Like most middle class white people my grooming habits can be a bit lacking. When stateside, I’m lucky if I get my hair cut every two months. But when I’m traveling I look for a haircut in just about every new city. It is one of the best ways, I’ve found, to get in with the local working class. Meeting elites in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa is no thing. You just go to the expensive watering holes – places like Bubbles O’Leary in Kampala, Uganda – and buy someone a drink. But talking to – rather than interviewing – a local whose father isn’t a politician or CEO is a difficult art.
Walking around Monrovia I spotted Prince (a common name in Liberia, most notoriously belonging to Prince Johnson) who had set up his mobile barber shop – a dusty mirror, plastic chair, two combs, and a bag of new razors – on a palm tree along the side of the road. Here I am with Prince before my haircut:
Prince asked for $5, probably ten times the price paid by the customer before me. I had no problem throwing down. A growing peanut gallery of local teenage boys and shy smiling girls started to gather behind us. “How you gonna cut this fellow hair?” one of them asked, but Prince muttered a few words about how he had cut white person hair in the past. Ten minutes later, still orbiting me like a moon of absolute confusion, it was clear that he hadn’t. He took out a shiny new razor with his callused fingers, lined it up against the side of his purple comb and began pushing it through my thick matted hair, which fell down in defeated clumps on the dusty earth below. I was sure I’d leave Prince’s barber shop a bald man.
But Prince did alright. As he took off the mosquito netting (probably from some NGO) to display his latest work of art with an inflated chest, the boys’ snickering turned into all-out laughter and the shy smiling girls lowered their heads as if to hide their teeth.
I remember now that I also wrote a post about my last haircut in Argentina, one that I never published here. So:
Alejandro knows this: one of the great soccer rivalries is Argentina versus England. Has to do with that little war they had over the Islas Malvinas … or the Falkland Islands depending on which side has your sympathies. Ironically, the fact that Argentina lost probably led to the downfall of the military dictatorship here and the end of the Dirty War.
In commemoration of those who died in the war, yesterday was a national holiday. It came just a week after another five-day holiday, Semana Santa. I live in San Telmo. It’s the ‘bohemian’ part of town in Latin America’s most bohemian city. When it’s busy, it’s busy: a sea of hipsters, hippies, yippies, and yuppies. When it’s dead, it’s a morgue. Stiller than you could imagine. Absolute silence. Just a couple street dogs running in circles to smell each other’s culos.
I’ve needed a haircut for a few weeks now. I love paying a visit to the barber. In Sao Paulo a drop-dead gorgeous Brazilian shampooed my hair for ten minutes. Why, a friend recently asked, does it feel so good when someone else shampoos your hair, but not when you do it yourself? When the Brazilian stopped the water and said it was time to cut my hair, I almost had the nerve/guts to ask her if my sun-damaged split ends might need a second round of conditioning.
In Park Slope last year I found an old Puerto Rican barber shop filled with reggaetonteens waiting to get their fades. I asked the barber how business was going. Bad, he said. “It’s this gentrification going on. Wealthy white people don’t groom themselves. If you’re brown and you’re poor, you get your hair cut every two weeks. If you’re rich and white you look like you live in a cave.”
But back to Buenos Aires. This time my barber was a rough 40-something, reeking of cigarettes and with a hairy pot belly sticking out of the bottom of his t-shirt. He was complaining to a much older friend about the 20-day agricultural strike that has left grocery stores without meat and factories without grain. “They protest, protest, protest,” he said with his fingers cupped in that famous Argentine-Italian gesture, “but no one is willing to work, work, work.” He had various nicknames for his friend, but my favorite was macho. “Macho, como es que crece un país? Protestando? No boludo, laburando. Mira, hoy es festiado y yo estoy acá. Laburo, laburo, laburo.” He pointed at me with the scissors. “Mirá los yanquis. Cómo es que se pusieron tan ricos? Laburan como burros. Sí o no amigo?” I nodded yes, hoping that he’d start doing a little more laboring and a little less talking himself. I had a conference call to get to back to at the apartment.
The classic phrase from American expats living here is that they moved to Argentina because here you work to live. In the US, they go on, compelled to finish with the punch line, you live to work. In Kevin Johannsen’s song Puerto Madero he makes the obvious observation: everyone who visits Buenos Aires wants to move here; everyone who lives here wants to move somewhere else.
I think it has to do with the seasons of life. In Hinduism – at least according to my religion professor in Kathmandu – there are four phases of life. First you’re young, what they harmlessly call a pendejo here in Argentina. The point is to learn, to experience, to mature. The second phase, you work your ass off. You do it for your community and to get ready to start a family. Third phase of life is the longest. You have a family, raise your children, pass on your legacy. The fourth phase of your life you go walk into a forest, question everything, and lay down to die.
Our generation lives an entire life season in just a year. One year we’re hustling our asses off. The next, retirement. Then back to the hustle. We romanticise and fetishize both. When we’re resting we think about everything we want to accomplish in our lives. And when we’re in the thick of it, we just want to get away. The secret, I suppose, is learning to accept the back and forth.