View from Rue Saint-Georges

Combs, Clippers, and Comraderie

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Barbershops offer much more than a trim and a shave

Flickr/brlnpics123

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

December 13, 2017


 

It’s been a long time since I’ve needed a barber to cut my hair. As my hairline receded, I gave up any pretense of an elaborate coif and submitted to the ease and comfort of an electric razor to my face and head every week or two. I mostly wielded the razor myself, but as I moved abroad, I fell back into the habit of my youth: the ritual of sitting in a barber’s chair and letting someone else cut and trim my stubble.

I think I returned to the practice because of the universal nature of the exchange. At this point, I have had my hair cut in a souk in Marrakech, at institutions in Naples and Rome where three generations of men in white jackets brandish a straightedge with incomprehensible dexterity, at a spot in Brixton where West Indians carved abstract patterns in my scalp, and at countless black barbershops around the Tri-State Area where the feeling was less one of commerce than of sitting in the home of a mutual friend. The ethnicity of the enterprise makes less difference than one might think. Most recently, I scheduled an appointment at Benny Barbers, in Berlin’s Charlottenburg neighborhood.

The amiable guy who worked the clippers was from the Brazilian Amazon and spoke slang-heavy English, Spanish, and Portuguese. We chatted over our memories of the San Telmo section of Buenos Aires and the ’90s-inflected hip-hop mix tapes the owner used to enliven the space—as it happened, the music we both grew up with. The owner himself is the German-speaking son of a black GI from Los Angeles, but with a few simple gestures, he transported me to the New Jersey Saturday afternoons of my childhood.


Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

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