“Let’s get our hair cut,” Simon said. “There’s a barber shop in the East Village that’s doing some really cool stuff.” He made stuff sound like art or at least something I should know about.
I didn’t really want or thought I needed a haircut. My hair was like the button down oxfords and grey trousers that I wore to school, part of a uniform of ordinariness I didn’t have to think much about. But I would have followed Simon anywhere, and especially to the Village.
We’d only been there a few times. Our first forays in New York had been guided by the interests and habits of Simon’s sister, who studied fashion in the city and would regale her brother with stories of the places she ate and shopped, most of which were close to her school in midtown Manhattan. But like settlers in a new land, we had slowly begun extending our radius of exploration, spending the money we earned from our part-time jobs for which we had sacrificed track in the last half of senior year at art house cinemas and ethnic restaurants. Eventually we wound up in the Village.
I liked the neighborhood, with its gentle tree-lined streets of row houses and modest brownstones, its quirky shops and second-hand bookstores–and the young men I saw on its streets. So many of them, and unlike the suited businessmen with briefcases I saw uptown, who mostly walked alone and in a hurry to get somewhere, these men, some just a few years older than me, strolled the streets of the city together as if they were out for a walk in the park.
“How did you find out about the place?” I asked.
“It was in the Voice.”
The Village Voice. It was “our” newspaper. As far as I knew, we were the only ones in our class who read it. It was Simon of course who got me reading it, one day in the school cafeteria.
Shoving aside our plates of the congealed orange goop of our macaroni and cheese, he spread the paper out on the table and flipped to a page with a film review. “You’ve got to read this guy,” he said, “he’s so much better than that snob at the Times” he said. “Ginsburg used to write for it, can you imagine?” he said. Simon wasn’t old enough to have read anything the poet had published in the newspaper, but it was part of the lore of the city he seemed to be collecting, as a hiker might provisions for a long trek he was embarking on, preparation for the life in New York he dreamed of living. “The deli carries it. Maybe there’s some hope for this town after all.”
The next day I picked up a copy and read it cover to cover, and there in a small corner of the back pages I found an ad for a for a film. It featured a grainy black and white photo of two men: a bearded older guy in tight torn jeans and leather jacket, who stood slouching against a truck, and a younger man squatting at his side, close but not touching. They were looking straight ahead.
There were signs enough to suggest that this was a story of men who had sex with other men, and not just the phrase “All Male Cast” anchored at the bottom of the ad: the motorcycle jacket and ripped jeans, the story of trucker and hitchhiker that came to mind, the stance of the two men—what man willingly kneels by the side of the other? I wasn’t yet able to read them all but I didn’t need to. The desire in the men’s eyes, captured in the few tiny pixels of this sexually charged tableau, was unmistakable,
Later I would learn that we don’t read by decoding individual letters but by recognizing the shape of words, even when parts of the letters composing them are scratched off. In my case, the letters were not yet fully formed, but somehow I knew the word, as if it had always been there, waiting to be recognized.
Simon and I spent the morning rummaging through record shops and stopped for lunch at a place on 7th Avenue. The outdoor café was just a single row of small tables set within a thin, low-railed rectangle of sidewalk. From my seat I could thrust my arm out into the flow of pedestrians streaming by and touch the city, the way I used to dip my hand into the water as my father motored the rowboat out into the bay.
We ordered enchiladas and a beer. The waiter didn’t card us, as they had almost everywhere else in the city.
“This is what I want,” he said, slipping out from his bag one of the records he had bought and pointing to one of the musicians on the cover. The guy’s hair was messy, spiky at the top and shorter at the sides.
“Do you realize the dress code doesn’t say anything about how high your hair can be?” Simon said, obviously pleased with himself. “It’ll grow out by graduation anyway if you don’t like it,” he said. He already assumed we’d do it. “What do you think?
A part of me wanted to say yes. It’d be a way of further cementing our friendship, but I sensed the cut Simon was contemplating wouldn’t suit me. It would have been like wearing the wig my classmate Desmond stuck his long hair under to get around the school’s dress code.
“I dunno.” Another part of me wanted to say “I kind of like the haircut the guys at the table in front of us have.”
