Contributions by other people

Neil Roberts, Australia

Chapter Four: ARENAS
One: Barber Shop, Toronto


The barbershop is an arena of men that will soon be an anachronism. Invested with secrecy and ritual, shared confidences, a patient companionship and the rare instance of men touching men without competition, they are doomed to disappear into the changing patterns of goods and services.

I am of a generation that for many years associated the barber with another lost parental battle, and in more recent times, baldness, in part hereditary and in part self-imposed, has kept me away. But even baldness has its degrees, and travelling in Canada, I ostensibly needed a haircut. My barber, Luigi, was short and precisely manicured. Despite 26 years in Toronto, he still spoke thick English. He understood my particularity, the concise limits of my degree, and so he approached his task with meticulous care. He cut my hair with clippers, corrected minute unevenness with the scissors, shaved my neck, even trimmed the outlaw hairs off the tops of my ears.

A barber's shave is a ritual invested with psychological violence, from the many sequences of films and stories, from the sensation of skin stretched taut over a bare neck, from the images triggered in memory by the glint of the straight edged razor. Yet it is also the caress of the father, the intimate touch of a man, when our rituals are generally so devoid of tenderness.

The shave that Luigi gave me that day was more painful than I'd imagined and infinitely more caring. Four times, he lathered my face and reshaved me to achieve the smoothness he sought, pinching skin to stretch it taut, cradling my chin in his soft hands, inspecting my face so close I could feel his breath on me at times. He washed me. He treated me gently. He rubbed alcohol onto my skin, kneading my raw and tingling flesh to ease the shock. He addressed the minute details of his focus, to his satisfaction. He dusted me with the softest white brush.

I felt such a rush of emotion for this man, this old man who had held my face in his hands and touched me so kindly. He understood, I think, and when I asked him for a photograph, he combed his own hair, meticulously, and stood proud.