Shave and a haircut — to bits.

A few years ago I got a cheap haircut in Varanasi.


I’ve made a huge mistake.

I’d been sporting a weak little traveler’s mohawk since the trip started. It’s no taller than the width of my thumb, but it provided some sense of authority when people moved out of my way in the street or forgot to argue the price after I offered my base. Childish, maybe, but it helped me get around and I sure as hell wasn’t going to have an opportunity to do this back home. People talk.

And hair grows, so I find myself searching the alleys of Varanasi on the bank of the Ganges for a reputable-looking barber with an electric trimmer. I locate a shop with an electric trimmer, but he also repairs automobiles so I suppose we couldn’t call him a “specialist”. I sit down in a cling-wrapped office swivel chair. A few other patrons stop watching the cricket game on TV long enough to stare at me awkwardly. Head scratch. Back to cricket. Today’s game is an international against Pakistan, which I understood to be as significant as a Canada-U.S. hockey final, only in this instance there’s actually a chance either team could win. That must be fun.

I tried explaining what I wanted out of the haircut. I’m positive we spoke equally nothing of each other’s native languages, so in the end I have to be satisfied by his guarantee that that my hair will be same-same length. A young traveling man’s haircut is an intentionally-simple thing — the easier to maintain the better. A trimmer or a pair of scissors is adequate, throw in a comb if you’re feeling fancy. Today’s entrepreneur wanted to cover all the bases, so he brings out and uses all three tools. This means a once-over with the shears and then again (undoing his previous efforts) with the trimmer. I’ve made a huge mistake.

A short interruption occurs when the town’s power goes out at its usual 3pm. I’m concerned for a moment, sure. Seconds later the generator kicks in and sputters life back into the halogens, the cricket game and — thankfully — back into the trimmer that is deep into my scalp.

Next came the red towel. Picture the filthiest, smelliest, greasiest rag that you can — penetrating the fabric is hair from every follicle this man has ever severed — moldy dandruff, oils from various bottles littering the shelves and floor, DNA from his other clientele. This towel is a CSI crime scene.

Tucks it into my shirt. Strangers’ dandruff settles onto my lap.

Bigboss threatens to wipe my face with it when his razor collects enough stubble on the blade. To my relief, he wipes on his palm instead.

The generator kicks in and sputters life back into the halogens, the cricket game and — thankfully — back into the trimmer that is deep into my scalp.

The fun starts when a word probably meant to be “massage”, left his gums. He smiles his broad toothy smile with head tilted to the right, waiting for a sign from me. Alright, sure, I shrug, can’t get any worse. Thinking he’ll do the typical head rub and sink rinse, I lean back.

The massage begins by smearing pink rubbery gel all over my face, ensuring to get right in under the eyelids and into the crooks of my mouth. Fingers often find my nostrils as he scrubs up and down, and he digs so deeply in my ears that I tell him he can keep whatever he finds. He just laughs and murmurs “massage again.

He slathers. I wince. He is Patrick Swayze and I am the spinning clay urn from Ghost.

I don’t know where this guy gets his lotions, gels or balms. Everything he uses is kept in second-hand tupperware containers or Windex spray bottles. The shaving cream smells like vinegar. The lotion has chunks. He rinses his razor in an ice-blue disinfectant with a film of cigarette ash that clings to the handle every time he pulls it out of the dish.

Suddenly, he reaches down for the grimy red towel — oh, please no — with its follicles and dried skin clumps, but he moves past and grabs a new bottle.

Drawing a splash from a thin clear salve, he holds out his hand like making an offering. Smells musky. Cologne? He stands there grinning awkwardly for a brief moment before I cave and nod… he springs into action; crushing the bridge of my nose with his palm.

Slap.

I realize he’s applying a warming lotion onto my forehead.

Slap. My cheeks are getting warmer.

Slap. Face-Pattycake.

Slap.

Baker’s man.

Through my stinging eyelids I see him come ‘round the front. He puts a heavy shoe on the seat between my thighs. Concern. He heaves himself up, balancing on both arms the swivel chair. He’s got to be two-hundred-thirty, maybe -fifty pounds. The chair’s creaking and wobbling as he takes down a teal and orange hair dryer from a high shelf. “Massage” is over.

Dryer in hand, he grabs the stringy red towel — shit no — and drapes it over my shoulder to catch fly-away hairs. Leaning over to plug the dryer cord into the outlet — he frowns. See, the singular shop’s electrical socket gave him a choice: he could have cricket on TV, lighting in the shop, the ceiling fan, the radio, his Krishna electric candle, the hair trimmer, the hairdryer or the blow dryer… but he can’t have them all. The ceiling fan stopped as the blow dryer coughed coppery dust.

Moments later he drops the dryer to the tile floor and proclaims “Finish-y!” Slimy, grease-covered hands held up the mirror so I could get a shaky look at my head. I’m a greasy cue ball with patchy tufts, a crooked mohawk, and a slimy beard. A little more stinging aftershave. I hand over 200 rupees. Whatever. Could have been worse. I get a final big smile.

He wipes me head to chin with the hairy red towel.

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