I was sitting in a chair, in a basement in the heart of London, under a strong light. The man held the blade less than an inch from my jugular and waited for my answer. There was nothing I could say that would take me off the hook.
Another of them stepped over, looked at me and then shifted his cold eyes to the man with the razor. "Cecil," he said, "may I borrow your blower?"
My man nodded toward his instrument tray without taking his eyes off me. Cold Eyes took the blower and stepped out of my field of vision.
"Would it 'ave cost so much?" the man with the razor asked. "Just a little bow?"
I tried to change the subject. In desperation I said: "What do you suppose is going to happen at Wimbledon this year?"
"Tennis," he answered.
"Oh, yeah. Right."
"Getting back to the subject, sir, your man may be the President, but his wife's only a commoner, right?"
"Well, er," I stammered, "we don't exactly have commoners. I mean, we're all commoners."
A Different Reputation
I asked if he'd ever heard of William Penn. It produced a frown.
"Fellow who wouldn't take his hat off for the king? Fellow we deported?"
"Well, yeah," I said. "Same guy. Founded Pennsylvania." There was kind of a rumble from the man.
A few weeks before, President Reagan and his wife Nancy had visited the United Kingdom and were presented to the queen. Naturally, neither had bowed, a fact that really seemed to nettle the man at my shoulder. "Want me to shorten the sideburns?"
"Do you do it with a razor?"
I asked him to leave the sideburns. He put the razor down, picked up the scissors and made several snipping noises in the air as he approached the back of my neck.
-- -- --
I've had haircuts in some pretty interesting places in the world. As I sat there in the basement barbershop of London's Harrods department store, those past haircuts started to flash before my eyes.
There was that first one, in Denver. I remember sitting next to my mother. I must have been pretty small because the armrest of my chair was at eye level.
I watched in fascination as the kid ahead of me, sitting on the booster seat over the barber chair, was having his long curls cut off.
He was screaming his head off with each snip. There was no way in the world you could convince me that cutting that much off a person didn't hurt.
The promise of a lollipop meant nothing. For all I cared, that barber could run that sucker up his nose, I was not having a haircut. Not then, not later, not ever.
I had the haircut. My mother was a very strong person.
From Downey to Paris
A few years later, in Downey, which at that time was a one-barbershop town, all us kids lived in constant anticipation of a cootie epidemic because the barber, a gruff old no-lollipop kind of guy, "cleaned" his single comb by dipping it in the glass. Not a glass, the glass. We all knew he never changed the water, which seemed to get thicker and browner as time went by.
One of the older kids said that when the water reached a certain thickness, he'd add a little green food coloring and call it wave-set.
My first world-class barbershop experience took place in Paris.
Normally I don't take my wife, Joyce, with me when I'm going for a haircut. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. We were out for a stroll. I needed a trim. We saw a shop full of people getting haircuts and just walked in. The barber whose chair was closest to the door smelled a little of wine and seemed to lurch a bit, but he was pleasant.
He showed me several pictures of famous haircuts. I pointed at the yellowing photograph of Victor Mature and said: "But without the ducktail, s'il vous plait. "
He said " Oui," I sat down and the action started.
-- -- --
Things went quite well until toward the end, when the barber seemed to slip, lurched a bit and ran his clippers into the back of my neck, just above the hairline. He and the shop owner, a fellow barber, trimmed around the wound and applied styptic materials to stop the bleeding. Then they dabbed it with a little iodine and apologized profusely.
Joyce showed only a marginal interest till the shop owner stepped back, looked at the wound, made a comment, snickered and then moved back to his own customer. My wife put her magazine aside and started looking through her "Instant French" book.
Ten minutes later, smelling like one of the ladies in Place Pigalle, I was back on the street.
"Interesting haircut," Joyce said.
"How's my wound?"
She stopped to look into a store window. "Fine," she said. I could see her reflection in the glass; she was trying not to laugh.
"It's the haircut, then. He didn't make this a ducktail, did he?"
She shook her head. "Not a duck, no."
"Well," she said with a snicker, "one of those barbers said it made the back of your head look like a baboon."
Baboon With a Board
A Band-Aid solved the problem for a couple of days, till I started feeling silly about having a piece of tape across the back of my head and yanked it off. Then, since the tape had taken a little hair with it, the back of my head looked like a baboon with a board tied to his backside.
In Stockholm I got trimmed by an American. As soon as I walked into the shop he told me he was an American.
"Great," I said. "Where are you from?"
"If you can guess, I'll give you the haircut free. You can't guess, you pay double."
It sounded pretty good.
A half-hour later I left the barbershop with a good but very expensive haircut from a barber who had been born and raised in Argentina.
In Meiringen, Switzerland, after searching the town twice and finding no barbershops, Joyce led me to the door of a beauty salon. I balked.
"I can't go in there," I said.
"Suppose somebody sees me?"
"Well, the way you look now, they'll just think I'm taking my ugly sister to the beauty parlor."
Once through the door, the whole idea didn't seem so terrible after all. The receptionist was attractive, and the lady who led me to the chair was a real show-stopper.
"You're going to cut my hair?"
She laughed: "No, sir, I just wash it for you. Ilsa will cut it." She sat me in the chair and tilted it back.
If the "show-stopper" was a "10," Ilsa was about a "25." All in all, I was in the shop for a little more than an hour. For the first 15 minutes I tried very hard not to look like I was having a good time.
Then, when I glanced over to see how Joyce was reacting, she wasn't there. Ilsa said, "Your wife left while you were having your shampoo, sir. She said to tell you to enjoy your haircut and that she was going out to buy a few things for your children. She said I only had to tell you if you noticed she was gone. Does that make sense?"
My wife on the streets of a strange city with a double handful of credit cards and I didn't even care. That was one of the greatest haircuts I ever had. Someday, if I'm ever back near Meiringen. . . .
-- -- --
"Well, sir, President and First Lady or not, it seems to me," said the man with the scissors, pulling me back into the present, "that it wouldn't have hurt for your Mrs. Reagan to have at least nodded her head a bit. After all, sir, this is the Mother Country and the queen is the queen."
He unfastened the cover from around my neck, whipped it off and handed me a mirror. "How's that, sir?"
It was an excellent haircut and I told him.
"Course, sir. If it wasn't, you wouldn't have got it at Harrods. Just for the record, sir, about the bowing?"
"My father," I said, "once told me never to talk politics with my barber."
He seemed offended. "Oh, sir, I'd never allow a customer's opinion to affect my work. That wouldn't be professional, now, would it?"
It used to be that before every trip we'd get our tonsorial requirements out of the way in the hope our future needs would keep until we'd be home again. Now we do just the opposite. Having to take care of those things in strange lands is a life experience.
And when you get right down to it, that's what travel's all about.