I don’t remember who had the original idea, but the decision was made to sit me down in the center of the kitchen.
The table was even moved out to make room for the main event. My grandparents leaned in toward the stove’s exhaust fan, studying me with sideways looks and crooked eyebrows, lazily drawing on cigarettes and mumbling to each other in that semi-sophisticated grunt language that only long-married people and elite subspecies of chimpanzees can use effectively. I was being observed like a perp in a smoky interrogation room during the opening scene of a weeknight crime show. But if any crimes were committed that day, I was surely on the receiving end.
As a grown up who has since Been There & Bought That T-shirt, I now understand that those were just two well-intended yet highly unqualified individuals, huddled up and engaged in what should henceforth be referred to as high-level home haircut strategy development (HLHHSD).
Forgive me for giving away the goods right here at the start of this important correspondence, but, this haircut didn’t work out very well. It has been my experience that most of these opt-in home haircuts for boys don’t reach their intended destination. It’s just not as simple as pointing to a handsome fella’s picture on page 20 of People Magazine and then trusting ol’ Dad and a pair of scissors from the junk drawer to get you there. Aligning on vision is the easy part; it is in the execution stage where the wheels tend to fall off the wagon — much like, say, my history with romantic relationships or personal monthly budgets.
Let’s say your Mamaw has some skills and you emerge from the other side of a home haircut with no need for that telltale corrective buzz cut. (“Y’all’s house got lice or did your momma try them beard trimmers on ya again?”). This level of DIY home run can be a cause for pure family celebration. Hallelujah! Praise be! High-fives are to be shared. Soured sibling relations might be mended. Pap might even crack open a second Miller pony on a Tuesday, despite knowing it will make him pee at 3 a.m.
Bowl cuts. Rat tails. Beaver paddles. Fade-n-tapers. Some households with a little talent can even branch into more technical levels of hair flare for their youngins. I have personally seen lightning bolts, horse shoes, stair-steps, football jersey numbers, girlfriend initials, graduation years, three crosses (likely during Easter or summer revival), antlers on opening day of deer season, and race car numbers for whichever driver was in the pole position for NASCAR Sunday.
As an adult, I became friends with a Black mom with no formal cosmetology training. She could write a full 280 character tweet on the back of her kid’s head if she wanted to. She’d tell me stories about family members who would come to her kitchen for their haircuts and how long she’d sometimes spend working on someone’s hair. My family does not possess such talent. I have just recently started to scratch the surface on the beautiful, sophisticated, and nuanced world of Black hair culture — how closely Black hair culture is tied to history, to identity, to the continued struggle to dismantle white supremacy. Being discriminated against in the workplace or at school for wearing one’s natural hair, even after a shaky home haircut, is just not something white people like me have ever had to worry about.
In my extremely white childhood, the flat top was the great humbler of home haircuts. Perhaps a couple of spouses of retired Marines had the skills, tools, and biweekly mandate to produce a quality flat top, but, other than that, you better get to Joe’s Barbershop for that menu selection. Neither Papaw nor Sis were going to pull that one off without a year of trigonometry under their belts, maybe even a Flowbee with a plum bob and level, and definitely a whole lot of luck.
After digging through boxes from decades well behind us, Granddaddy found “those yeller clippers.” They stood out to me because they had the same 1960s yellow color as the kitchen wallpaper, which was approximately the last decade that this tool was switched on. I nervously watched these preparations from the comfort of my barber’s cape — which was, of course, a repurposed Hefty trash bag with my big head poking out like a possum in a motel dumpster. To everyone’s amazement, the machine began to hum.
I am blessed to come from a big, loud family of intimate closeness. Personal space is something people in Saudi Arabia and other foreign lands practice. We pile in layers on couches and belly laugh in each other’s faces. Many conversations have transpired through bathroom doors (I am on record with my family — and multiple therapists — noting my strong objection to this practice, and thus shall publicly reaffirm my position to you as well, reader). We view our bodies as mere vessels for our spirit (especially the Holy one), for consuming extra helpings of casseroles, for singing and dancing and playing music, for performing manual labor like God and Granddaddies intended, and for talking about each other when the circumstances warrant it. Our bodies, the peculiar miracles of molecular matter that they are, can even perform incredibly rare and near impossible feats such as openly discussing one’s feelings.
