Tony Mancus: Hair Shirt (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve lived in Virginia for the past seven, going on eight years. My blood and kin are northern, but my pace is a good bit more southerly.

*This was originally published in April 2017 and is republished today, Aug. 16, 2017 since the internets gobbled up the April 2017 copy. Thanks to Mr. Mancus for being ever so kind in his understanding of the situation. Read on …

Hair Shirt

A few days after the election I decided that it might be a good idea get rid of the hair on my head that had witnessed what might well be the dissolution of our fair experiment of a nation at the hands of an orange, sock-faced billionaire. What was dead and growing on my head had to go. It felt like a kind of mourning and a way forward. Gestures are dumb, but full of meaning. A week and a half earlier I removed my beard for a halloween costume. Cutting off the beard drew my face into the likeness of my father’s. It felt frivolous. Then the election happened and what was before this date and fell after seemed to take on more significance.

The morning I’d decided to take to the scissors, I drank a pile of coffee with whiskey and knockoff baileys and told Shan that I was going to go into the bathroom and cut off all my hair as I walked past her and into the bathroom. She was on the phone talking with her parents. Right as I closed the door she called out to me.

“You’re not going to give yourself a buzz cut, are you?”

I looked in the mirror and saw a glimpse of my dad, who at my age would have been balding and slightly beer-bellied with two kids and his first divorce filed. My dad who couldn’t remember what I did for a living, but who knew all along that Trump was going to get the nomination. We’d placed a bet in early October of 2015. He forgot that we’d made the wager, but I reminded him after it happened and he was happy to have the meal it won.

I pulled off my shirt and turned on the faucet and got the water steaming. I wear parts of him – the hair’s different, but my belly is growing and the skinny limbs are the same. The hands are different. His thumbs are larger, off white crescents prominent in the nails there.

My dad’s hands have held many heads under warm water jetting from the spray faucet—wee ones crying with their parents watching before their first trim, old folks in for their weekly perm unaware that it’s the last one before they’re boxed up underground. The sink was supposed to be contoured to cradle your neck but it did a shitty job. His hands were always steady and gentle, alternating duties between wetting, shampooing, rinsing, and then the quick towel. A swift side to side and up and down and a pat.

I cupped the hot water to my head. Any time someone I’m close with touches my head, a lull comes over me. My own hands feel just like nothing. Damp hair is much easier to handle – it clumps and the ends don’t splay out as much so it’s way more controllable and can be cut more effectively. The water felt warm and like nothing.

There’s something extremely intimate about having someone else maneuver around your head with very sharp instruments. It starts with the washing, though. A tender act that precludes a violent one. Subsequently, there’s an inherent level of trust that you put in the person holding your head and cutting pieces off of you. You have to believe that 1.) The person handling the clippers and scissors will not wound you and 2.) That person will not wound your image.

In a culture that values image as much as ours does, when a hairdresser breaks that second belief they lose their clients. It’s pretty simple. And most of us have felt some combination of despair and bloodfire when being turned back to the mirror to look at what the person with the weapons did to the dead matter on top of our skulls.

And whenever and wherever this interaction is taking place—whether it’s in a hair salon or a barbershop, often it translates into an increase in the immediacy of intimacy in personal communication as well. But I know very little of barbershops—the male-centered chatter or silences there.

I was more sober than usual for this. After I got my whole head sopping wet, I grabbed a towel and patted my hair down to a proper dampness, then grabbed the scissors.

I spread my fingers of my left hand and ran them around the back of my head, closed my fingers, and pulled outward about a half inch. With my right hand I started snipping.

My dad had been the owner/operator of two separate hair salons (Mr. John’s then Classic Hair Fashions) in two separate towns (Pittston then Olyphant) through two marriages and into a domestic partnership over four and a half decades, with a bunch of side-gigs along the way (a bar, real estate sales, umpiring—all things that cycle around people). He’d gotten into the hair business after working for Sikorsky in their helicopter manufacturing and assembly plant, ostensibly to meet women and to get out of Connecticut and back to NEPA.   

He was always very good with keeping up with his clientele. And he’s still a notorious bullshitter, which may well have been what endeared him to the old women who were the most regular of his customers. That and the jokes peppered with curses. He was always coming home with different ones from the biddies who lived in the low income highrise down the street. And he’d say all kinds of things about me whenever I came in to visit him at work. I’d been a doctor, a professional skier, a professor in the ivies, all these things that I’d imagine he imagined for me to be and convinced whoever was sitting in his chair that I was. He was always good at talking to people—and listening to them—or at least looking like he was listening. But from when I was a baby, up through college when we would go visit his cousins who also did hair—Janet and Mary—they’d set up at the kitchen table over tea and cigarettes and dish.

