May 27th, 2005

abstract butterfly

The first chair

The barbershop in the town where I went to high school was located in the old hotel. The hotel, like a lot of hotels, thrived when auto travel was unproductive enough to require overnight trips for the shortest drives. But by the time I was a teen, the hotel's zenith had passed, and the satellite was hurtling back to earth.

The barber who owned the place had a steady, loyal clientele, who came for haircuts which cost three dollars and fifty cents. Like all good barbershops, the place was alive with copies of "Field and Stream" and "Popular Science". The conversation in the barbershop varied, but never strayed far from politics, pick-up trucks, and hunting dogs.

I always liked the fellow who occupied the first chair. He was an older guy, who did not own a portion of the shop, but merely rented a chair from the owner. His clientele was not large and established. Indeed, the main barber's clients would wait for a long while for their chosen barber to get free, even as Mr. First Chair stood idle.

I like to make a virtue of convenience, though, so that I always hopped into the First Chair. I don't recall the first chair barber as a man of many words. He instead largely got about the task of cutting hair. But I do remember him as a man with a zeal for his craft. So much zeal, in fact, that one often left with so much less hair than one arrived bearing that one had to wonder if zeal might not be tempered with mercy upon one's scalp.

In my family, the phrase First Chair came to have its own meaning. A "First Chair" haircut meant a haircut in which one came out looking part Marine, part besieged.
"You need a First Chair haircut" or "go to the barbershop---First chair!" became a way of saying that one could use the spit and polish that only the shears with very, very low numbers can provide.

To this day, when I am a bit out of sorts, I think that all I really need to snap back into better performance and better attention is a solid First Chair haircut. The First Chair barber is no longer there. I hope he is out growing black-eyed peas on a little house in the country. Perhaps he has gone on to his shear reward. For that matter, the hotel is gone, and the local barber is in a little cinderblock and drywall building. Everything changes, as it all passes in a murmur of earthworm farms in the back of magazines.

My life now consists of convincing people in chains with cute names to cut my hair as if I sat in the very First Chair.