The Supercuts on State Street in Santa Barbara is not necessarily a very clean place (if the busted sewage pipe or whatever it was causing such an awful smell last time I went is any indication), but it is sterile. I couldn’t escape the drab, impersonal hue of the place as I punched my name and hair color into a computer check-in console. Even the signs on the wall screamed corporate indifference. “If I don’t make a product recommendation, your service is on me!” one of them exclaimed cheerfully. I was there to get a fucking haircut for god’s sake, not buy toiletries. My mind snaked through the possibility of getting my wily ‘fro reduced for free, but then I thought of the shy, awkward Mexican girl cutting my hair. She wouldn’t be so ecstatic over my score when her boss took $17 out of her paycheck, even if she had forgotten to try to sell me styling gel I didn’t want or need.
I kept my mouth shut, but my mind drifted away from the offensively coporate hair salon and the stench of its many hair care products back to the Northern Virginia and Coastal North Carolina barber shops I had loved going to as a kid. Smelling of rubbing alcohol fumes and cheap shaving cream, these were places where men went to get haircuts. You might walk out with a crew cut, a duck tail, or some sort of fancy mullet, but goddammit, you weren’t going to come out smelling like a pansy.
Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I spent my college days, was possessed of a surfeit of barber shops, each with its very own old guy at the helm, but each with its own character. Having gone to the same few barber shops all throughout my childhood, I was forced to undertake the unnerving task of finding someone I trusted to cut my hair. Unfortunately, the first one I visited scared me away. The barber was so old that he couldn’t see what he was doing, and I watched in horror as he rubbed my head with the inoperable bottom half of his clippers for half an hour. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he had basically dry humped my skull with his electric shears, so I just smiled feebly and told him it looked fine, paying him the $6 anyway.
For the next couple of years, I opted for the guy whose shop was a few doors down. A brusque, taciturn man with a huge belly that bumped my arm a lot while he was cutting my hair, Jack Sullivan had been in business there for a number of years. Every visit was painfully awkward — the man was unfriendly and impossible to talk to — but he had a lot of cool car memorabilia to gawk at while I was getting my hair cut. Across the street on his lawn were parked a VW Beetle and a Ford Ranchero, both gleaming in bright hot rod colors. Always peering at me unsmilingly through his coke bottle glasses, Jack was perennially unpleasant, but he gave a good haircut, and always shaved the back of my neck with a straight razor.
It wasn’t until my girlfriend at the time moved downtown that I even bothered to look at another barbering outfit. Right across the street from her apartment, which was situated above an old funeral parlor (doing laundry in the basement of that building, right next to what was so obviously an out of use cremation oven, was the epitome of creepy), was the Allen & Brown Barber Shop. It looked like the backdrop for an episode of the Andy Griffith Show, and I’ll be damned if the guy inside didn’t look like a white-haired Floyd the barber. “Mornin’ young man!” he said with a smile as I sat down to wait my turn. The place was had it all. Copies of Car & Driver and Guns & Ammo were stacked in neat little piles on several of the green vinyl-covered waiting chairs. I toyed with a freestanding brass ashtray, the remnants of someone’s Camel still resting in one of its grooves, as a Coca-Cola clock that predated my mother’s birth ticked its lazy, but regular cadence. I knew then that I would never again go back to Jack Sullivan’s sombre establishment.
“Rogers Chenault” was printed in thin white letters on a nameplate in the large, plate glass window, amidst a pile of New Testament copies bearing the same name. My new barber chatted cheerily as he put the finishing touches on an older gentleman’s crew cut (from the light cigarette smell hanging in the air, no doubt the owner of that abandoned Camel stub). “Well, young fellah, what can I do for ya?” he asked with a smile as he popped a rag against the seat of the barber’s chair a few times, dusting it off. I sat down and ordered my usual, which he completed perfectly, chattering away happpily all the while. “Ya know, when I was at Wake Forest College — I think they call it Wake Forest University now — I never knew I was gonna cut hair. I did know I was gonna be a preacher though. And now, every Sunday by God, I’m preachin’ at the Calvary Reformed Baptist Church.” Apparently, regular Baptist churches weren’t Baptist enough for him, so he’d formed his own congregation. Sounded kooky to me, but who was I to judge.
As I handed him $5 for the haircut I had received, he pointed to the pile of books by the window, explaining that they were his own translation of the New Testament from the original Greek text. “I want you to take one of those and see what you think. It’s always good to have a college man read my work,” he said, not knowing that my knowledge of bible lore is scant at best. As it turns out, my barber wasn’t just a barber, but also had a PhD in Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He had labored over his translation for nearly a decade, but boasted that it was the only literal translation of the New Testament to be found anywhere. “You know, the King James an’ all that, it’s been translated so many times, you can’t tell what they tryin’ to tell you anymore,” he expounded in his smooth Richmond drawl.
I never was much into bible study, nor did I agree with most of Rogers’ political views — in fact, we were about as ideologically opposite as two people can get — but he was colorful as hell, so I kept my mouth shut and enjoyed his company, as well as his flawless haircuts, month after month. As I sat in in his red vinyl-covered swivel, he had a peculiar way of looking me dead in the eye through the mirror as he spoke — usually intent on filling me in about the communist plot to take over the world through the United Nations, Bill Clinton’s complicity with them, or some other such conspiracy theory worthy of a tinfoil hat shaped like Ronald Reagan’s head — grabbing both of my shoulders gently when emphasis was required. Sometimes he even pulled out a magazine article he had clipped from American Spectator or some other right wing rag.
Since I respected the man, I made an effort to read a bit of his bible translation — well, in typical college fashion anyway, just enough to be able to talk about it when pressed — but wasn’t really able to discern too much difference from any other version of the bible I’d dipped into. But the man’s stories kept me coming back more than the haircuts, as did the steady stream of old guys who looked like they’d just driven up from Mayberry. They made for such good atmosphere, and their conversations were always entertaining. As a matter of fact, the only people close to my age who came to Allen & Brown were guys who either believed the stuff written in Rogers’ political magazine collection, or who, like me, had a genuine appreciation for the ability to travel 50 years back in time just by walking into a barber shop.
Eventually, I moved away from Fredericksburg, bound for more cosmopolitan environs than the sleepy southern river town could offer. On my last day in town, my old pickup truck piled high with my earthly belongings, I swung by Rogers’ shop for a last haircut and to say goodbye. Rogers bid me farewell, warmly wishing me the best of luck in my future endeavors. “You c’mon back anytime. We’ll be here,” he said with a smile. I knew it was the end of an era.
One day, not long after I had sat in downtown Santa Barbara’s foul-smelling Supercuts franchise wondering where I made a wrong turn, I stumbled upon a Fredericksburg Freelance-Star article about Rogers Chenault. It turned out that, after having retired from the baptist church a couple of years ago, at 86 years old, he decided that it was time to hang up his clippers for good, too. Although I hadn’t thought about going to a barber shop in years — perhaps because of some latent notion that reinventing myself as a Californian involved shedding the trappings of some of the distinctly southern experiences of my formative years — reading that article unsettled me. I think it’s time to find a barber shop in Santa Barbara!