I was all ready for normal. For a few weeks last June, I went shopping without a mask. The grocery store. The hardware store.
I was vaccinated strong.
Then the Delta variant hit. It was back to the new normal. Masking up. Social distancing. Crowded ICUs.
But what to do with my hair? The virus had something to say about that. When it first hit, around mid-March, I just stopped getting haircuts. I let it all hang out.
No man buns. No ponytails. Just hippie lite.
The pandemic was new in early 2020. Vaccinations were nearly a year away. The best defense was sheltering in place. No movies. No dining out. No throwing myself into concert mosh pits. And no quality time with Bennie, my barber.
He’s the latest in a series. Bob the barber was first. My then-brother-in-law told me about Bob. It was sometime in the ’70s. Bob had a shop in Scottsdale. I didn’t have a steady barber, so I saw Bob. And kept going back, until he retired.
Bob was low-key. He didn’t smile much. The Buster Keaton of barbers. He didn’t chat much. That was OK. He did a good job. After the first cut or two, I didn’t have to say anything either. I just sat and he cut away.
One of his customers was Bil Keane, creator of the “The Family Circus” comics. Bob had a few signed drawings by Keane on the wall.
Then Bob retired. I moved down to Paul. He was more jovial. And a fine barber. But he retired soon after Bob. I moved to Abel’s chair, the next one down. He carved kachina dolls. No cultural appropriation there. Abel was Hopi.
Abel pulled up stakes a couple of times, moving to different shops. I followed from south Phoenix, even to the far ends of Mesa. He finally found a home at Bennie’s Back Alley Barbershop in east Scottsdale, near McDowell Road. Then, two or three years ago, Abel retired to Hopi land, where he was born and raised. And where, I learned later, he died. Bennie told me Abel had cancer.
I settled into Bennie’s chair on Abel’s retirement. Bennie’s shop is a homage to Marilyn Monroe. He has large Marilyn Monroe posters, photographs and plastic figurines. Of course, he has the famous photo: a blast of air from a sidewalk grate playfully lifting Marilyn Monroe’s skirt.
The collection began like lots of collections. Somebody brought Bennie a Marilyn Monroe figure. Others brought more. And more. Over time, the shop became a shrine to the blonde goddess.
Bennie’s chair is in something like the executive suite. Well, it’s nothing fancy. But it’s behind a curtain, separate from the other three barber chairs. Bennie isn’t tall, but he’s a block of a man. He could have been a fullback, back in the day teams actually had fullbacks.
His distinctive moustache is painted on the side of a panel truck. The truck sits in the parking lot, a billboard on wheels.
Bennie has more than five decades of barbering under his belt. He’s friendly. Generous with smiles. He talks about his vacation home outside Payson. He talks about his kids. His grandkids. His extended family gatherings. But he’s no-nonsense when it comes to his craft.
I slouch a bit and my head’s not screwed on straight, as my father often reminded me. Bennie fixes that, tilting my head back or forward or to one side or the other — as needed.
In early 2020, the pandemic put all that on hold. My hair grew long. But it was all on the side. Nothing grew on top. Kind of like a clown wig. So last fall, I called Bennie for an appointment. He welcomed me back.
I wasn’t quite ready for an all-out pre-pandemic cut. I was still into my hippie look. I sought Bennie’s advice: “I’m wondering if I should get it cut short, or leave it long?”
“I can do whatever you want. Long or short.”
I went with long. I was OK with it. My wife Cindy was OK with it. As it happens, she’s OK with just about anything I do, at least when it comes to my appearance.
“Cindy, does my hair look OK long?”
“It’s fine.” She doesn’t even have to look up. She just continues with her knitting.
If I asked: “Does the boil on the end of my nose make me look ugly?”
She’d say: “It’s fine” and continue knitting.
Not everybody was down with my hippie hair, though. I did a Zoom call with a Vietnam veteran and his wife. I talked to them about their new film, featuring the wives of combat veterans. The former Marine told me to get a haircut. I laughed. Still, he had a point. Hippie hair had its downside. It took longer to shampoo. And to comb out. And a bad-hair day was really bad.
So I asked Bennie for a slightly shorter do. Less Jim Morrison, more mid-60s Beatles. I wasn’t quite ready for a full back-to-normal cut.
Until week before last. I went to Bennie and suggested a cut just halfway down my ears. Not too long, but something that looked good on a liberal.
With a firm grip, Bennie adjusted my head and went to work.