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Throwing Caution to the Wind by Will
I’ve always been particular about my hair, but I’ve never been bold in my choice of style. I’ve always opted for a middling version of whatever was popular. Even so, I would occasionally ask for a shorter than usual cut just for the thrill. I’m not talking clipper cut short, just off the ears short—maybe even traditional businessman short. Most styles worked with my straight, light brown hair—sort of.
Secretly, I wanted it buzzed into a flattop, but I never had the nerve. I don’t know why the flattop fascinated me so. They were common enough when I was a kid, but no one I knew had one. I also didn’t think my fine, limp hair would make a good flattop. Once, after getting a medium taper cut—which I considered radically short for the 1970s—I cut the top into a semblance of a flattop myself. Mind you, it only stood up with massive amounts of hairspray and blowdrying, and I never set foot out of the bathroom without plastering it down.
I started the 80s with the then standard center-parted layer cut, then transitioned into a Wall Street style power-pomp. I hated both, and the urge to get a flattop kept surfacing, and I kept stuffing it down. Nobody has a flattop, and I’ll look like a dork for months. One night, I took my girlfriend and my pomp to a U2 concert. I enjoyed their music on the radio, but my girlfriend was a real fan. From the moment they walked on stage, I was mesmerized—not by the performance, but by Larry Mullen’s gleaming blond flattop. I determined then and there that the next day I was getting a flat.
Unfortunately, the concert was Saturday night, and barbershops were closed Sunday and Monday, giving me two days to get cold feet. Even so, I found myself at an old-fashioned barber shop on Tuesday afternoon ready to do the deed. There were several customers ahead of me, and only two barbers, so I had quite a wait. More time for cold feet. Most of the customers were older men getting their sparse hair clipped into assorted short non-styles. One was a mop-topped pre-teen who squirmed and pouted as his flame red skater ‘do was shorn into a tight butch per grandad’s instructions. Damn, that was short! "You’re next," said the barber, gesturing to me as he swept the red curls into a mound.
I stepped into the chair, determined not to chicken out—to ask for the flattop I’d wanted for so long. The butterflies in my stomach went into overdrive as the barber caped me, and fastened the neck strip around my neck. He had to repeat himself twice when he asked how I wanted my hair cut, because I was so preoccupied. I was shocked to hear myself respond "Just a trim today, please." The barber, who’s sixtyish with a thick, perfectly cut, salt & pepper short pomp, begins combing my hair. First he combs the forelock down straight—it reaches my lower lip. I was simultaneously kicking myself for bailing, realizing how much hair I would lose if I asked for a flattop now, and calculating how long it would take to grow back. "So, about an inch off?" "A bit more, it’s been a while."
The barber sets to work combing and snipping. He was very precise, very methodical, and took his time. Obviously he took pride in his work. The whole time he’s cutting, I’m getting more and more down on myself for chickening out. Where was Saturday night’s resolve? Why in the world would I make a special trip to this out of the way, old-fashioned barber shop instead of my usual sylist just to get my usual boring haircut. In what seemed like no time at all, he was applying lather to my neck and around my ears. The warmth jolted me present. Scritch, scritch, scritch. Comb, comb, comb. Finally, he turns me to face the mirror, and holds up a hand mirror so I can see the back. It’s a really good haircut. Better than I ever got at my stylist. Clearly this is not the message my face is sending, though, because he asks "You don’t like it? Is it too short? Did I do something wrong?"
I paused for a minute, then blurted out "No, it looks great. You didn’t do anything wrong, I did. I came in intending to get a flattop, but I lost my nerve."
"Ahh! Do you wish you had gotten the flattop?"
"Are you sure?"
And before the yes was fully out of my mouth, he plunged the Osters right into the center of his perfect quiff, and drove them straight back to the crown of my head. I gulped as he laughed. "I can take care of that!" he said with a grin. I couldn’t believe this had just happened, but I was now committed, and the butterflies simply disappeared.
Next the barber began cutting away the bulk of my hair with quick, decisive passes of clipper over comb, leaving my pomaded hair about 2" long all over—except for the plush stripe down the center. Next he used hairspray and blow dryer to get it all standing upright. He would rub the brush in a circle on my scalp, then pull straight out, while using the dryer. Once my hair was stiff, straight, and erect, he made several more passes over the top, leveling it out, then proceeded to shear the sides—not to the skin, but probably a number 2 or 3. Next came a long period of meticulously inspecting and trimming. A bit here, a bit there, brush a bit, trim a bit. Finally, he turned me toward the mirror to face the new me. I had flattop, alright, but quite a tall boxy one, with only the tiniest hint of scalp showing on the sides. It was a very eighties flattop, and I loved it.
I thanked the barber, and apologized for the trouble, offering to pay for both haircuts. He dismissed the offer, and told me he’s always happy when a man changes up his look, and that it was a pleasure to give a young guy a flattop. I tipped him a 100%.
That first flattop looked great, and I got plenty of compliments and appreciative looks, but it took an absurd amount of time, product, and effort to keep it looking sharp. After a week, it was already worse for the wear. In two weeks I was back for another flat. Tony—this time I got his name—told me he could cut it a bit shorter for better control and still keep basically the same look, or go quite a bit shorter for a more military look. I opted for a bit shorter, and this became my standard cut for almost ten years. I experimented with shorter flats, and got some really bad cuts from other barbers when traveling. One was such a hack job that Tony had to take it quite short to recover the flattop shape. I walked out into a January snowstorm high, tight, and with my very first landing strip. I hated the look at first, but once I warmed up and dried off, I couldn’t get over how great it felt.
I was surprised how long it took to get back to the longer look, and wound up settling on an in between length—more a classic fifties flat: 1 ½ on the sides, still boxy, with a bit of scalp showing through on top. In July I found myself driving near Parris Island, and saw two men in civvies walking out of a barbershop with the shortest, highest, tightest flattops I’d ever seen. Whoah! I circled the block to check out the shop. It was tiny, and only had one barber on duty, so there was no question who to ask for. For once, I threw caution to the wind, strode in, sat down, and asked the man for the shortest flattop he could manage. A few minutes later I was checking out the overhead lights reflecting on my all but bald dome. I had a flattop, alright, but barely. It was significantly shorter than the two marines I’d seen exiting—their horseshoes barely opened in the back. My scalp was slick and gleaming from a line just in front of my ears back. In front was a little flat shield of hair, maybe, maybe ⅜" long in the very front. I had seriously underestimated this barber’s skills!
I felt every draft, every hint of a breeze on my scalp, and was afraid I'd get a sunburn just walking back to my car. I couldn't keep my hands off my bare scalp on the drive to the motel. The contrast with the stiff bristles up front was crazy. As much as I enjoyed the feel, I couldn't look in a mirror without simultaneously laughing and cringing. Out of habit, I brushed my hair out of my face on waking, only to find no hair, then bristles, then slick scalp. Oh, yeah, that happened.
The next day on the drive home I detoured past Tony’s, and caught him just as he was locking up. He took one look at me and just started laughing, and I couldn't help but join him. Finally, I said "Tony, I really can’t show up at work tomorrow looking like this!" "Why not? The technique is flawless." More laughter, and more, as Tony revved up the lather machine. "You know there’s only one solution, right?" "Yeah, boss!" as I settled in for my second lathering in as many days.