“Seen one, seen ’em all,” you might whisper to yourself when you reflect on the flesh that has crossed those curious eyes of yours. But have you experienced your shirtless Granddaddy working on your noggin with rusty mustard clippers while only wearing Fruit of the Loom whitey tighty undies and tube socks with the three bands pulled clear up over his calves? Grandmother encouraged this compelling uniform for the messy job at hand, telling him that it would prevent my sheared-sheep-lookin’ pile of hair from getting stuck all over his clothes and fouling up her washing routine.
We’ve all experienced the inevitable arc of group assignments where none of the participants know what the hell they’re doing. The bad ideas compound on one another until nobody knows what the assignment is any more. “Cut a little more up here.” “Oh, shit, not that much!” “Why’d you make it so high way back here in this corner?”
Granddaddy gaped the ever-lovin’ crap out of one section of my head — stage right, just northwest of my temple. The twin winces of the adults in the room let me know that something noteworthy happened in that moment, but I wasn’t able to fully embrace the scale of this error until the next morning.
Bathed, fed, and ready to be dropped off for another round of awkwardly finding my way through 8th grade, Grandmother knew what must be done. My hair was dark enough these days, so why not bridge that vast canyon atop my cerebral cortex with a bunch of her eye mascara?
Her plan got me through lunch. The trouble started soon after.
I enjoyed English class. Not because of the subject matter. This was during my academic low point, where lofty expectations like homework and paying attention need not apply to me. I enjoyed English class because the girl on which I had a massive, disorienting crush sat just to my right, within arms length, though I never had the courage to test that measurement. I dropped all sorts of rarely used items like pencils and papers and textbooks off of my desk every chance I could. It was statistically unfathomable how they all landed at her feet each time. Little did I know that on this day she would finally be sending something back my way.
I seem to have pretty average sweat glands. I sweat to an extent that my kids say “gross, Dad, get away” when I come home from a workout, which seems like a healthy amount to me. I’m not one of those sweaters who lift up one arm after being at the office for five minutes on a February morning and it already looks like a Great Dane peed on their armpit. But on this spring day during gym class, in the fertile valley of the mighty Clinch River, I decided to leave it all out there on that dodgeball field.
I have never been one to be late for an event. Even for a class where my participation was equivalent to propping up a sack of chicken feed on a desk and having a teacher talk at it for an hour. And there’s no time for showers or toweling off when a princess beckons for her suitor’s presence, pubescent bacterial aromas be damned. Plus, my braces were freshly removed from my still-crooked teeth and I just knew that an uninhibited second base was just around the corner for this lil’ Cat Daddy.
“Oh my God, Ben Gilmer, what is running down the side of your face?,” my princess-turned-nemesis announced to this class of teenage hyenas.
I have the short-term memory of a golden retriever, and this was before cell phones with cameras, so I had to wait while one of my cousins in the class dug up a mirror from her pocketbook so that I might lay eyes on the catalyst for this public announcement. You can always count on family for pocketbook rescues, and to hold up all manner of mirrors so that you can really take a close look at yourself.
In that dingy mirror, I saw a little slurry sludge pond on the side of my head with a small black stream trickling down my peach fuzz face, forming drips which were now falling off of my chin.
The small stream on my face instantly looked familiar. I had seen these colors on my mom’s face after a good cry.
“Oh my God, Ben Gilmer has mascara running down his face!,” she savagely continued.
As the hyena choir sang their song, I gazed deep into that pocketbook mirror. I saw a boy whose french kisses would continue to be postponed. I saw a boy with a well-intended home haircut. I saw a boy who was ready for a good cry.
The best home haircuts are spur of the moment. Don’t sleep on it. Don’t run it up the flagpole. There’s no need to check in with headquarters.
On the last day of school one summer, Uncle David lined up all of the cousins, friends, and anyone else interested in the sheep barn. One by one we would step in to get our heads shaved. What a fitting way for a boy to shed those school year blues and burst into the sweet freedom of the summer season. You did not need a permission slip from your parents to procure these free services from Uncle D.
