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Heat Buzz by Rob

The dog days of midsummer descend upon the city with freakish intensity this time each year. The city broils in close damp heat, from which neither night nor shade offers any relief. It is the end of an exhausting day at the close of an unbearable week of damp-sheeted fitful sleep. The weekend promises no relief, and as I slouch against the bus stop bench I ache at the thought of spending two blistering days in my sweatbox apartment.

My heart sinks a little lower as the 5:10 crosstown bus lurches into view. Even from here, I can see that the 5:10 is already stacked full of spent, wilted folk like myself. It takes an act of sheer will to rise from the bench. I have been outside waiting for the bus only a few minutes but already I am dripping from head to toe. My white shirt is plastered to my torso and blood-hot streams of sweat run down my legs beneath my searing black trousers.

As I climb aboard the bus, I am stung in one eye by a long dark lock of my sweat-slicked hair. My eye is smarting, and I fumble in my damp pockets for correct change for the fare. After clumsily coaxing the slippery coins into the fare box, I head toward the rear of this lumbering sauna searching for a place to collapse.

Picking my way through the mass of hot sticky flesh, I spy a standing space against the back wall and take it. My eye is still irritated, and I curse myself for not making time this week to schedule an appointment with my hair stylist. I usually love my hair when it's longish like this, with lots of body and shine. In this heat, however, it's a wet stringy mess that's quickly driving me mad.

I am trying not to think about the beads of sweat growing at my hairline which will inevitably slide down my forehead and burn my eyes. Instead I concentrate on the scenery of the largely working-class neighborhood the bus is now passing through. I notice a young mother and her pair of small, fidgety children waiting in line for Italian ices; a couple of sunburned teenage boys in cutoff jeans absently tossing a ball back and forth; and two tall, athletic-looking men coming out of a barbershop, laughing and good-naturedly shoving one another. They call back into the shop, enthusiastically thanking the barber, each one running his hand over the other's apparently newly shorn head in undisguised delight.

The bus loudly grinds to a halt at an intersection just past the barbershop, and I watch the two men walking down the street alongside us. They grin broadly at one another, slapping each other's back, looking as though they couldn't be more comfortable in the sweltering heat. On impulse, I reach over and give the signal cord a couple of firm tugs. I might as well get a haircut here, I tell myself; at the very least I'll get my bangs trimmed so they won't be in my eyes anymore.

Moments later, I am stepping down off the bus. As I walk the half-block back to the barbershop, I am about to pass the two men. This time I really get a good look at their fresh haircuts and notice the differences between them. The taller man's blond hair is shaved pretty much to the skin on the back and sides, with the hair on top of his head kind of squared off. I see a wide center strip of barely stubbled clean white scalp running from his crown to the front of his head. His buddy's dark hair has been buzzed extremely short all over and is more rounded on top. Rubbing his stubbly head and beaming with joy, he is clearly very happy with his haircut.

I marvel at the cleanness and crispness of both cuts as the men pass. I wonder why my friends and I never had cool haircuts like these guys do. Maybe I'll go a little shorter, I think to myself. Hmm, who knows, maybe I'll go a lot shorter.

As I open the door to the shop, I see the barber across the room, leaning over the cash register. I hear money moving between his hands as he counts under his breath. The red-and-white checkerboard-tiled floor is swept clean and he is clearly getting ready to close up. I'm disappointed yet relieved at the same time; I really need a haircut but I'm tempted to ask for a real short cut like those guys just got. Anyway, it's moot at this point. I turn to walk out of the shop when the barber looks over his shoulder and yells "Hey! Where you think you're going? Get in here and hop in the chair, sport. I'll be with ya in a minute."

With strongly conflicting emotions, I walk across the room and climb up into the deep-red leather barber chair. Somehow I feel like I'm on the verge of transformation, if only I can find the strength to go through with it. My heart is pounding so hard I can feel it in my ears. Just calm down, I tell myself; don't lose control. I take a deep breath, close my eyes and count to ten. When I open my eyes again I have regained my composure.

I begin to rehearse my instructions to the barber. "Just cut my bangs up a little, and clean it up a bit on the back and sides," I imagine telling him. Yes, that's what you want, I tell myself, just a trim. I look around the shop as I repeat this to myself like a mantra.

The sights and smells of the barbershop wash over me, and I find them strangely comforting and familiar. Assorted bottles of hair tonics and oils rest on a low shelf across the room. Lazy shafts of sunlight stream through them, refracting a harlequin pattern of deep golds and cool greens onto the wall. The crisp, clean breeze of the tonics and the heavy musk of the oils are intoxicating, in sharp contrast to the harsh chemical stink which I associate with the salon I usually frequent. In fact, the whole atmosphere of this barbershop, with its worn yet homey charm, pretty much convinces me I'll never set foot in a sterile, pretentious salon ever again. Now if only the barber lives up to his shop . . .