Thinking about it now, there’s some crossing through gendered spaces that was totally normal for me, but may not have been for a lot of other kids then. And there was also some speculation about my dad’s sexuality because one of his employees was one of the only openly gay men in the valley.

When I got to the top of my head I had to bend over. It’s easier to cut the top and the sides by yourself if gravity’s helping. I’d bent half way over and kept moving my hands around my head. The floor continued darkening with sharp hairteeth.  

If I was in the shop for any length of time, I was usually put to work sweeping up the cut hair. It always looked stabby on the ground – even very curly hair, when it’s wet and cut takes on a sharpness. While I was there the first time anyone finished a cut he’d shout, “Tony, go get the broom.” After the first announcement that was my duty. Sweep up the hair in a pile and hand the broom to whoever just finished cutting. Then drop the trimmings in the trash. Bags full of it.

He stopped cutting hair before he had to have the surgery that contributed to his memory disappearing. But the connections he’d made to people through his shop, through all facets of his life, they stuck fast—even if he couldn’t remember who the people he was talking to were. And this was a lasting laugh I would have with my siblings and other members of the family. Whenever we went anywhere with him, he’d run into people he knew—a woman with curlers in her hair smoking in her housecoat in front of the grocery store or a man with glasses and a limp picking up his prescription at the drug store, or some other character he’d known at some point along the way (from the shop or from town or from the bar he’d owned or from his father’s tailor shop). “John, how are you doing?” It would start and inevitably among the hailing masses. They’d carry on a conversation. Afterwards he’d turn to me and ask, “Who was that?” somehow expecting me to have been magically present in all moments of his life. Occasionally I’d make something up.

Now when I talk to him on the phone each week he asks, “Where are you living again?” And when I tell him he says, “Oh, that’s right.” I wonder if it will get to a point where he’ll be asking who I am, rather than where.

For a stretch in high school and when I moved away in college I was hesitant to let him cut my hair—I’d grown it long and felt like how he cut it felt dated. I didn’t want to go to other hairdressers or barbers, though I did get two or three haircuts in college that weren’t by his hand. It felt kind of blasphemous. I didn’t know what to say to him when I came home for winter break with short bleach-blond hair. The first thing he said when he looked at me was “Who did your hair? They did a decent job.”  

I came to realize that it wasn’t him that made my hair feel dated, it was actually my hair. My hair wants it to be the 70s. And in between college and grad school I was happy to have the chance to have him trim me up. The last haircut he gave me wasn’t in his shop, but on a porch in Montdale. Even after he got rid of the shop his hands could still work the scissors well.  

Whenever you walked into the shop you’d be accosted by the smell of perm solution. It’s a combination of kerosene and chalk burning. The permanent, such a weird name for something that doesn’t last. And when I was 12, I had a very strong mullet that I decided to get permed. A few days after the back of my hair was all loopy, my dad was looking for a new car. We wound up in Scranton at a Honda dealer. Along with the perm my dad shaved in some fresh lines on the sides. I felt like hot shit. In NEPA in 1991 mullets were in.

Right when we get out of the car, the salesman goes, “Hey kid, here’s a nickel.” Hands me an actual nickel, and says, “Why don’t you go and get a real haircut.” Now I know this isn’t a big deal, but my dad had just cut my hair and it felt like a punch in the gut to both of us. My dad heard this and went off on the guy and demanded that he let him speak to his manager. I still don’t understand why the hell a salesperson would start off by insulting his potential clients. Some little trump in this man was waiting to glow, I guess. I didn’t know how to respond.

After shouting down this man’s boss and me blubbering through a recount of what had been said, we walked back to the car and he said, “Don’t let anyone ever make you feel cheap.” I might be making that up. But he definitely said I love you.

When I was done, or as done as I could be, I ran my hands through my damp and now significantly shorter hair I heard his voice in my head – “Tony, go get the broom.” My torso was covered in hair.

I walked past Shannon, still on the phone with her parents, and grabbed the broom. I swept up the trimmings and threw my shorn hair in the trash. Then I jumped in the shower.