Eddie knew that he would ask the question before the young lad even sat down in his barbershop. Eddie pays attention to the little details. He sees the young lad, no more than 16 years old, he reckons, wandering towards the shop with his shopping bags, clearly labelled with a variety of clothing brands and shop logos. It doesn’t require a detective to put those bags and time of year together to know where this is heading. This is it, Eddie thinks, this is the whole cycle starting over again. Another season of asking the same question of everyone through his door as soon as they settle in the barber’s chair.
“Going anywhere nice for the holidays?”
Eddie can hear it in his head as he searches for anything else that he could possibly ask. Ordinarily, Eddie is not a man short of a few words to say. Everyday he reads the newspapers and stays up to the minute on any breaking news with the radio on in the background. Eddie can hold a conversation about almost any topic because he stays informed, always up to date. It’s a point of pride for Eddie. He has thoughts and opinions and ideas and he would be only too happy to get into a right back-and-forth chat with the people who come through his door. Except, the people who come through his door don’t ever say so much. He struggles to get some to ask for the kind of haircut they want, on occasion. There are others who list off exactly what they want and sit quietly while Eddie goes about his business.
For Eddie, though, the haircut is only part of the business. it’s the main part, granted, but a haircut is something you can get in a lot of places. Eddie wants to offer that bit more. He wants to engage with his customers in a real and genuine way, to take each individual and have an active conversation while the haircut is in progress. That’s not what happens, though. Eddie gets customers who want the same fixed routine and it forces Eddie to say things that he doesn’t want to say, to ask cliched and contrived questions he doesn’t want to ask…
“Any plans for the weekend?”
“Well, I can only cut hair, I don’t put it back on.”
“Did you see that match last night?
“Is there much going on around the town today?”
Questions that barbers and hairdressers up and down the country ask so regularly that it’s a stereotype, but it breaks the awkward silence that so many of these lads would happily have Eddie stew in as he goes from haircut to haircut. Two people in a room not saying a word to one another; Eddie thinks that’s a bad marriage and a poor work environment, whatever way you look at it. He dreads silence in company. Although he searches his mind for something, anything else to go with as a conversation starter, there is no escaping the most obvious question. Eddie would rather ask that than say nothing at all.
“Are you going anywhere nice for the holidays?” Eddie asks, gesturing behind them to the young lad’s shopping bags as he settles in the chair. In fairness to the young lad, he makes an effort to tell Eddie all about the family holiday to Spain as Eddie begins with the trimmers. He means well, seems a decent lad, but Eddie just can’t focus on the conversation that he initiated. It’s not the young lad’s fault. Eddie asked the question but he’s distracted by the fact that he will now be asking that same question on rotation for the next three months. The familiar phrases. The old sayings. The well-known topics of conversation. These are Eddie’s tools in as many respects as his scissors or trimmers. As much as he would like to have his customers speak their minds about the great debates of the day, Eddie concedes that’s not what it’s about, either. A barbers has a different role to play, to be a place for all of those trivial, cliched conversations where men, young and old, speak as they wish. Eddie takes comfort from that.
A quick show of the handheld mirror from the back gets the young lad’s nod of approval. It’s rare for anyone to question Eddie’s handiwork at that stage, but it’s another part of the routine. Eddie brushes away stray clumps of cut hair, giving a blast of the hair dryer to move the tiniest strands, before adding the final touches of hairspray and combing. With that all complete, the young lad pays up and goes on his way. An older man, who Eddie had hardly noticed enter the shop, rises from the waiting seats and replaces the young lad in the chair. Eddie asks what he can do for the older man, hoping he won’t need to use the go-to question of the season this time around. The older man gives his request for a haircut and, without missing a beat, says: “Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Eddie nods in agreement and sets about his work quietly, the older man continuing to comment on the weather and explain his plans for the rest of the day. Eddie smiles, listening as the older man talks away. Sometimes, even Eddie prefers when a customer does all the talking.