I will be the first to admit that the cliché of the “Barber’s Shop” experience topped my list of reasons to go and get a haircut yesterday downtown Edwardsville. You see, I’m one of those less-than-hairy folks who, even in the farther side of twenties, still has a shrub for beard, and even less – just a few strands of hair – for moustache. It has at least saved me the expense of large combs and shaving sticks, and I’ve delighted in being almost perpetually clean-shaven. In the case of this travel, it has so far saved me the ordeal of a regular haircut, and my three month-old head of hair still looked like one cut just a few weeks ago.
But I got self-conscious and started asking everyone if they thought that my hair was too long, and due for a cut. And they all said “yes”, yet I stalled, first because I wouldn’t stop trying to convert $20 into Naira and telling myself that it was too expensive, and second because I had considered it a strenuous chore to have to ride go the distance just to get a haircut which I didn’t think that I needed. In any case, my curiosity about the American Barber’s Shop, which had gained fame from movie portrayals finally goaded me on Friday towards CUT-N-UP, an African-American barber’s shop a little distance from campus.
The barber spotted me as a tourist just five minutes into my haircut. I would not stop taking pictures so he asked: “How long are you here for?” and I laughed. Then we got talking about other things. Where he’s from: East St. Louis. What else does he do: Dee-Jaying and record producing. He has been in the hair cutting business for seventeen years, and he has a son who is sixteen. Being from East St. Louis – one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Illinois, he told me of how he decided so early in life that he would not depend too much on his school high school certificate, but put his skills into use. Living in Edwardsville for the past seventeen years has taught him the benefits of self-employment. He goes back to East St. Louis occasionally, he says, to visit his folks, but can’t think of settling back there because of the overall feeling of hopelessness and laziness that pervades the environment: his words. This is not the first time I’m hearing of the gruesomeness of living conditions in that area of Illinois called East St. Louis. My secondary supervisor, Professor Afolayan goes to the neighbourhoods at least once a month to give talks to young residents about the advantages of education and zeal. I’ve now registered my intention to visit the place and see for myself. But the images are not flattering. And if any of the words I’ve heard are anything to go by, it’s not a place to go to alone, or at night – just like some parts of Nigeria where, like East St. Louis, creativity however manages to emerge once in a while.
There’s not much else to report about the ambience of the barber’s shop besides mirrors, posters, signs (one says: “if you don’t want a messed-up haircut, DON’T MOVE”), a cable channel showing the NBA games, comfortable chairs and magazines to read. Oh, they didn’t collect electronic payment, and the barber engaged me in a conversation throughout – just like in the movies. The difference was that, in this case, he’s far younger than most movie-made barber figures, and he had a Bluetooth headset on which he also talked to another person, all in a language very appropriate for the domain. My main problem now is that I now wish that I had left my bushy hair the way it was before. True, a few people have told me that I look much better now that the almost jungle is gone. Problem is, they are Americans who are already used to cold air licking their heads at this time of the freezing season. Me not, and I now have to go around with this soft fleece winter cap everywhere I go. I will survive, I think. I hope.