Bygone barbershop banter

Jeff vonKaenel

For reasons I do not understand but have come to appreciate, hair regularly grows out of my head. This is not a recent phenomenon. To solve this problem, over the last 62 years, I have regularly engaged the professional services of barbers and hairstylists. I would guess I have plodded into the chair, had a sheet draped over me and scissors applied to my hair about 500 times.

While my hair color has changed from baby blond to light brown to old-man white over the years, the experience of getting my hair cut has changed even more. When I was a young lad in a little town in northern Ohio during the 1950s and ’60s, riding my bike to the barbershop was a big deal. At the barbershop, there were sometimes other boys like me, always lots of men and never any women. But there was always a barbershop conversation that included all the men in the room, and sometimes us boys. Just by entering the barbershop, I became a member of the club.

The conversation topics varied. The pitiful state of the Vermilion High School football team and the Cleveland Indians were often mentioned. The Cuban missile crisis was a hot topic, as was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As I got older, I too could share opinions and even tell some jokes. At the barbershop, I felt part of a bigger world.

Then, for me, things changed. First, it was seeing on television the young kids being blasted down the street by fire hoses because they believed their parents should be able to vote. I started to support the civil-rights movement, which was not very popular in the Vermilion barbershop. But then came the Vietnam War. I was angry. Angry about the war. Angry about the needless human slaughter. Angry that my friends and classmates were being drafted, and even more angry when they were killed. I was angry at my country, my government and even my barbershop.

I grew my hair long. But long hair was not popular at the barbershop. I stopped feeling welcome, so I stopped going. Instead, I cut my own hair. A mistake. Had friends cut it. Another mistake. But as the fashion changed, my hairstyle again became shorter. For about 30 years, I went to cheap hair salons. They did a fine job. But they were definitely not like the Vermilion barbershop. No community dialogue.

Recently, I have started going back to barbershops. I prefer them, but it’s not the way it used to be. I will be in a room of 20 men, and nearly everyone is on their cellphone. I am in a room with 20 guys, and there are no jokes or discussions of politics. There is virtually no conversation, and certainly no group conversation.

I miss the old barbershop. I miss that sense of community.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.