My mom did not share my perspective that I had taken initiative and seized a high-value opportunity.
This was all because I had found myself in a little trouble with the local lawmen a few months prior, and Mr. Big Time had a court appearance coming up in a few days. “Oh great, Benjamin, now you look like you’re in some sort of juvenile Russian mob, three days before you have to go to court!” I don’t think this look actually influenced my sentencing, but my white beacon was certainly a helpful visual trigger to remind mom of my bad decisions every time she looked at me. I was a glowing lighthouse warning everyone within eyeshot of Big Cedar Creek of the hazardous waters just ahead.
When your small town’s police station is on main street, community service activities like washing police cars can double as high quality community spectator events. I’ll never forget my baseball coach honking his horn, laughing, waving, and pointing at my sunburned scalp when he passed by the police station to help drive the message home.
There was also the time I talked my innocent young brother into letting me shave his head with a razor. It only took a couple of swipes on the top of his head to learn that your mom’s razor does not work well for this task. For a solid month he carried around a scabbed head that looked like a kid who had experienced a bicycle accident on concrete with no helmet.
When I was married and before we had our kids, my wife spontaneously carved out the most amazing mullet, as if she were the gardener for a royal family tending to their meticulous hedges. Mullets on really curly hair like mine are in a class of their own and should be celebrated. I am grateful for this memory of us.
The pandemic has brought a wave of home haircutting adventures to households like mine — households who have relative privilege and can pay for a service that a whole bunch of families deprioritize as a luxury item that will instead be dealt with at home.
About a year ago, every trip to the grocery store felt like it could be your last outing, and passing too close to a stranger felt like an encounter with a zombie-like vector. This was back when the toilet paper and hand sanitizer were as elusive as a new bluegrass radio hit with interesting lyrics. It was at this time that I stood there taking in the emptiness of the “styling tools” haircare shelf at the Fred Meyer superstore.
I envisioned all of these city families giving it a go in their kitchens. I pictured that moment of high-level home haircut strategy development (HLHHSD) with their crooked brows and sideways looks. I saw the touch-ups that would be performed in the days that followed. I thought about how much I missed my family and how, after all of this, I still don’t understand why we live out here. I found myself staring at that empty shelf for a long time. Memories of all of my home haircuts and armchair barbers moved across my mind in quick little frames, like looking through a toy viewfinder.
My most recent home haircut felt significant in ways that I can’t fully describe. It had been about 18 months since a stranger’s fingers had danced across my curly head with a pair of scissors and a comb.
Would this be my last home haircut?
I turned my young daughters loose with the clippers and junk drawer scissors, much to their giddy enjoyment. “Wow, Daddy, your hair is so incredibly gray all of a sudden,” Frankie marveled aloud. Helen piled on with “Daddy, what is this gap with no hair growing called,” while their sweet little fingers curiously brushed across my receding hairline.
I wondered how long it would be before their little hands turned into big hands. I wondered how long it would be before I formally transitioned to the land of Self-Service Buzz Cuts for Balding Dads, where my own father has long resided. Two years? Twenty-five years?
So, here I am, freshly vaccinated and fixin’ to ease out into that big unknown. It’s time to mingle and dance to all the jingles. In the coming days, I’m looking to roll the dice on just about any lightly-credentialed Tammy or Javier or Cutz4U who might take me as a client in their swivel chair.
But just thinking about that makes me miss the thrill of the home haircut. That first moment of commitment — that moment when all parties agree. “I see what you see. I don’t know how to get there either…but I’m in.” The rush of hurling yourself toward an unlikely end point, but a journey that keeps that enchanted taste of wildness to it all the same. “Wear it out, cub scout,” you can declare as you hand over the tools. Soon enough you’ll hear the sounds of giggles bubbling through the hum of cheap clippers zipping too close to that one skin tag you’ve reminded them about at least twice now.
Next week, when the barber asks me what I want, I’ll tell them to give me that home cookin’, baby — give me that blue plate special. I’ll ask them to position me so I am surrounded by that bright array of mirrors. Because I want to see myself from all angles.
I want to see what’s behind me and in front of me at the same time.
I’ll give them a high five when they’re done.
Maybe I’ll give them that good cry.