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The orthodox barber

“Whoa, you’re like a priest . . . or a bartender,” I said. I think Mitch was more pleased with the latter association.

The orthodox barber

Every third Friday afternoon or so, I stop into the Bright Barbershop in Uptown Waterloo for a haircut. Though I tend to live a fairly disheveled and disorganized life, I do love a particularly crisp, squared-off kind of haircut. The kind you could set your watch to. And a flattering haircut isn’t always easy to find, especially as I move into my 30s, and my forehead doesn’t yield the, erm, bumper crop it once did. 

It’s everything you’d expect from an old barbershop, yet more. There’s an old chair that contorts into the requisite postures, ads for pomades and creams that look like relics from the 40s, a red and blue swirled barber pole hanging on the wall, and combs and shears loitering in a tall jar filled with Barbicide. George the bulldog snoozes on an old pillow in the corner. 

It’s not all old fashioned, though. Mitch, the sole proprietor, is somewhere in his mid-twenties. He has tattoos on his head. There’s heavy metal on the shop stereo. You need to book your appointment online, instead of waiting your turn in a row with some other chaps, thumbing through a frayed Sports Illustrated. I’ve been noticing that I need to book earlier and earlier these days; he’s booked sometimes three weeks in advance. 

A few weeks ago, sitting in that old barber chair, head bowed as if in expiation, I asked Mitch why he thought his services were in such high demand. 

“I think it’s because men are starting to care more about how they look,” he said, as he pressed the clippers around the back of my neck. 

I hummed an “mmm-hmm” of approval, mixed with some relief. Men these days do seem to be quite content to look slovenly and unedited. Sports jerseys out at dinner. Flip flops at the eucharist. There are fewer and fewer occasions for which formality requires a necktie, and we’re poorer for it. That fellas are starting to push back on this pandemic of casualness is wonderful news. 

Old rituals 

The clippers buzzed some more, and my hair started to take shape.

“But maybe there’s more to it than just that,” Mitch said. “The other week a guy was in here and out of the blue he started telling me about a fight he got in when he was younger, and how the other guy died and how he was convicted of manslaughter. It just kinda spilled out of him; I didn’t ask for his life story or anything like that. I think that maybe some guys are looking for a place to talk, for a place to get some things off their chest. They’ll tell me about an argument they had with their wife, or about how their boss is riding their back. Maybe they don’t know where else they can go, but for some reason they feel they can talk about it here.” 

“Whoa, you’re like a priest . . . or a bartender,” I said. I think Mitch was more pleased with the latter association. 

I bent forward once again, and Mitch gently put some hot shaving cream on the back of my neck and drew a straight razor down it. I thought about old rituals and venerable institutions. About the quotidian liturgies of days gone by, and of old hallowed spaces and the room those things all create for reflection that’s human, weighty and profound. I despaired over the obsession we have with all things shiny and new. Of the idol of innovation and our drive to maximize discontinuity with the past. I speculated on what sort of slovenliness is left in the wake of all our reforms and revolutions. 

That train of thought was entering a dark tunnel, and I was relieved to be startled back to the bright lights of the shop by a splash of aftershave on the back of my neck. A barber’s benediction. I stood up, and reached for my coat. As I paid Mitch, I thought, for only an instant, that maybe he’d have some insight into how this all might fit into matters of ecclesiology, of how being shaved might relate to being saved. I caught myself, though. You don’t want to startle the man holding the straight razor. 

I walked down the steps and onto the street. The March breeze was bracing on the back of my head, but I felt light, pleased that something so old fashioned could feel so needed, so new. 

 

Brian Bork is the Christian Reformed chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, and a columnist for Christian Courier. The title of this piece is borrowed from one of GK Chesterton’s reflections in Tremendous Trifles, a potent little collection of musings from 1909.

About the Author
The orthodox barber

Brian Bork, Review Editor

Brian Bork is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.