This is a short story from way back. It was inspired by my move to the Bay Area in 1990, and my abrupt recognition of how different it was from other places I’d lived. “Different” is perhaps less apt a word than “complete,” in the sense that the little pond I’d imagined the world to be had suddenly given way to a vast ocean. I came away feeling embarrassed at my own parochialism. Given the progress America has made in the ensuing 25 years, I trust a wake-up call as shocking as this would no longer be possible today.
A Hair Cut - October 15, 1990
Nick knew Steven from Colorado. They’d been next‑door neighbors, but Nick mostly knew Steven’s parents. Steven was ten years older. When Nick was twelve, Steven opened a hair salon. Nick stopped by to visit. He didn’t go inside because Steven was in the barbershop chair with a blond girl on his lap and he was kissing her. Nick did not want to disturb this. He wondered if he would ever own his own business.
Years later some friends of Nick’s shared some gossip about Steven. What they said didn’t seem right because Nick had seen the girl in the barbershop chair. His friends said Steven was “that way.” Nick did not know if this was true, and he liked the haircuts because a girl complimented him once.
Five years later they both were living in California. Nick had moved to Berkeley for college and Steven was in San Francisco. Nick phoned Steven to arrange a haircut. He hadn’t seen Steven in years. Steven gave him directions. “I’m in the Castro,” he said. He mentioned this several times. Was this for emphasis, Nick wondered? Or was it just because the first time, Nick had said, “Kestrel”? Nick didn’t know the city well. He had no idea where the Castro was.
Nick took the Bart train to San Francisco and got off at the Embarcadero station. The attendant at the kiosk was not helpful with the instructions for Muni. Muni buses ran down Market Street towards the Ferry Building and up towards this neighborhood Nick had never seen before. He waited a long time for the Muni. Buses kept passing him and none of them said K, L, or M. Finally Nick asked a passerby who said K, L, and M are on the subway line and you have to go downstairs. Nick could have waited all afternoon otherwise. He knew nothing about Muni.
The subway was awfully loud. Nick had a book of short stories by Hemingway. He liked how he could feel how the characters felt, and how they couldn’t help how they felt.
When Nick came up out of the subway at Castro Street, he was disoriented. The street was busy with people and ran down a long hill through old houses like he’d seen in photos. He looked in the window of a clothing store and one of the mannequins had a hockey mask. Nick wondered why they would do this. In whose eyes would this make sense? He had to ask for directions, but he did not want to ask the people on the sidewalk. He finally asked two children how to get to 18th Street. They told him and he was thankful because they were just kids. They were awfully nice kids.
He found the hair shop. It was up a steep wooden staircase and down a short, dark hall. He saw the hair salon to his left but the doorway had black bars across it and a padlock, so he kept walking. Farther down the little hall was a strange, dark shop with lots of leather and chains. He went quickly back to the hair salon and a big man with a thick mustache let him in. Steven was not in the shop.
Nick was glad he had his book and kept reading. Steven arrived and they shook hands. Nick felt that he had never known Steven well. He sat in the big black leather barbershop chair. Steven’s old salon had had a smaller chair. While Steven cut Nick’s hair he talked to him and as they talked they used the mirror on the wall so they could see each other. Nick thought about how it was perfectly normal for people to look at each other when they talked.
Steven was great at cutting hair. He used little sharp scissors and took a long time. While he was cutting and they were talking Nick saw another man come into the salon. He had short dark hair with tight curls and he was talking about his hair. He said he just couldn’t do anything with it anymore. He sat down and flipped through a magazine while talking to them. Three times, Steven pinched his finger in the scissors and yelped.
“How do you like the dildo shop next door?” asked the other hairdresser, the one with the mustache. Nick said that he hadn’t really looked at it.
“They’re very common here,” Steven said.
“It’s as normal as going to a hardware store and asking for a screwdriver,” said the man with the magazine. He paused and then said, “I wonder if I meant to make a pun on screwdriver.”
Another friend stopped by to see Steven. He had thick, tall blond hair and was muscle‑bound. He did not stay long and after fifteen minutes or so the curly-haired man left too. When he left he patted Steven on the belly, Nick couldn’t help but notice.
