Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Stories of Aesthetic Experience: Hair Cuts

It's been a while since I penned a longer piece synthesizing my interests in aesthetics and consumer culture. Here is the first in a new series I will be doing on "Aesthetic Experiences".

The idea behind this series it to share observations about consumer rituals from the perspective of my of daily life. This first piece is about the varieties of experiences I've had getting my hair cut. These posts are less about particular brands and more about the types of possible experiences available in the hyper-branded world of contemporary Manhattan.

I used to get my hair cut at a salon called Aerea in Union Square. It isn't there anymore. Albert cut my hair, gave me the best haircuts of my life. They also took the longest. I would sit for almost an hour while he worked with patience and precision, resculpting my hair back into shape. The cut's cost me $100 and I tipped $20. At the time I was also going to Pere Michel for coloring. The annual expenditure on hair was substantial given that I'm a guy that likes his hair tidied up every three weeks. The staff and the salon itself were relitively "cool" and there were always attractive women to look at. I didn't mind the price but the length of time, despite the great chats I had with Albert, were torture for a guy of my energy levels and fidgitiness. The lengthy bleach and color process at Pere Michel were even longer and harder for me to bear.

(I actually have a theory that in more high-end establishments, where length of visit is prolonged that the experience becomes more about "belonging", it creates in a sense "virtual clubs" where ideas of Membership" "inclusion" and "exclusion" come into play. I will save more on that for another time.)

While traveling in Europe and Egypt I decided to shave my head. The 1 1/2 guard on a pair of clippers leave a nice layer of suede over the scalp. That shift in style ended my visits to Aerea. For the next year I would go to a barbershack and pay $9.99 for someone, it didn't mater who, to buzz my head. I would pay with a 20 and let them keep the change. Although it was always someone different that buzzed me I NEVER waited. I liked that... A LOT. A $10 tip was all it took to never wait no matter how busy it was or how many other people were waiting. I was also in and out of there in about 12 minutes.

Now that my hair is longer I've searched in vain to find someone that can cut my hair as well as Albert. I haven't found them and I have no idea whatever became Albert.

One day, about six months ago, I was in a rush and went into a barbershop across the street from my apt. It's the kind of place I can't imagine will be in New York much longer. I position it as belonging to the same place-in-time as the Palmolive ads, the one's with Marge, the sassy Italian women that would tell her clients "you're soaking in it". (I bet today you can't find a single Italian woman working in a Manhattan nail salon.) This barbershop has an older, all male, European staff. Italian or Greek mostly, but my guy is Columbian. From the looks of the bits of clutter, it's been around for quite some time. It's not unsanitary by any means but it isn't spotlessly clean or modern in any sense of the word. One of the defining characteristics of an old-school barbershop like this is the presence of Playboy and Penthouse magazines among the sports and news periodicals. Where else can you flip through a porno mag in public and have it be a perfectly natural and proper act in that setting.

(I believe the retro-sexism that has become so common in advertising is a result of the feminizing of male experiences. Men don't do to barabershops anymore, they go to salons whose experiences are modeled after those of women.)

The primary reason I keep going back to the neighborhood barbershop is the ease-of-use. It's never busy so I'm seated and cut right away. It's also inexpensive, $27 bucks and I throw another $5 on top for my guy. The haircuts aren't bad either. they're actually quite good for as quick as they're executed.

There are other reasons I keep going. A certain charm about the experience. It's so very different from the posh and cool salons that I've spent much money and many hours in. Most of today's salons are takes on the same model (scaled across tiers of pricing). The metaphor employed by them is artist's or designer's studio, sometimes going so far as to place the (real or fictitious) European Masters' name on the door. My neighborhood barbershop is an almost "undesigned experience" which owes it's form more to the invisible processes of time and history. There are the personal artifacts and collected memorabilia gathered over time that linger on shelves and walls. There are also the differences in "interpersonal theater", the style of exchange and banter that comes organically from men who have spent years shooting the shit with each other. (It's really quite hilarious to listen to.)

For the cultural ethnologist in me it's an intellectual exercise in stepping outside of contemporary Manhattan culture so that I may see it more clearly. A shifting of perspective that allows one to really see the details.

For the art director in me it is a study in setting and history. It feels a bit like time travel, visiting a part of a bygone New York.

By being a patron of a local shop like this also imbues one with a feeling of being connected and part of the neighborhood. If I leave my apt and see my guy in front I give a wave or one of my trademark "Ka Kaw's". Those moments have a very different type of emotional resonance.

I traverse New York better than most. I can hang uptown and I can roll downtown. I have by nature and experience a sophisticated and developed sense of taste, but it doesn't shut me off from the rougher and cruder sides of life. I like, and I'm as comfortable eating at Nello's as I am at Grey's Papaya. The Met Museum and the graffiti on Spring St (and Elizabeth) are both relevant points on the cultural grid. For me it's more about the nuances and differences experienced across the spread.

Some of this comes naturally and some of it comes from deliberate philosophical positions.

In my posts on Virtuosity vs Expression I talk about the benefit of ceasing to use value judgements in the processing of aesthetic experiences. You stop thinking when you use words like "good" and "bad". The world become much more fascination when you use ask yourself "what's happening" and "how does this work".

In my posts on

Creative vs Non-Creative Consuming I've written about the flattening of and the potentially diminished range of available experiences.

In future posts in this series I will be exploring the "unfathomable aspects of restaurant design" and "deviations in the dining experience."


Ollie said...

Great post Tom, I strongly identify with that position of enjoying a wide palette of cultures, often more that I identify with any particular one. I feel more authentically myself for doing so, though paradoxically that does bring a sense of being a tourist sometimes.

I'm curious about this detail in your story: "A $10 tip was all it took to never wait no matter how busy it was or how many other people were waiting." It sounds like you're tipping in advance to get ahead of the queue; I've not done that myself and am wondering how the interaction played out. I imagine you ask the price, then say you'd like to pay in advance and hand over a twenty with a smile? You seem like the kind of smooth operator who could do that gracefully, I'm looking forward to trying it myself sometime.

Thomas Sherman said...

I actually did not tip in advance. In manhattan 9.99 is an outrageously low price to pay for a haircut. Most people going there are obviously not willing or able to part with much. I think that $10 was a unheard of tip at that place so it made me stand out and appreciated in that environment.

kobe56 said...

i've been going to the same girl since roughly 1996. and each time she switches from one salon to the next, i track her down. once you find 'the one,' don't let them slip away. like a good, honest mechanic.

King Friday said...

Quite a good exposition. My royal barber trims my pompadour on a bi-weekly basis, and she can wax a mustache like nobody's business...and let me just tell you that there is always a happy ending in the land of make believe. (cue the trolley going into the tunnel).

Anonymous said...

good story, bloke. i must admit, a good barber is hard to find, a great one is impossible to part with. case in point, my barber is now my trusted drug dealer, a good one too. very reliable, always there when i need him; we've extended our bond. he even offered me an xmas special: 4 for $500.00. of course, i couldn't resist! i showed my new iphone, and he showed me how the glass top could be put to a new, nefarious use. what a guy!

only problem is now i have to tip him $50 for each haircut, just to ensure that i have priority access to his high quality non-barber services. this shit's getting to be expensive.....

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