal is to skirt the liability of screwing up and getting caught in traffic. If I’m putting my head in your hands, though, that’s just the responsibility you assume.
If I’m ambivalent about haircuts, I’m basically against the straight razor shave. I’ve had them at various points throughout my adult life, and the experience generally begins with great excitement that slowly turns to dismay as my face is kneaded like a piece of dough and nicked up three or four times.
But it was our second to last day in Cuba and I closed my eyes and tried to relax. The genteel barber gave me the perfect didn’t-just-get-a-haircut trim, tapered right down to the neck and around the ears, nipped at an angle with a razor blade. As he leaned me back for a shave, he started humming Sinatra’s “My Way”, which — I shit you not — turned into a bilingual duet with Mycah. As the song and the shave came to a close, he produced a rudimentary device that looked like a small lawnmower engine, which when attached to the back of his hand turned into the Cuban equivalent of a massager you’d find at Brookstone.
It only takes another man’s paw slapping your face rhythmically to explain that the barber experience isn’t entirely about the preening. I suspect it has something to do with the classic male-male kinship and exchange of expertise from one man to another; it’s right up there with playing sports under a good coach or having a wise mentor at work. The actual work involved, like all work, involves a little discomfort, a little time and, occasionally, some scrapes. But in the end it’s one man taking care of another and making him look good so he can go out in the world and succeed. And so, when the mechanical battering of my face came to a close, I was smiling, too.