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In Providence: A little off the top

If you had asked me when I was younger what my least favorite thing to do on a Saturday was, it would be the day, every other month, when my mother would force my stepfather to take me to get a haircut.

We would go to a place in Providence that was something like Purgatory, if Purgatory had old magazines and everybody seemed way too happy to be there.

The barbershop we went to was small — probably the size of a walk-in closet. You’d sit on uncomfortable chairs and wait for two hours so that a man in his 60s could take clippers and buzz off all your hair. That seemed to be the only haircut anybody who went there would request.

“But Kevin,” you might be saying, “you can do that at home. Clippers aren’t that expensive, and if all he did was buzz your hair down to the scalp, then why waste a Saturday afternoon on such a thing?”

Allow me to give you my mother’s phone number so you can argue this point with her. God knows, I did — never to any avail.

Nothing about this made any sense, including the fact that when you went to this barbershop, there was another barber there with a perfectly fine set of clippers, who never had anyone in his chair. Nobody wanted a haircut from him, even though one would have a hard time imagining how you could go about messing up such a task. I make it sound as though there was only one lonely supplemental barber, but there were a series of them. I suppose once one of them figured out there was no money to be made at this shop, they’d go somewhere else, and a new young man would emerge to sit and swivel in a chair that never saw a customer.

One time, in the interest of expediency, I did talk my stepfather into letting me get a haircut from the second barber to save time. I was perfectly fine with the job he did. He left a little more than skin on my scalp, and that was okay with me, but my mother was incensed. It’s true that my hair did (and still does) grow very fast, which meant anything other than total annihilation and I’d look like a shag carpet in two weeks or less.

“Next time don’t go to the other guy,” my mother said, making “the other guy” sound like I had been given over to John McVie for music lessons instead of Lindsey Buckingham.

Not going to “the other guy” meant hours of me staring at the rotten linoleum floor, attempting to watch as static enveloped the miniature television in the corner of the waiting room. Even if you could decipher what was on, it was usually only golf. Meanwhile, all around you, grown men in unlaundered Boston Red Sox t-shirts and cargo shorts were reading copies of Sports Illustrated from 1981.

The place smelled like it was scrubbed down with cheap hair gel and the kind of cologne you’d find on the sales rack at Kohl’s. Every so often another kid my age would be waiting there as well, and we’d look at each other like two prisoners on our way to get fingerprinted.

Reservations were not an option. It was first come, first served. And if that sounds lovely and democratic to you, I encourage you to douse yourself in Drakkar Noir cologne right before voluntarily spending four hours at the DMV, and then tell me how democracy looks to you.

Trying to catch the place on a slow day was equally pointless. The place was always busy, because when every straight man in Providence decides they have to get their haircut from the same guy, a hole in the wall men’s salon becomes as hard to get into as La Boucherie on a Friday night.

If you called ahead to see how busy it was (because hope springs, I guess), the barber would answer the phone and say, “Twenty minutes.” Never has a bigger lie been perpetrated on the American public. Twenty minutes was how long the haircut took. The wait to get to the haircut was the length of Little Dorrit. Every time the phone rang while I was in the shop, and the barber gave his standard “Twenty minutes” answer, I’d want to scream–

It’s a trap! Once they get you here, you won’t see daylight for years! Just go to Supercuts! Yes, it’s a chain, but the prices are reasonable and all you want is a buzzcut anyway! It’s too late for me, but save yourself!

The barber made conversation with anyone over the age of 12 by asking about girls and whether they had a girlfriend and, “What’s a handsome guy like you doing without a girlfriend?” and if they did have a girlfriend (or a wife) he’d ask about the girlfriend or wife, and no matter what the response was, he’d say–

“Women.”

And you know what?

It always sounded like the right thing to say.

Reader, I have been an actor since I was 8 years old, and I have never managed to put as much meaning with as far a scope into anything as that barber put into the word “Women.”

If you were under 12, he’d ask you about school.

“How’s school?”

“Good.”

“School’s important.”

The middle of that exchange might vary, but his part of it never did.

“How’s school?”

“They lock me in a closet the second I get there and I spend all day learning Russian from parrots.”

“School’s important.”

After my first few visits, I would just sit there stoically, hoping he would get me in and out of the chair as fast as possible since I’d already wasted valuable time in a dingy holding cell when I could have been home doing important things like practicing holding the end note in “We Both Reached for the Gun” like Tony Award winner James Naughton did in the revival of Chicago.

I began to wonder if complaining about any of the disorganization would somehow be considered a breach of straight male protocol. No woman or respectable queer would ever put up with such disarray. Even though my mother insisted on sending me there, she never brought me herself. In fact, I began to suspect that my stepdad and me being out of the house for hours at a time every few weeks was sort of the point. The only time we ever did manage to catch the place empty on a Saturday morning (there must have been a gas leak, but if it meant less time listening to whatever the hell goes on at the PGA, I was willing to take that risk), we were home again in under an hour and I could just sense my mother’s disappointment as we had probably interrupted her seven-hour Lifetime movie marathon.

The minute I was old enough to drive myself to a haircut, my mother knew immediately there was no chance I was going back to that place. I still got buzzed all the way down to appease her, but she swore it wasn’t as short as the barber could go. I suppose she thought he took a pair of tweezers and plucked each strand out by the root, and considering how long I was away, that wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption.

If you need something to do on a Saturday afternoon in Providence, you have plenty of options. On a nice day, you can take a stroll around the East Side, grab something to eat on Federal Hill, or sit outside downtown with a drink and enjoy the limited amount of free time we all get in this life.

But if none of that sounds appealing to you, may I suggest a trip to a barbershop on the outskirts of the city? The last time I was there, the parking was bad, the ceiling was caving in and every other customer looked like an extra from a Florida Georgia Line music video, but I’m sure some of them were happy to be there, so why not give it a try?

After all, you’ll only be there for 20 minutes.

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