‘They’ve done scans, you know,’ he said, holding the razor close. ‘One doctor said I shouldn’t be alive. There’s something wrong in my head.’ He leaned forward – all economy, no flourish – and trimmed the hair at the nape of my neck.
‘Never had a bank account or a credit card. I don’t own anything. Never had a car, never needed a phone.’ The space was, though, undeniably his. A little corner shop, painted radiant yellow and filled to the brim with… well, stuff. Memories and interests, tchotchkes, things he liked and thought his clientele might like. Magazines and books, model cars, statues, posters, helmets, girlie pin-ups and coat-racks. A beaten-down CD player plays Johnny Cash or opera, depending on his mood.
‘I don’t do small talk. I tell people that I’m rude, but they don’t get it. They think it’s a joke, but I don’t know how to talk to people. There’s something wrong with me, always has been. Shadows on the scan. I don’t know how to be anything else except for what I am. And I can be a real prick sometimes.’
For decades, he’s run a shop here. Years ago, when he was young, he was apprenticed to the finest master. He was an Austrian, based in Bourke Street back when that meant something. ‘At the time, I thought he was the nastiest, biggest bastard in the world. Now I think he’s the best person who ever lived. Who else would have taken me in? I wouldn’t have. I would have kicked my own arse, back then.’ He thanks his father for getting him the apprenticeship. His father knew how to spin a story, got him through the front door when no one would have him. He’s been in the trade now for over forty years.
The shop is unconventional. Laundered towels stick in a precarious stack within easy reach. Razors, scissors and other accoutrements of the trade are scattered throughout nearby chests-of-drawers and bookcases, close at hand but filed in some bafflingly complex system. Underneath the talc, it smells of cigarettes. Between customers he sits back on a couch, opens up a newspaper and lights up. It’s his space, his home as much as his workplace, and anyone who is offended by the odour can go somewhere else.
‘Unisex is the problem. No one knows how to cut men’s hair anymore.’ He is rapt when he discovers I use brylcream. ‘See, that stuff is perfectly good. Can’t see the point in all that other stuff.’
The scissors are a whir. There is a fey grace to his fingers as they move, seemingly cutting strand by individual strand.
‘That’ll be fifteen dollars.’
And that’s my barber.