The barber finishes counting his money and closes the cash register drawer. He turns around slowly, smiling, kind of appraising me. I see now he is maybe in his early thirties, tall and broad-shouldered, with a strong nose, olive skin and dark, deep-set eyes. His thick, glossy dark hair has been cropped very short, mowed down to a greyish stubble on the back and sides, the top buzzed flat, neat and squared off with military precision.

"You ain't never been here before I'm guessin," he says, still smiling as if laughing at some private joke. Not waiting for an answer, he continues: "One, Nick Strega remembers every guy he's ever worked on, and two, none of 'em would ever, EVER go so long between haircuts."

I must look pretty sheepish at the moment, because his tanned face breaks into a wide toothy grin. "Don't lemme scare ya, kid. I was just hasslin' ya." I follow his voice around as he walks behind me, opening some drawers. "I'm right, though, huh? You never been here before, have ya?" I mumble that this is my first visit here. As Nick places the paper collar around my neck and secures it, he says "Well, kid, I'm hopin' I can make a lifetime customer outta you. I'm gonna give it my best shot here, so how ya want it cut?"

The moment of truth is here. I try to remember the instructions I had planned to give him but my mind's gone blank. Nick is carefully arranging the pinstriped barber cape around me and tying it up in back. My head is churning at this point. What do I tell him? He walks around the chair, surveying my hair from all angles. I am beside myself with panic. Suddenly I notice that it's very quiet. WHAT DO I TELL HIM?

Nick breaks the silence. "Well," he says thoughtfully, "I'm thinkin' you probably just want a trim to keep your hair out of your eyes, with the heat and all. Am I right?"

I practically collapse in relief. I start to say yes, that's exactly right, but a stronger, more assertive voice inside me takes over and clearly, proudly says "No, sir. I want to be rid of all this hair. I want you to buzz it all off!"

Nick, a little surprised I think, wheels me around so I am facing both him and the mirror. "I'm sure I can hook ya up with that, kid," he says, looking at me steadily. "Have anything special in mind?"

My thoughts return to the two freshly shorn men. "I sure do," I reply eagerly. "The two guys I passed on my way in here--."

Nick interrupts, "Oh yeah, Dave and Rob. They're good friends of mine. We go drinkin' every Friday night. S**t, that reminds me, I gotta meet them in about an hour. So you wanna haircut like one a theirs, huh?"

I nod enthusiastically. "Like the younger guy's, real short all over," I say.

"Good choice," Nick affirms. "A nice tight butch. Low maintenance, especially in this friggin' heat. Maybe later we can phase you into a high & tight flattop like mine. For now though, I think this cut's really gonna work for ya, but," he pauses, "you have to make sure ya want it. I can't put the hair back on after I take it all off."

I study my reflection in the mirror. Do I really want this? The strong bell-clear voice inside me says yes, it's what you've always wanted; you've just been too stupid to know it. Once the transformation is complete, you'll kick yourself for not doing it sooner. DO IT! My inner dialogue complete, I look back in the mirror, my square jaw set in determination, and then up at Nick. "Do it!"

Nick needs no further encouragement. He spins the barber chair around so my back is to the mirror. Within seconds I hear the quick electric snap of the clippers buzzing on. Nick is walking around to my left side. He places a warm hand on my shoulder as I hear the clippers homing in on my left ear. I feel the cool steel clipper blade bite into my sideburn, moving in slow, steady passes up to my temple and back again, then over and around my ear. I witness in shock as more hair than I ever thought I had hits the barber cape in soft freefall. I am being shorn.

The clippers are making a busy circuit over the left side of my head, visiting and revisiting every square inch of scalp, leaving immaculate stubble in their frenzied wake. Nick's reassuring hand moves from my shoulder to the back of my head, gently but insistently forcing it down until my chin presses hard against my breastbone. The back of my head is laid wide open for shearing, and Nick doesn't hesitate for a moment. He races the clippers from neck to crown, perhaps a dozen times, quickly baring my tingling scalp.

Nick releases my head as he sidles around to my right. I feel impressions on the top of my head where his strong, thick fingers were gripping me. He brushes away some errant hairs from the back of my head and I get a real sense of how thoroughly I am being buzzed. Already I feel cooler, freer, less encumbered. I have little time to reflect on this, however, as the hum of the clippers drones near my right ear. Nick is really working the clippers hard, plowing them unmercifully up against the side of my head. Hair is falling in a thick cascade onto my right shoulder, pausing there a moment before slipping down into my lap.

