Shot-and-a-Haircut, 96 Bits

John Cullen grooms Ken Quam while friends like Hai Minh Nguyen and Brady Chalmers offer moral support and teasing.
John Cullen grooms Ken Quam while friends like Hai Minh Nguyen and Brady Chalmers offer moral support and teasing. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

It is time, says Ken Quam, to say goodbye to his Danny Bonaduce do. For a while, the quality assurance specialist didn't mind looking like a "Partridge Family" stunt double. But now that Quam is moonlighting as a drummer in a local band, the resemblance has gone from cute to creepy.

A part-time drummer cannot get his hair cut just anywhere. This is why, at 10 on a Tuesday night, Quam is waiting in line at Red and the Black, a New Orleans-themed bar on H Street in Northeast Washington. For $12 he will get a shot of Jack Daniels and a haircut by stylist John Cullen, who charges up to $60 for the same treatment at his Salon Loule day job.

As Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" booms through the speakers, Cullen yells Quam's name. Quam chugs his whiskey and Coke, gets good-luck high fives from the six friends who have come to cheer him on, and makes his way through the dim bar to Cullen's stool, where a small crowd of people crane for a better view of the next customer.

"Shot and a Cut" began four months ago, an effort by owner Bill Spieler to boost attendance on the slowest night of the week. He'd just vacationed in Louisiana where, he learned, some neighborhood pubs acknowledged the chatty similarities between bars and barbershops by offering in-house haircuts. While wondering whether the gimmick would work for his bar, Spieler noticed something hanging above Red and the Black's entrance: a barbershop pole, left over from 1212 H St.'s days as La Blanch Unisex Salon. It was a candy-striped omen.

The concept was slow to catch on (patrons kept asking if "Shot and a Cut" was a new drink), but Tuesday nights have now become one of the bar's busiest nights. Tonight 12 people have signed up for trims by Cullen or Laurent Chauvet -- friends of Spieler who participate in the night as a creative exercise -- with four more on the wait list. On an average Tuesday, the stylists groom 10 to 12 people.

But is it . . . er . . . wise?

The haircut quality, the stylists say, is rock-solid: "Whether I'm paid $12 or $90, the cut still has my name on it. I'm going to do my best work," says Chauvet, who has no more than an occasional beer while cutting hair. Suddenly a waitress trips over the blow-dryer cord, someone drops a glass in the background, and a tipsy patron knocks against Chauvet's current customer. "Then again, we're cutting hair in a bar."

And while it's technically against health codes for food establishments to double as nonfood establishments, Spieler points out that the bar does not prepare any food on the premises.

On the continuum of public spaces, hair salons are very private. Yes, women get mustaches bleached and men get unibrows waxed in front of total strangers. But the unspoken salon contract prevents these rites from becoming sources of embarrassment. The contract realizes that every patron is in the same state of vulnerability, and requires people to murmur, "It's looking so good," regardless of how bad you look. And no one brings an entourage to the hair salon.

Bars, on the other hand, are the most public of public spaces. Haircuts at Red and the Black have become a social event; planned nights out for customers who are drawn to the price and the novelty, and their friends who want to witness the spectacle.

These friends are perfect hair groupies: They snap photographs of the first falling hunk of hair. They phone acquaintances and say, "Guess who I'm with and what she's doing?" They have a few beers and then decide that maybe they should get haircuts, too. (Cullen and Chauvet swear they would never cut the hair of an inebriated patron, but admit that their customers do get a little "looser" as the night progresses.)

Quam's friends are mesmerized by the action going on at the cutting station.

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