Getting my hair cut has always been an interesting business in New York. For a while, I sued to go to Sal, the local barber, whose customers—gossiping in the thickest Brooklynese—would fill me in on the neighborhood’s latest. The problem with Sal was that no matter how I asked him to cut my hair, it always came out the same: a brutal buzz cut that made me look like I worked in a pizza parlour. Then there was the lovely Sylvie. Sylvie was great, a six-foot curvaceous blonde whose breasts occasionally rested on my shoulders as she snipped and spritzed away. Despite these undeniable benefits, Sylvie was really too far from where I lived and too expensive. And anyway, my wife objected. Then someone told me about Al.
‘He’s the best there is. Used to cut hair for all the big boys. The only problem is he’s insane.’
Insane or not, he was half the price of Sylvie and an hour closer to home. One afternoon I buzzed his door and stood waiting nervously outside. I was about to leave when it was suddenly torn open in pure Kramer-esque fashion and a stick-thin man in braces and baggy trousers slid out. His bug eyes raked my face.
‘I’ve come for a haircut,’ I said, although by now I sincerely wished I hadn’t. There was a momentary pause, then he smiled. ‘Come in. I thought you were from the hospital.’ As we climbed the stairs, Al began to elaborate.
‘Ever been locked up? Let me tell you something. No matter how bad you feel, don’t ever let them do it. They’re so goddamn incompetent it’s not to be believed.’
‘Why did they lock you up?’ I asked as we entered his apartment and the heavy paneled door shut behind us.
‘I put a .38 to my head,’ he said. He shooed me into a chair and I sat down. The place was jammed from floor to ceiling with junk. ‘Don’t worry, I’m better now. But only because I threw away all their goddamn medication. Bunch of fucking poisoners.’ I watched him in the mirror fish a long pair of scissors out of a bag. ‘But I got my own back. Know what I did? I tore off a piece from my bedsheet when the guard wasn’t looking and made a noose.’ He advanced towards me with the scissors. ‘Not that I was going to hang myself or anything, just give the incompetent bastards a scare.’
I heard a snip and the first lock of hair came off. ‘So I hear you used to cut hair professionally?’ I said. My mouth was dry.
‘Oh yeah. Done ’em all. Used to do Jackie O back in the ’60s. ‘Course, she was known as the Acid Queen then.’ A noise in my throat suggested my disbelief. ‘Oh fuck, yeah. JFK used to love it. Kept her quiet. You know he was planning to divorce her when he got shot?’
For a moment there was silence, but Al had only been gearing up. ‘Know why I’m pleased all this crap happened? Because I’ve turned it into art! The best goddamn thing I’ve ever written. Twenty-two pages of it. And I’m going to produce, star and direct the whole thing. We’re talking Broadway here.’ He paused to eye my hair. ‘That’ll show those bastards in the hospital.’
As Al ranted and raved, I began to feel a certain sympathy for him. I couldn’t help imagining him growing older in his tiny apartment, still unrecognised and unperformed, cutting hair and going crazy at regular intervals. And somewhere amid all the clutter, that .38 waiting to be pressed to his head again. When he finally pronounced me done, I gave him more money than he had asked for and fled the scene. Back home, I looked in the mirror and saw I had the best haircut I’d ever been given.