Within a few moments, Nick has wiped out all the hair on the right side of my head. I feel cool air hit my scalp, and I shudder. Nick turns off the clippers, giving them a well-earned rest.

"You still with me, kid?" I hear from behind me.

"Yes, sir," I reply. "Feels good so far!"

"Glad yer enjoyin' it, kid. Ya look pretty stupid right now though. Wanna see?"

"Please," I nod.

Nick spins the chair around so I'm now facing the mirror. Whoa, I think. The sides of my head have been clipped nearly bare. Nick grabs a hand mirror and holds it behind me so I can see the reflection of the back of my head. Wow! It, too, has been reduced to mere stubble. The funny part is, the hair on top of my head is completely untouched. The thick dark locks tumble down over my forehead into my eyes. I'm now sporting something akin to a mohawk, and I look like a complete freak. Nick and I start to chuckle.

"So, you want me to leave ya like this, kid?"

"Uh, that'd be a definite no." I can't help but smile. With each moment, I begin to feel more at ease: with Nick, with myself, with everything.

Nick walks back to the counter and exchanges the exhausted clippers for a larger set that gleams with a chromelike finish. He fiddles with the blade for a moment, and brings the clippers to life with a sharp snap that echoes through the shop. The deep, resonant hum of the clippers is mesmerizing.

Nick reaches from behind with his left hand and gathers up my bangs, pulling them up and away from my face. I hear the oscillating throb of the clippers being raised over my head. In the mirror's reflection, Nick is holding them poised, front and center above my hairline, ready to finish shearing me.

The clippers' first swipe through the middle of my hair hits me like a lightning bolt. The sight of the wide swath of my stubbled scalp is a shock to my system. Nick takes the long, thick clump of his harvest and tosses it in my lap. Ugh, I think; this looks like the pelt of some small animal. What was I thinking to have hair this long?

I recover in time to see Nick prepare for his second pass over my head. He holds my bangs back again and digs the clippers into the hair bordering the buzzed center strip. I am growing to love the feel of the clippers plowing through my mess of hair. The steel blades precisely sever each overgrown shaft, leaving only fresh, uniform stubble. As before, Nick tosses the mass of shorn, dead hair into my lap.

With the next couple of passes, I begin to see profound changes in my features. My dark eyes seem to leap out at me, like a veil has been torn away. I notice my smooth forehead and straight dark brows, perhaps for the first time in many years. The shape of my head is rapidly becoming more apparent. It's as if Nick is sculpting me, chiseling away at an indistinct mass to reveal something finer and more profound.

By now, my lap has become an inky sea of the clipped remains of my hair. Each handful of limp buzzed locks that Nick tosses in my lap only adds to my amazement. How on earth could I have had this much hair? With each moment, I feel more confident in my decision to get rid of it all.

I look back into the mirror just in time to see Nick making his final strokes. Within seconds, the last dark strip of my hair is buzzed off and hurled into my lap. I gape in wonder at my reflection; can that severely butched guy in the barber chair really be me?

Denying the evidence of my eyes, I raise a tentative hand to the top of my head. The spiky, velvety sensation that my touch registers is enough to convince me that I have, in fact, been shorn. I run my hand down the back of my head and the velvet turns to sandpaper. I start rubbing my head all over and it feels absolutely amazing. I never realized I could get so much pleasure out of a haircut before.

Nick's eager voice interrupts my reverie. "So whaddaya think, kid? D'ya like your cut?" Still rubbing my tingling noggin, I nod enthusiastically. He grins. "Yeah, I thought you'd be happy with a nice buzz. It seemed kinda like you were hiding behind all that hair."

I smile up at Nick. "Well, it looks like I can't do that anymore, can I?"

Nick shakes his head. "Nope, nothin' to hide behind anymore. I'm glad ya decided to take the plunge; I knew there was a nice-lookin' guy somewhere under all that hair." He reaches down and gives my stubbled head a brisk, playful rubbing that sends tingles down my spine. "Well, let's get ya cleaned up and outta here, pal, so ya can enjoy the evening."

"Sounds like a plan to me," I reply, even though I'm not sure what getting me "cleaned up" entails. I thought my haircut was pretty much finished, but frankly I'm glad it's not. Surprisingly enough, I'm really enjoying myself here and I want the experience to linger for a while.

Nick tears the paper collar from my neck and grabs a white hand towel from a neat stack on the counter. He tucks the towel deep into the back collar of my shirt, like a bib. Nick then returns to the counter and fires up a small machine that dispenses lather into his hand. Carefully picking up a straight razor with his other hand, Nick comes over and spreads the warm, foamy lather all over the back of my neck and around my ears. As great as this feels, and as much as I'm enjoying this so far, I hope this doesn't mean that he's going to shave my head.

