Monday, February 19, 2007

The Barbershop

Here's a great essay from the October 2005 issue of the National Geographic Traveler.


Touch Me, Heal Me
by P.F. Kluge

Does it sound odd when I tell you that I often dream of flying halfway around the world to go to a barbershop? Like most American men, whenever my hair grows too long I go to a place in a shopping center that takes 20 minutes to cut my hair for a penny less than ten dollars. At home I shave with a disposable blade - five minutes, tops.

And something in me screams at the loss of pleasure in my life.

I lived in the Philippines, on and off, for five years. When I weigh the prospect of returning against the desire to explore new places, the part of me that thinks clearly admits that I may never get back to Manila. Yet there's a longing to return for just a few hours, and for just one purpose. A guilty pleasure is a sharp, deeply imbedded memory that can pull you halfway around the world. And isn't that what travel is about? No one misses a whole country, an entire journey. We miss a sensation, a taste, a time of day. A self-indulgence. A barbershop.

No particular barbershop. The truth is, I played the field and never regretted it. But one thing was always the same: I went at midday, when Manila is most unbearable, when to move is to sweat. Fans or airconditioning, sometimes both, greeted me as I came in off the street. If not occupied by customers, the barber chairs had barbers in them, stretched out, sleeping or reading newspapers - that is if they weren't playing chess outside. The smell is of talcum powder.

Now it begins, my 90-minute pleasure fest. How do they love me? Let me count the ways. Shampoo, haircut, shave, facial, ear cleaning, manicure, pedicure, shoe shine, in-chair massage. And every item is a leisure and refinement unknown back in Ohio. The haircut includes attention to my eyebrows. And the pedicure isn't just about clipping nails, it's about washing feet, massaging; it's about taking a pumice stone to the tough skin on my heel, about deftly scissoring the calluses on my toes. The ear cleaning involves a woman dressed like a nurse, wearing the kind of head lamp that you see on coal miners, her Q-tip gently probing, tickling. And the shave - that's the main thing - is a flurry of hot towels, cold towels, hot lather, coconut butter, bay rhum, talcum powder. The barber shaves in one direction, then another, his long razor reaching those hard-to-get-at spots right under the nose, at the corners of my mouth.

Before it ends, my barber splashes rubbing alcohol on my hands and arms, administering a snappy rubdown and a penetrating shoulder massage. I like this man, all these people. I trust them, I want them with me always. I pray for a thicker beard, faster-growing hair, miracle-grow nails.

There are moments in life when it all comes together and this is one. I am stretched out in a barber chair with a hot towel on my forehead. Eyes closed, I feel the fan stir the air. I sense movement around me - two, or is it three - people attending to me carefully, competently, and it is impossible not to believe that my life has turned out very well.