They had come in after us. There were three of them, guys in their 20s, all dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts a size too small, two of them sporting a full mustache. The third, with traces of a beard, reminded me a little of the truck driver in the movie ad I had seen.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed their hair if Simon hadn’t suggested we get our hair cut that day. The three men all had the same cropped hair as if they were members of some secret tribe or fraternity, shorter than what any of us at school wore, except Chuck, whose father was in the military and who’d applied to West Point.
I felt a little disloyal to Simon as I stole glances at them. Usually I couldn’t get enough of looking at Simon, though I could draw his broad proud forehead and high cheekbones from memory and could pick out the color of his brilliant blue-grey eyes from a flipbook at the paint store. I could mimic the way he sometimes tilted his head slightly up and to the right, as if scanning dozens of thoughts swirling in his mind. But I saw Simon every day.
Now that I noticed the guys’ hair I couldn’t stop looking at the heads of the young men who passed by as we dallied over lunch. I kept seeing the same helmet of close-cropped hair reappearing as one might a pale wildflower in a field that once discovered begins to reveal its ubiquity among the shoots of grass.
“What are you looking at?” Simon asked, turning around in his chair.
“Oh, nothing. Just trying to get the waiter’s attention. We need more salsa.”
The barber shop wasn’t an impressive place from outside, just a sign and staircase that led down to a basement shop. I had expected a glass-walled showroom or spacious white cube, like the gallery Simon and I had ventured into on our previous trip and where I had bought the outrageously expensive catalogue—a thin monograph of the Kirchener paintings we had seen—mostly as a souvenir of the day with Simon.
As he had warned, there was in fact a line to get in. It was only a short one, though, just a few people waiting on the stairs, but it lent the barbershop the air of a private club, the kind of place you had to be a member in order to be allowed in, an impression heightened by the other people in line, who looked as if they had already gotten their hair cut.
Simon went first, as I had insisted. I watched him as I waited, talking and laughing with the barber, already a young man of the city who betrayed no trace of the bus journey that had brought him here.
The barber was almost done with Simon by the time the next chair opened up. He was smiling broadly as the barber rubbed a little gel into his bright golden brown hair until it sprang up in a tousle of exclamation points.
“What’ll it be?” the barber asked me.
What will you be?” he could just as well have asked. I wouldn’t have known what to answer. How do you imagine a different life when you have so few clues of how this life might be lived, so few stories? I could build my boyhood scenes of life in New York with the images I had scavenged from movies and books, however preposterous or anachronistic they eventually proved to be. But I had few pictures for this new and very different kind of life. In the days before a teenager with an Internet connection could browse through a list of gay celebrities and watch ads for Tylenol featuring gay fathers, before there was an Amazon with lists of LGBT youth fiction and town bookstores that stocked them, years before even Will and Grace, the public landscape of a future in which men who loved men lived was barren.
I was beginning, however, to amass a small store of images. I hadn’t necessarily sought them out—how would I have known where to look for them?—and most I had stumbled upon, like the stories of Cocteau and Baldwin or the movie ad. They were objets trouvés for a work in progress I only half suspected I was making but whose final features remained blurred.
At the time I had a shaggy mop of hair that brushed the collar of my shirt, just within the bounds of length prescribed by the school dress code. It was a thick mane that with the right cut and gel could have been almost any haircut I wanted. I just had to ask.
Instead I said, “A little off the top and sides”
As the first curls of hair fell onto my bibbed lap, I glanced at Simon, who looked as if he had just gotten out of bed, but my thoughts quickly wandered to the guy in the red t-shirt on 7th Avenue.
“You can take some more off.”
The barber combed up a segment of hair and clamped his fingers around the strands a couple of inches from the base. “This much?” the barber said.
“A bit more.”
I didn’t emerge quite as transformed as Simon had. I was just a teenager with a nondescript haircut that didn’t fit into any of the fashion niches at school, Simon’s new look included. Still, it was much shorter than what I had worn all through high school.
“You could have gotten that anywhere,” Simon said in a tone of muted disappointment.
“Maybe next time,” I said. Simon was wrong. It was definitely a New York haircut.