A Haircut in Italy (travel essay) | Gregory McNamee

A Haircut in Italy (travel essay)


Of the unnerving experiences in my life—being shot at, riding an airplane through a cyclone, studying algebra—none quite matches leading a procession of children day after day through the narrow streets of a southern Italian hilltown, all of them shouting "Gesù Cristo, Gesù Cristo" at the top of their small lungs to mark my embarrassed passage.

I brought this on myself, I now realize. It was 1977, when most longhairs had long since retired into suburban careers, but I sported a mat much like the one cloaking John Barrymore’s shoulders in Svengali, and I stood out as an obvious mark. (It isn’t pretty what a town without hippies will do.) Still, the comparison to Jesus seemed strange. The village priest had presumably warned the populace that Christ would reappear only at the end of an exceptionally nasty string of disasters, and the great earthquake that devastated southern Italy would not hit for another three years; no new rough beast had taken to plying the Ionian Sea; and in any event I lacked the necessary glow.

I was accustomed to more secular criticism. Earlier that year, a Russian émigré filmmaker had studied me with a stern eye through his lens and pronounced, "Your hair is too big." But I liked my hair long, a symbol of remonstrance and repudiation in post-Watergate America, and I did nothing more than smile and forevermore nurse a loathing for his work, which never found a following outside one or two art theaters. Yet, after a week or two of enduring the children’s jeers and another three months left on the archaeological mapping project I had hired on to, I decided that the time had come to swallow my pride and join the ranks of the well-groomed.

The town’s one barbershop lay in a dark corner of the main piazza, across from the requisite Norman castle and a badly made statue of a Fascist general who had been born on a villa on the flats below. The barber opened his shop before dawn and did most of his business then, for, like farmers everywhere, the contadini of Basilicata province are hard at their planting and weeding and harvesting well before sunrise. My colleagues and I, busily mapping the southern reaches of the Appian Way, were also in the fields by five in the morning, but our workday ended at noon, when the townspeople had their big meal and then adjourned for a long siesta. The barber opened earlier in the afternoon than did most of the other shopkeepers, along about two-thirty, when the streets were empty, and the sounds of his stropping his razors were the only punctuation marks in the still, hot summer air. I decided to pay my visit at that quiet hour.

The next day I entered the dark portico, rattled through the doorway of stringed plastic beads in the manner of Lee Van Cleef, and bid the barber good afternoon. He looked up from his newspaper; his reply caught in his throat, and for long seconds he issued only a thin gargle. Finally he said simply, "Madonna," and motioned me to sit with the air of a man on his way to the gallows.

I explained that I wanted my hair cut back to a level that would disqualify me from further comparisons to the Savior, something not too short and reasonably stylish; perhaps a curl down the forehead, sideburns of middling length, a modestly daring descent of tress. Had I been to London earlier instead of later that year, I could have pointed to Joe Strummer of the rock band The Clash as my model, but then no analog came to mind. I gestured to indicate the rough angles at which the barber should proceed, while he tapped his scissors against his wrist and tugged at his gray mustache, studying the problem intently.

The barber, whose name was Tomaso, draped a worn cloth across my front, sighed, and set to work. "You have a jungle atop your head," he said, and I nodded in agreement. He was right. A few months before I had combed a dead honeybee out of my locks, it having been trapped there for who knows how long, unable to sting through the thick curls. Tomaso’s scissors gnashed about my collar, freeing a mass of hair eight inches in length and, by the relaxed feel of my spine the next day, ten pounds in weight.

That was only the initial slash-and-burn clearing. An hour later Tomaso was ready for work of finer scale. He was also exhausted and in evident foul humor.

"Aspett’. Wait," he said. "I need to rest. I need something to drink."

Tomaso retreated to the cavernous rear of the shop and returned with a huge bottle of black wine, encased in wicker. He poured out a large measure, drank it in one long draft, and refilled his glass. "Ecco. That’s it," he said. "Porca miseria." Piggy misery.

The shop began to fill with curious onlookers, for secrets are impossible in any small town in any part of the world, and the people of this ancient settlement reckoned it their right to know whatever happened within its limits. Tomaso brightened at the prospect of an audience. He drained another glass of black wine and, lifting his shears, broke into song:

    O, lay dat peestol down, boys,
    lay dat peestol down,
    peestol packin’ mamma,
    lay dat peestol down …

Eventually I recognized the source—"Pistol Packin’ Mama," a show tune by Al Dexter and His Troopers, which gave the Andrews Sisters, and later Bing Crosby, a hit during the Second World War. "I was a prisoner of the Americans," Tomaso explained, crossing his wrists in a symbol of confinement. I hoped that he bore no grudge against his captors’ progeny. He repeated the chorus in a cracked voice again and again, snipping away, while the deranged eel vendor we had for obvious reasons christened Gollum danced a wild jig across the pavement. The next-door butcher and the chief village idiot clapped in time, and I added to the cacophony with the first few verses of "Streets of Laredo."

The crowd had swelled by this time to what seemed to be half the village and had packed itself into the barbershop so tightly that Tomaso could barely operate. Whenever he got a clear shot at my head—an increasingly rare opportunity, for the mob was busily jostling one or the other of us—Tomaso leaned in for a quick snip, finally taking a tiny bit of earlobe with him. When he did, I called for a mirror.

The assembled villagers fell silent as I inspected myself through the spiderwebbed cracks in Tomaso’s glass. Parts of the haircut weren’t at all bad. The problem was that these parts were only very roughly contiguous and not at all symmetrical. On the right, my hair curled neatly to just above my collar; on the left, it was shorn to a point half an inch below my ear, lending me a lopsided appearance that we would now call protopunk. Some of the top stuck up in seeming tribute to Eraserhead, while the rest went off in all directions of the wind.

"Magnifico," I said.

Tomaso breathed a sigh of relief, smiled broadly, and poured another glass of wine, offering me one as well. I accepted and joined him in singing another round of "Pistol Packin’ Mama," still not sure whether Tomaso hated Americans after all. The crowd, in the meanwhile, disappeared with the setting sun, only to assemble again on the other side of the piazza for the evening passeggiata, the ritual stroll through town that affords everyone in Italian villages the chance to visit with everyone else.

I joined the procession, a gaggle of children to my rear. This time no one shouted. I was still an exotic creature from a faraway land, clad in Levis and hillbilly work boots and a full head taller than anyone else in town, but I now bore the aspect of a mere mortal being. The eternally feuding Fascist greengrocer and Communist housepainter across the road, who had previously agreed only on the point that my hair was too long, smiled in greeting and sat down to the table for an animated game of scopa. The Christian Democrat mayor tapped the brim of his Panama hat and invited me to dinner later in the week. The monsignor looked at me searchingly and then shook my hand. Things had changed.

Late that evening I called on a comely young hairdresser whose salon lay across the stone path from my apartment on the south end of town. One of the many local Red Brigades sympathizers had told me, when I first raised the subject of getting a haircut, not to go her place lest the villagers think me homosexual and thus a solid candidate for death by stoning or some other awful mischief, but by that time I didn’t care. Lucia, a spinster at twenty-five, set about undoing some of Tomaso’s efforts, talking happily of her impending trip to Paris. I listened, admiring her beauty, telling her of good meals I had eaten in the Cinquième Arrondissement, of cheap bars near the Place de la Concorde, while she worked her magic.

By midnight I was content. I was no longer the Messiah.


Copyright © 1997 by Gregory McNamee. All rights reserved.



The world exists in order to be made into a book.      – Stéphane Mallarmé