Haircuts were $10. Now they’re $40. They should be more.

(Monique Wray for The Washington Post)
(Monique Wray for The Washington Post)

An irony here is that the greatest haircut I ever got was free.

It was a Saturday the summer after my freshman year of college. I was still in Buffalo, working out and taking classes. Some of the particulars of that night are hazy, but I know that I planned to club with one of my teammates (let’s call him Mark) in Niagara Falls. Before we made the trip, we stopped at the apartment of Coach James — who was one of the assistants on the basketball team, but was 24 years old, which made him more like a big brother.

I don’t remember why he offered to give us haircuts. Knowing him, he probably had jokes. (Y’all look like the construction workers from “Fraggle Rock.”) I do remember that first look in the mirror, post-cut and feeling like he took me from a hard Pittsburgh 5 to at least a 7.2.

That night at the club, there was a girl so fine that no one even tried to talk to her. Everyone just gawked. She looked like she could’ve been in Destiny’s Child. We even named her “Destiny’s Cousin.” But then Mark approached and danced with her friend. So instead of being awkward and alone, we made eye contact and decided to dance and be awkward together. When the set ended, I went back to my side of the club, and she went to her friends.

Later that night, as we were leaving, I was sitting in the car, waiting for Mark to get the friend’s number, and I noticed that Destiny’s Cousin seemed upset — angrily gesturing at Mark and then back at the car. When we drove away, I asked Mark what that was about.

“Oh … she was mad at you for not asking for her number.”

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“Wait. What? … Why didn’t you tell me before we drove away!?!?”

“I don’t know. You said you were hungry.”

I have never wanted to choke someone more in my life.

I am not the brand of man who regularly has stunningly attractive women angry at him for not trying to date them. That circumstance was aggressively irregular! As much as I want to credit that temporary status to my dance moves or my freshly pressed FUBU polo, it was the haircut. My actual visual change probably wasn’t that dramatic, but I felt like Luke with a lightsaber or Giuliani with his hair dye, and it affected how people saw me. That cut was magic.

This is just one of dozens of examples I could cite of the status-shifting and life-altering properties of the Black barbershop. I have been a regular at them for 40 years. My first barbers were at Wade’s in Homewood in Pittsburgh. Then, when I was at Canisius College, I was a regular at Sean’s House of Masters. When I came back home, I left Wade’s and started going to East Liberty Kutz. In 2015, after 15 years there, I thought it was time for a change and began going to the Barbers Inn. And then, earlier this year, I left the Barbers Inn for the Natural Choice. In that span, this cadre of artisans has helped me navigate dates, breakups, job interviews, work trips, weddings, vacations and funerals. They’ve powered me through depression. They’ve given movie recommendations and discount sneaker hookups. They’ve offered advice on children, money, relationships and sex. Sometimes the advice is bad. Very bad. So bad sometimes I thought the barber was having a stroke. (“Fam. Is your brain, um … broke?”)

These barbershops are not utopias. They’re vulnerable to the same issues characteristic of male-dominated spaces. Which means that sometimes dated and dangerous politics cultivate environments where people who are not male or not straight feel less comfortable. But while the value of each physical shop is dependent on how much it means to the community it exists in, and how welcome the entire community is made to feel there, the value of a good haircut surpasses the monetary and enters the metaphysical. Because it’s not just about the physical transformation, but the entire metamorphosing process. The cape draped over your body. The steady, sedative buzz of the clippers. The theatrical spin in the chair. And the elegant sting of the peroxide applied to your scalp. If you have a skilled and focused barber, you are guaranteed to leave the shop feeling better than when you entered. How much is that worth?

The value of a good haircut surpasses the monetary and enters the metaphysical.

Which is what I remind myself each time I prepare to pay my barber now, and I am tempted to question whether I’m having the stroke. In high school, my cuts were $8. Just 15 years ago, they toggled between $10 and $15. Now, I pay $40. (Even that’s considered moderate. Some places charge as much as $70.) The astronomical jump has been whiplash-inducing. Few subjects unite Black men, with near universal consensus, like the anxiety of cuts costing as much as kidneys.

The truth is that the prestige we assign to the men and women who cut Black hair has never matched their actual compensation. Which means they’ve always been severely underpaid. And maybe they still are. Maybe $40 is still not enough.

Of course, if you’re cutting two heads an hour for 50 bucks a pop, that 100-an-hour rate is shifting into the doctor/lawyer stratosphere. Which is fine with me. Because there’s no legal service I could retain or medical procedure I could receive that would have made Destiny’s Cousin so interested in me that night. A fresh cut did, though.

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