When I need a haircut, I go to a barbershop run by a pair of balding Italian brothers in Park Slope, Brooklyn. My hair is thin enough now that I’m no longer sure how often I should have it trimmed; is it better to keep it short all the time so people know I’m not trying to hide anything? Or is my hair sparse enough at this point to abandon all vanity and leave it alone? The other day I went to my barbershop because it was clear that I needed some kind of sideburn management at the very least.
Only one of the hair-cutting brothers was in that day. There were three guys ahead of me in line, but I didn’t mind taking a seat and waiting. I had a good book with me: André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. I realized as I sat down to read that Call Me By Your Name was a subversive book to bring into the barbershop, because it’s about a 17-year-old boy who feels powerfully drawn to an older man—a story about the gut-wrenching intricacies of sexual attraction that also happens to be about bi-curiosity and gay sex fantasies. This is not barbershop-type thematic material, because men in old-fashioned barbershops do not, under any circumstances, talk about gay stuff.
Though I waited for 40 minutes to get my hair cut, I barely read a single page. I kept looking up from Aciman’s novel to listen to the barber and two other men as they had a debate about baseball. Of course baseball season is over, and it won’t be coming around again for several months—but that day in the barbershop, it was the subject of baseball that created a circuit of camaraderie between strangers.
And it became clear to me very quickly that all the men in the barbershop knew more than I did about baseball. There was an older guy with gray hair and a white beard talking about his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, and he had strong opinions about whether signing Matt Holliday would work to the Cards’ advantage. Then a younger man with eyeglasses and very short black hair (why did he want a haircut?) piped in about the New York Mets and their hopes to lure Jason Bay from the Boston Red Sox. I call myself a Mets fan, but I wasn’t aware of any of this—and I felt a special brand of shame as I sat there waiting for my haircut. Why did they know so much when I knew so little? Don’t I write a literary sports blog? I looked back down at the pages of my book—the narrator was making a sexual joke about the etymological roots of the word “apricot”—but I couldn’t focus on Aciman’s prose. Instead I wanted to learn from the conversation that was happening around me; I needed to listen.
When the gray-haired Cardinals Fan sat down in the barber’s antique leather chair with its grill-like metal footrest, the barber barely said anything about his hair, talking instead about Johnny Damon. “Will Damon play for the Yankees again next year? It’s the best place for him, but what’s he gonna do?” The barber turned on his electric clippers but the baseball discussion continued unabated—apparently the haircut was now mostly beside the point. Moist tufts of gray hair fell from the Cardinals Fan’s head and joined the growing pile of damp fur at the base of the chair while the men reminisced about a player from 15 years ago whom I’d never heard of before.
By the time it was my turn for a haircut, I felt thoroughly humbled by the limits of my baseball knowledge. I write about sports but I’m no expert. My approach is to gather odd bits of sports-related cultural detritus—like this video Steve Nash made of his Phoenix Suns teammates singing Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” Now, I would guess that no one else in the barbershop that day had seen this video, or thought much about how the video’s complicated network of cultural references exploits the gap between manly NBA athletes and doe-eyed, mustachioed 80s pop mavens. (There I go again—writing about sports without really writing about sports.) But if I’d mentioned Nash’s “All Night Long” video, everyone in the barbershop would have stared at me as though I’d made an intrusive remark, gone against an unspoken code of male bonding. As the barber finished my haircut and gently, even paternally patted my neck with powder, I considered what the code helped enforce in this environment—it kept the conversation comfortably straight in a place where men groom other men, where women walk in only rarely. These are the ground rules, boys: talk or keep your mouth shut, it’s up to you to know which topics are safe and which are likely to be swept away brusquely like a pile of mingling hair, headed for the trash.