Nick’s hair looked very good after an hour or so but Steven kept cutting, hair by hair, until two hours had gone by. He charged Nick sixteen dollars. Nick wrote him a check and then did not know what else to do. He was a customer but also an old friend. Steven asked if he wanted to get some tea. They left the salon. As they walked down the steep wooden steps, an attractive young woman looked at them and gave Nick a big smile.
“Did you notice that this is a prominent gay area?” Steven asked suddenly. Nick said that he hadn’t noticed. “Well it is,” said Steven.
The coffee shop, Nick noted, also sold beer and cocktails. It was a curious structure with a corrugated steel roof, Christmas lights, and a patio. Steven said Nick could get whatever he wanted. There was a big chalkboard listing all kinds of different drinks. Nick thought hot chocolate would be good because it was cold out, or maybe a latte. Those were two dollars and Steven was paying and Nick bought house coffee which was eighty cents. Steven asked if he wanted to sit outside and Nick said he did. It was cold outside and getting dark and the coffee shop was beginning to look more like a bar.
On the patio there were lots of people who were dressed lavishly. Even the plain t-shirts struck Nick as lavish. A small group of people nearby were talking. A young woman with short dark hair was talking excitedly to two men with earrings, thick spiked hair, and long overcoats. “Yesterday, I . . . I saw this cute girl and I . . . I scammed on her and uh . . . cruised . . . uh, she came over and we . . . we made out!” she said at last, talking fast and seeming happy to finish her sentence. She smiled brightly and the two men nodded. Nick felt that she was very young. Nick didn’t think anything was funny but he thought he might laugh but he didn’t.
Steven asked if he was cold. Nick was in shirtsleeves and the air was cold but he said he was fine. Steven wanted to go in. They sat in the bar and Steven talked about how bars were encouraged to sell food. He also pointed out the corrugated steel ceiling, which Nick had not noticed. Around him lively people milled about and every so often two men would kiss and Nick did not want to look like he was watching.
Two men approached the table. One had several days of red beard and a turtleneck, and he had a thick musky smell. The other was a small man with deep clear eyes and a brown leather jacket. Steven introduced the short man to Nick and the man extended his hand.
“Hi Nick, nice to meet you. You’ll like Steven, he’s very nice.”
Nick had known Steven for more than fifteen years but he didn’t say so. Maybe he didn’t really know Steven that well anyway.
The other men left and then Steven was talking a lot about his father. He said he hoped Nick did not dislike his father. Nick had always been fond of Steven’s father. He knew Steven’s father well.
“I don’t think my dad liked your dad,” Steven was saying. “He never really knew your dad but he probably made assumptions. My dad always said the new yuppies with their liberal ideas were ruining the city.” He paused for moment and then began talking faster. “But he really wasn’t bad about it or anything and he was really tolerant about a lot of things, too, like my being gay and stuff like that.”
The word stung Nick like a bee inside but he did not flinch. He nodded casually. The word did not shock him but to hear Steven say it did. Nick’s neck and shoulders were all tight. For a few moments his mind drifted and when it came back he found he was talking about money. He wondered: was he talking too much about money? With his other friends it didn’t occur to him to worry about what he was talking about. Then before he knew it Nick was telling Steven about his ex-girlfriend.
It was dark out and the bar was full and the music was blaring and the bar was full of cigarette smoke and they left. They walked along the street. A block down there was a Safeway and across the street were two gyms on the same block. This was Market street, which had lots of buses running between this neighborhood and, at the other end, the Embarcadero where Bart had let Nick off, hours ago. Clothing stores lined the street with elaborate window displays and Nick had to look because Steven was pointing them out. Nick didn’t see any more hockey masks. They passed a brightly lit deli and Nick walked right past it but Steven had stopped. He had said something but Nick didn’t hear. Steven repeated his question: “Are you hungry?”
Nick was always hungry and everybody always knew it. Steven bought soft uncooked noodles and some sauce and they went to his apartment. The door to the street was small and stiff and opened into a long dark hall. The hall ended in what looked like a carport but Nick only saw a large garbage can. He thought that seeing a raccoon would not surprise him. Inside, the apartment was pretty nice but it was all one room and had no windows except the one in the back door that had some kind of clear plastic film over it so it wasn’t really clear.