Apparently catching my concerned glance, Nick smiles and says "Geez kid, gimme a break! I'm not gonna turn you into a chrome-dome or like that. All I'm doin' is cleaning up your hairline so it'll look nice and crisp." Embarrassed, I say that I'm sorry I misunderstood. Nick laughs. "Yeah, well, I'll give ya a break this time; next time you'll know the drill, or else I WILL shave yer freakin' melon." I laugh, completely at ease again.

The broad palm of Nick's hand pushes my head forward a bit as he begins scraping away at the back of my neck. In my mind's eye, I see my hairline taking precise, perfect shape. With quick, deft strokes he moves up and around each ear, outlining and squaring off my sideburns. Before I know it, he is finished.

In a moment, I feel a very warm, wet cloth on the back of my neck. Nick is gently wiping away the lather and stray hairs, and it's wonderfully relaxing after this long day. After a few moments, he pulls the towel from my shirt and stretches it taut between his hands. He begins fanning the back of my neck to dry it. The cool flowing air refreshes and invigorates me.

After my neck is dry, Nick reaches for a brush with long, soft-looking bristles. With rapid but deliberate movements, he brushes away all the stray hairs from my face and neck. The bristles softly tickle my ears as he sweeps around and inside them.

As a final touch, Nick drizzles a small amount of after-shave into one hand, then rubs both hands together vigorously. The scent is old-fashioned, and unmistakably masculine. Standing behind me, he gently pats the cool, bracing liquid all around my throat and the back of my neck. This feels like the perfect way to finish off my awesome buzz.

"Okay kid, you're all done here," Nick says as he removes the barber cape and gives it a brisk shake. The cut hair drifts down to the floor and settles in dark clumps. "Why dont'cha take a good look at your haircut while I sweep up this hair?"

"Cool, thanks," I reply, happily rubbing my newly shorn head. I hop out of the barber chair, eager to check out the new me. In salons, I never really get to see the finished product all that well, so this is a welcome opportunity. I stand before the large mirror, thoroughly scrutinizing my new look.

Nick's skill as a barber is evident. The haircut is very even, with no stray hairs. The severely buzzed hair on the back and sides of my head blends seamlessly with the slightly longer hair on top. The hairline around my ears and in back is set off in clean, crisp lines, as if etched in glass. I am truly in awe.

In all the years I've been going to expensive salons, I've never experienced this kind of exquisite service and attention to detail. Nick has definitely made a lifetime customer out of me.

Nick finishes his sweeping and empties the furry-looking dustpan into the trash bin under the counter. "There," he says, dusting his hands off with finality, "All cleaned up and ready to go." Suddenly I feel very guilty for keeping him so late on a Friday night. At least I can make up for it with a generous tip.

Digging into my pants pocket for my wallet, I look around the shop for the price list. A large sign yellowed with age displays the going rates for various haircuts and shaves. A banner in bold red letters hovers over the prices: "IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH." The most expensive haircut listed is about one-third of what I pay at the salon. I wonder how Nick can charge so little for such great work.

Noticing my open wallet, Nick makes a dismissive gesture. "The first one's on me, kid." He smiles broadly, crinkling the corners of his dark eyes. I start to protest, and his smile becomes wider. He holds his hands up in concession. "Okay, okay. If you really wanna toss your money around, you can cover the first round at Allen's."

My eyes light up. "Really? Are you sure? That'd be awesome! I mean, is that okay?" I realize I'm babbling even as I'm doing it. Thankfully, Nick seems to draw some amusement from this. He merely nods, grinning to himself.

* * *
Later, as we finish off our seventh round of beers, something dawns on me. Although the temperature has gone down only a few degrees since sunset, I haven't thought about the heat for hours. Of course, the beer may have contributed to this, but largely it's all the fun I've been having with my new friends. Nick is not only a talented barber, but a damn funny and genuinely nice guy as well. Dave and Rob couldn't be more welcoming and inclusive if they tried. Between the frequent, friendly head-rubs by practically everyone in the bar, and the warm, congenial banter at the table, I am completely at ease and enjoying myself. The camaraderie and affection here are a balm for my emotionally underfurnished life.

Maybe it's the beer, but for a moment I see my near future with exceptional clarity. I see myself spending a great deal of time here, in this neighborhood and even in this bar. I will see a great deal of Nick as well; that much is beyond doubt. Most importantly, I see myself happy and whole, and of course sporting a killer buzz.

Again, maybe it's the beer, but for some reason I'm recalling something my high school science teacher said a long time ago. He lectured that heat is an agent of transformation, and that nothing which has been profoundly touched by heat will ever be the same again.

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