I’ve had the same haircut for the past 16 years. A shaved head — number two on top and a one around the sides with a slight fade. On paper it’s one of the easiest haircuts to execute, but the number of reputable hairdressers that have fucked it up over the years is astonishing, everything from not going over it tightly enough with the clippers and leaving little stray strands of hair, to arcing the liner too high over the ears until your sideburns look like Scott Ramsey’s from Neighbours. Nah. If you want to get your hair cropped, you need to go to a barbershop and allow the salon.
I’ve had two great barbershop love affairs in my lifetime. The first was Cuts on Frith Street. (You could make an argument that Cuts is not a barbershop. For one, women felt comfortable getting their hair cut there, which sadly can’t be said of all barbershops. However, the communal electricity, pace, and repartee always felt barbershop to me from an ontological standpoint.) For a long time my Saturdays entailed strapping a zoot, getting the 55 or 243 bus into the West End, going to my appointment at Cuts with Pete, only for him to tell me that he got-on-it-last-night-and-would-I-mind-a-quiet-one, settling into a Belmont before letting the Whal lull me into a gentle reverie, while out of the corner of my eye I watched the comings and goings, the madness, the faces, the rascals, and especially what Toby McLellan was wearing.
Then I moved further North, and this heralded the second great barbershop romance, Pasha on Stoke Newington High Street. The Saturday routine didn’t change much, though: strap a zoot, buy a Lucozade or a Mango Rubicon, quickly stop at Best Kebab and say hello to Ismail — yes my friend, see you tonight — and pull up to Pasha at around 3pm. It was always packed. The wait was usually around 30 minutes, but there was always a Premier League match to watch on the Turkish sports channel playing on the many TVs. When it was finally my turn I’d get the full works: quick spin on the vibrating foot massager that makes you need a wee, wet shave, crop — tight fade, no line up — shampoo, hot towel, eyebrow trim, nose-hair clip, ear-hair singe, black-head squeeze, and a liberal splash of zesty cologne to finish — here’s some chilli sauce boss.
Since relocating to Los Angeles it’s taken me a while to find my barbershop spot, mainly because we’ve moved around a lot. But now that we’ve settled in Korea Town, I’ve discovered L.A Cutz on Pico. It’s owned and run by Ernesto. The space is minimal and sparsely lit with a few pieces of Dodgers paraphernalia — bobble heads, a fire extinguisher — and a framed poster of Muhammad Ali. Ernesto is a humble man and a great barber: clean fades and good conversation. We talk about business, about how banks make it hard for him to get a mortgage, about the pandemic and its toll on his community, and about our family lives.
The other day we got to talking about the war in the Ukraine. He told me that he understood what the Ukrainian people were going through. Ernesto is my age. He grew up in El Salvador and spent his childhood living through the Salvadoran civil war — a brutal conflict waged between the military junta, who came into power in 1979 following a coup, and the left wing FMLN guerrillas. Fearing that El Salvador, like Nicaragua and Cuba, could fall to a communist revolution, Reagan’s U.S. administration supported the dictatorship with four billion dollars of economic aid and provided significant military training and equipment. The junta employed horrific counter insurgency measures. Para-military death squads — escuadrónes de la muerte — terrorised the civilian population. It is estimated by the UN Truth Commission that 75,000 people were killed during the war. Many are still unaccounted for. They just disappeared.
Ernesto told me that kids he grew up with disappeared — he never saw them again; he told me about the anguish of parents and their fear of letting their children play outside; he told me about the relatives he knew who were maimed by shrapnel wounds; he told me how soldiers dumped bodies into mass graves and burnt homes; he told me how the smell of charred flesh and burnt hair — especially the hair — hung over San Salvador like a miasma; he told me about the curfew, about how one evening his step-father wasn’t home by the specific time, and how his family had given him up for dead, and about their unbridled joy when he finally walked through the door; he told me that as a child he hadn’t understood that the war was political; he told me that it is the poor and the innocent who always bear the burden of war.
Ernesto understands atrocity. He tells me these things matter of factly, with the steady cadence of someone who has processed a lot of trauma and pain yet battles daily not to be defined by them.
In her book ‘Salvador’ Joan Didion famously said that “terror is the given of the place.” I recently read an article by the writer Roberto Lovato. He talks about cultural erasure, and he describes Didion’s Salvadoran writing, with its references to Conrad, as an older, more liberal version of the exoticism that informs many of Trump’s stump speeches — those dark invocations of “shit hole countries” — and the media’s obsession with Salvadoran gangs or maras.
“Didion concluded that “terror is the given of the place” after spending two weeks in El Salvador. After spending more than 56 years among my Salvadoran friends and family, I concluded that love is also the given of the place — and of the people.”
That’s worth remembering.
When all’s told, what’s left but love?