Steven explained that the concrete foundation was no good because it allowed moisture to seep through. Steven had always fixed up houses, building walls and porches with concrete, and then he would leave them once they were all done. He was planning to do a lot of work on this studio. There was a block of concrete two feet high jutting out from the wall. It was a mistake when they built the building, Steven explained; he was going to extend it up and put on a table top.
While Steven was washing two plates and a pot to cook the pasta in, Nick sat on the edge of the couch and tried to think of something. In the apartment were a bed and a couch and a stereo. On the wall there was a framed photo of somebody Nick thought he recognized. He asked if the guy was from Boulder and it turned out he was but Nick could not have known him. While they ate Steven got out a photo album so Nick could see if he recognized the guy on the wall. Nick knew he wouldn’t. Steven flipped over the pages of photos, and looking at them was giving Nick a crick in his neck.
Steven got up and walked over towards the kitchen. He was talking about fathers again. He asked if Nick knew Tim Glenn. Nick had heard the story about how Tim always got his hair cut by Steven for years and then heard some gossip and suddenly he and his entire church condemned Steven to Hell and Timmy’s hair never looked as good again. Nick hated that about the church. He said to Steven that he sort of knew Tim but mainly through his little brother.
“Yeah, I just sort of thought Tim’s dad reminded me of your dad,” Steven said. Nick thought about the two dads. Were they similar? Nick remembered a story about Mr. Glenn: once, during dinner, he got so frustrated slicing a baguette, he took it out to the garage and cut it into neat slices with his band saw. Maybe Nick’s dad would do this, except that the blades of power tools aren’t clean. Maybe Nick’s dad would use a laser. Nick realized he was no longer hearing what Steven was saying.
After a while Nick decided he had to get home and then he was worried about finding the Muni station. Steven loaned him a jacket while they walked to the station. There was so much to see, and it was all so vivid. This was something Nick had been marveling at for the last few weeks, when he’d started wearing contact lenses. Not that everything he saw was pleasant. There were homeless people begging and Steven got all sore. “It’s their damn problem,” he said.
At the entrance to the Muni station Nick gave Steven back his jacket and thanked him for the haircut, the coffee, and the dinner. Steven smiled and they shook hands. Steven was a nice guy, Nick thought. And now Nick just wanted to get Muni over with and get back to Oakland.
Nick hated the Muni station. It was dark and he sat on a concrete bench and somebody sat next to him. He was a big man with golden red hair and a golden red beard and a black leather biker jacket with lots of studs. Nick hunched forward over his book. He stared at the page but could not read. Another man walked over, short with a thin voice and a white shirt with a collar and a necktie. He chatted with the red-bearded guy, saying he was only in the area for a day and he had stayed at such and such hotel. Red said that was a good hotel and Short said he had had just a wonderful time and really liked the area.
“Yes, it’s a grand place to be, even if for only one day,” said Red, “or only one night.” Short agreed, emphatically. Red continued, “It’s even a good place to come to just to look at the pretty blond boys.” Short asked, “To look at who?” Nick knew Short had heard it fine the first time. “To look at the pretty blond boys,” Red said loudly. Short replied, “Oh, yes, even the Aryan-looking ones.” Red said, “Yes, especially the Aryan-looking ones, but never, ever the skinheads.”
Nick hated being the brunt of Aryan jokes but he chuckled. He wondered if a skinhead would bother him like this. He wished he could think of something to say but then the Muni came and he walked quickly down to the last car and boarded. He looked again at his book. His neck was really sore and the train started up and screamed in his ears. The train was narrow and the seats were hard. When they got to the first Bart station Nick got off the train. He heard it slip away into the tunnel behind him and roar up to speed but he did not watch it go.
Nick was very glad to be back on Bart. It was familiar and quiet. He was glad to be able to lose himself in his book and he almost missed his stop. Nick walked up College Ave towards home. He passed the pizza place and the little bookstore he liked and the convenience store where he got change for the Laundromat.
The back of Nick’s neck was cold where Steven had trimmed it. There was a breeze bringing fog in from the bay. Nick got home and went to bed. He lay in bed and tried to think about nothing. When he woke up the next morning there was a stiff, cold breeze bringing a thick fog in from the bay and it wasn’t until he looked in the mirror that he remembered he’d had his hair cut.