Friday, April 5, 2013

On Barbers

Gas is too expensive. Food is too expensive. So are cars and taxicab rides and cell phones. Never mind how many things exist for the first time or how many products are the cheapest ever, adjusted for inflation. At some point I think I've heard everything alleged as overpriced. Except for one: haircuts.

Consider it. People pay $90 per month for cell phones and mope about the service. People send food back at restaurants. They resent having to maintain their cars. The mail is too slow. The internet is too slow. Food servers are too slow. Everybody's doctor is rich, and too rich. Yet everyone seems to have found the right barber.

I've never heard a cross word said about a barber, nor have I heard someone complain that his is too pricy. This owes not to mere serendipity, however, but two factors. First is the degree of trust required. After all, we let a stranger speed around our head with razor blades and heated irons, not only a danger to our health but our faces, our presentations to the world and self-expressions. The second factor is that people realize this. Sure we might trust the mechanic who replaces our brakes, but most of us have never stepped on a brake and had it fail, so we don't really entertain the thought of mortal peril. Likewise for doctors, for just once are most of us in mortal peril, and so our doctor's visits consist in them telling us to lose weight and that they cannot prescribe antibiotics for our colds.

Yet we don't begrudge our barbers, and in contrast to our outrage at medical and automotive bills, everyone seems pretty happy paying what they do to their barber, whether it be 20 or 100 dollars. People seem to have found not only the right person, but the right price for the service. Maybe barber's just have to be more eager to please, after all the stakes are pretty high. Who would go back to someone who mangled your hair? In other words, this apparent satisfaction with our barbers might owe to some vanity, but we're not the first or most. In an epitaph, the Roman poet Martial reflects on a trusted tonsor:

Within this tomb lies Pantagathus, snatched away in boyhood's years, his master's grief and sorrow, skilled to cut with steel that scarcely touched the straggling hairs, and to trim the bearded cheeks. Gentle and light upon him thou mayst be, O earth, as it behoves thee; lighter than the artist's hand thou canst not be. [1]
Everyone's found just the right person and the right price. And everyone seems to enjoy the experience too, the snipping and sudsing and swirling, be it in the chatty din of a salon or the polished finery of an old time barbershop.

Maybe we're a little vain, maybe we take other specialists for granted, or maybe we're just acutely aware of the alternatives.

[1] Martial. VI. 52 Tr. J. Carcopino. in Daily Life in Ancient Rome. 1940. Latin Text at The Latin Library.

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