Thursday, March 18, 2010
No Time to Cut My Hair: A Prelude
I posted this as a note on my Facebook page yesterday and thought I’d present it here as well. It’s one of my earliest Notebook entries. And I didn’t think of it until now, but its length is symbolic of its subject matter.
Written back in 2002, the following piece is a page taken directly from my traumatic childhood, which will probably never be made into a movie. The psychological torment I endured at the hands of my grandfather has left lasting scars, but you will be glad to know I don’t hold it against him. He did what he had to do, as all men must. And I did what I had to do. In his later years, we were good friends. In fact, I used to mow his front and back lawns — no easy task, because they were huge, and because he fertilized them so heavily. When we were done, we always ate a big lunch prepared by my grandmother. Paralyzed by the good food, I sat at the table and listened to familiar talk of the old days. Later in the afternoon, when I returned to the real world, I felt calm and serene. It was a good time — as all times are, or at least as all times try to be, if we are open to the idea.
The picture sits atop our piano. I am about three years old, and I’m sitting on my mother’s clothes hamper near the laundry tray and homemade mirror my father uses when he washes his hands and shaves. I’m holding a shaving brush with a large wooden handle. Leaning over me with electric barber shears in hand is my grandfather — my father’s father, Haroutiun Michaelian, born in 1896 in Armenia. I’m smiling. My grandfather is concentrating. It’s a wonderful scene, a picture for the ages.
Until I was about twelve, my grandfather was my barber. Unfortunately, he knew how to cut hair only one way: short. He ran the clipper close to my head, treating it like a pumpkin or melon, which is to say he turned it around roughly between his hands as if he were checking for ripeness and defects.
By the time I was nine, as much as I liked my grandfather, I hated his haircuts. I felt stupid going to school with my head buzzed. I used to beg my father to let me have longer hair, and to go to one of the real barbers in town. He always said, “We’ll see. Maybe this winter. It’s too hot now for long hair.” Trouble was, we were living in the San Joaquin Valley, which, translated into English, means “It’s Always Summer.”
The years went by. Eventually, I began to rebel. One afternoon, when my grandfather drove into our yard, I went outside and hid. He lived only a quarter-mile away, at the east end of our vineyard. Every other time he came to our house he was on foot. He only drove for the haircuts. So when he parked in the shade under our big mulberry tree, I knew he hadn’t come to visit. When he got out of the car, he even had that certain “haircut look” I had come to recognize. It was a look that was grim, purposeful, and business-like all rolled into one — a look that said, “All right, we can talk later, but right now we have work to do.”
I don’t know. Maybe he was as tired of giving me haircuts as I was of getting them. Anyway, by the time he was at our door and my mother was letting him in, I was in the vineyard behind the house hiding behind a wall of dusty growth and spider webs. At first nothing happened, so I waited. Finally, when I heard the back door slam, I crawled two or three rows deeper into the vineyard. When I heard my mother call my name and tell me it was time for my haircut, I got up and ran.
This response, I knew, was a big mistake. If I had popped out of the vineyard with a smile and gone into the house for my haircut, everything would have been fine. But I couldn’t help myself. Something inside me snapped. Or, maybe I figured since I could run faster than everyone else, I could just keep on running — as long as it took, forever if necessary.
Near the north edge of our property, I stopped running. A few minutes later, after I’d caught my breath, I heard voices. It was my mother and my grandfather. Somehow they had guessed where I was. Walking along the main avenue that divided one half of our farm from the other, they had stopped within about forty feet of where I was hiding.
I heard my mother apologizing. Then my grandfather said, “He should know better,” in a voice loud enough and serious enough for me to believe he was right. My mother called my name. “Why don’t you come out now?” she said. “Don’t keep Grandpa waiting. It’s hot out here. Come back to the house, and after your haircut we’ll have some lemonade.”
The lemonade sounded good, but not the part about the haircut. I kept quiet.
“Your father’s coming.”
Sure enough, I could see a cloud of dust as my father approached in his old pickup. He rattled up and turned off the engine. “I could see you from the road,” he said. “What are you doing way out here?”
My mother told him they were looking for me so I could have my haircut.
“What?” My father got out of the pickup and slammed the door. “Come out now!” His voice thundering over the vines made my heart pound.
I came out. I walked between the two rows of vines until I reached the end, then reluctantly joined the others.
My mother looked mad, but I knew she wasn’t.
My grandfather looked hot. He also looked like he was ready to give me my haircut right there on the spot with his bare hands.
My father was mad. He said to my grandfather, “Cut it all off this time. Leave it an eighth of an inch long.”
The men got into the pickup. My mother and I got in back. My father turned the pickup around and drove us all back to the house.
That day, I had the shortest haircut of my life. It wasn’t the last haircut my grandfather gave me, but it was almost the last. A few months later, my father took me to his barber in town and told him he should leave enough hair on my head to comb. Imagine — until that time I didn’t even have a comb. I had no use for one. I was elated.
My elation, however, was only temporary. Maybe it was the shape of my head, but I soon found out that my father’s barber wasn’t able to cut my hair the way I liked. Also, I found his approach to cutting hair rather boring, as it lacked the decisive vigor I was used to in my grandfather’s haircuts. Then there was the matter of this stranger’s artificial smell, which was a rudely upsetting combination of powder, doughnuts, and aftershave. I preferred my grandfather’s smell — the smell of perspiration, and earth, and our family’s familiar cooking.
I suffered with my father’s barber for another three or four years, until I was in high school and had a little more control over how I looked. Knowing I was miserable, one day my mother kindly offered to cut my hair for me. I agreed, and she cut my hair for the next couple of years, learning as she went, until I moved to Fresno, got married, and became the shaggy, bearded person I still am today.
Now I’m well into my forties. The twentieth century is over. My grandfather is dead. So is my dear father. The vineyard, too, is gone, gone to silence. But I still remember those days, as does my mother, a wonderful woman who turned out to be a pretty darned good barber.
A few days after I had run away, she told me that no one had really been mad, even my father. In fact, she said he had laughed out loud about the episode that night after I had gone to bed and fallen asleep.
I appreciated her taking me into her confidence, but remained doubtful. “Then why did he tell Gramp to cut off all my hair?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” my mother said. She looked at my bald head and smiled. “Probably because it’s so hot and he thinks you will feel cooler with short hair.”
So much for family wisdom.
These days, my wife cuts my hair — though I confess it’s been a good eight months since my last haircut. For whatever reason, the shaggier I get, the better I seem to feel.
And I used to cut hers, but the unpredictable nature of my work finally drove her to seek professional help — a move I understand all too well.
In the Forum: filming under a microscope.