Springsteen and an Atlanta Shave

Don't ask how this New Year's post will lead to Bruce Springsteen … I'm just kind of hoping it does before the clock strikes midnight and it's done.

Start with this odd opening sentence: I'm not sure when I stopped caring who cut my hair. Well, I'm not. I don't think I was ever particularly controlling about who cut my hair or how but maybe five or six years ago, I stopped caring entirely. I would be driving home from an interview or a meeting or something, and I would think, "You know, I need a haircut." I would stop at the most convenient place that happened to be on my route home, usually one of those mass-production haircut places with a lot of TVs. The haircut greeter would ask, "Do you have a stylist preference?" I would always say no. And whoever happened to be available cut my hair.

What did I care? For me, with my hair, the barber/stylist is like whoever happens to be cooking the burgers at McDonald's that day … what difference would it make? This is one of the great (and few) advantages of being mostly bald. There's really only so much damage any barber or hair stylist can do. At exactly the same time, there's really only so much success they can have. These are the tradeoffs in life.

The worst part of the haircut, for me, always comes at the beginning, when the barber/stylist awkwardly asks: "Um, yeah, listen, uh, how do you want this cut?" There's always this edge of nervousness in their voices, as if they're wondering to themselves: "Does this guy know he's bald? Because, if he doesn't, man I don't want to be the one to break it to him. It shouldn't be my job … I don't even know this guy. And t don't want him bringing some class action suit against me or something because he might say that he wasn't bald when he came in here and I made him bald. Maybe I'll just ask he how he wants his hair cut and see if what he says."

So they say, "How do you want this cut?" And I say, "Short." And they laugh nervously because it seems to them my hair is already short. And so they say, "How short?" And I say, "Very short." And this goes on for way too long. So that's annoying, as is the mindless "So, you have any plans for the weekend," chatter that the barber/stylist will inevitably begin. I'm not an antisocial person. I will talk with anyone. And I imagine if I had a beautiful full head of hair, I might have a personal stylist that I saw religiously every few weeks and we would talk about kids and politics and how the Brewers are doing (I always imagine my personal stylist lives in Milwaukee) and our dream vacations.

But see, when you are bald, you are not looking for a RELATIONSHIP with your barber/stylist. There isn't time for any of that. I'm in, I'm out, it's buzz … fuzz … thank you Cuz. I've got places to go. I've got blog posts to write.

And so, over the last few years, I stopped caring entirely who cut my hair. My idea of a good haircut evolved into a whole new thing. A good haircut for me is not based on how well the person cuts my hair -- bald is bald, no matter how they cut it. No, a good haircut is based entirely on time and lack of hassle. It all about how quickly they get it done. A good haircut for me is one that takes less than 15 minutes. If I have a few minutes to spare, I might do that hot towel thing or whatever, but that's rare. Mostly it's a NASCAR pit stop. Fill up with gas, change two tires, trim the eyebrows, let me spin on out of here.

I'm not saying that's right for anyone else. This is my world and my world alone, where a good shoeshine should take longer than a good haircut.

But the other day, I went into a barber shop in Atlanta. I guess I should explain: We were in Atlanta for a little getaway vacation …a vacation that was built around American Girl Dolls. I know, right? I'm sad to report this because, like just about every parent of daughters, I am very angry with myself for not coming up with the American Girl Dolls concept. Girls? Dolls? I should have started that company. And like parents everywhere, I now pay preposterous sums of money for my lack of imagination.

American Girls, you no doubt know, are these dolls that emit small ultrasonic pulses that attract girls between the ages of 5 and 13. There are different kinds of American Girl Dolls -- the "Just Like Me" dolls you can make look like your child, the Historical Dolls that are supposed to be from various times in American history, the Bitty Babies -- because different ultrasonic pulses are needed to attract different girls. But it doesn't really matter. They're all coming for your wallet. There are American Girl books, movies, dresses, nightgowns, swimsuits, accessories, TV shows, pianos, cars, boats, desks, parlors … and on … and on … and on.

There are only about a dozen American Girl stores around the country -- one is in a mall near Atlanta. You can take your doll to brunch there. We did. You can take your doll to her own stylist. We didn't do that, at least. You can stay at a hotel with an American Girl package where they make your child's room pink and they give the girl and the American Girl matching robes and … you didn't want to know any of this, did you? I didn't either. The girls loved it.

Anyway, I was able to break away from the American Girl fog for a few minutes to get my hair cut at some place that looked like it would be quick and hassle free. I have become something of an expert at finding hair cut places that are quick and hassle free … and this one met all three qualifications: (1) It was in a strip mall. (2) It was, apparently, called "Haircuts." That's all the sign said. General rule: The simpler the name, the quicker the in-and-out. (3) It was pretty close to empty.

Add a fourth element: It was also a holiday weeknight. This looked to me like a nine-minute haircut. Perfect.

Only, something unexpected happened. The barber asked me how I wanted my hair cut, like always, and I said "Short" and he nodded. And he went to work. No more questions. Very little talking. The way this usually goes is the barber/stylist takes an electric razor with a a 1 1/2 extension, buzzes through the hair, makes a token effort to keep the sideburns even, buzzes the eyebrows and we're out. But this guy … no. He went to work. He used a least four different kind of razors. He used scissors. He pulled out a straight edge razor to to clean off the hair on my neck. He kept going back to straight out something, perfect something else, rework one other thing.

My first thought was: "Come on, let's go." But after a little while, I started to gain an appreciation for the guy. He really seemed to be working hard. And after a little while longer, my appreciation turned into admiration. Wow, he really cares. And then admiration became out-and-out esteem. Who was this guy? He didn't know me. He knew I didn't live in Atlanta -- there was no repeat customer possibilities. There were no other customers in the place, and I doubt any more would be coming. It was dark outside, raining, the weekend after Christmas, he had a family waiting for him. He was working as a barber in a strip mall in an Atlanta suburb and he was cutting the hair of a bald man who couldn't care less how it turned out. And he was working like he was cutting Julia Roberts hair before a big scene.

"You know what you need," he said with a hint of the Mexican accent of his childhood. "You need a shave."

"I don't really …"

"You need a shave."

He was right. I needed a shave. I needed a shave in the worst way. It wasn't just that I actually needed a shave -- I had not shaved for a couple of days -- no, at the end of a very long year I needed a SHAVE. And the guy gave me a SHAVE, all capital letters. There were two hot towels. Two. There was an ice cold towel -- I mean ICE cold. There were oils and creams and rubs and gels and I can only guess what. It was a half hour of shaving at least, maybe more. That's a half hour when I couldn't do anything -- couldn't check my email, couldn't go to Twitter, couldn't check the latest news, couldn't play this little racing game on my phone. The guy just kept shaving and shaving and shaving … he wasn't going to miss a single stubble. And all I could think about was how much this guy cared about doing a good job. The manager of the place told the guy that after he was done with me, he could go home. But he just kept on working the shave.

That's when I started thinking about Bruce Springsteen. I have started and restarted a post at least a dozen times about the Bruce Springsteen concert I saw in Oakland a few weeks ago. I wouldnt say it was the best Springsteen show I've ever seen -- I think one I saw in Kansas City was better. But that concert, in many ways, was the most FUN concert I've been to in my life -- right up there with the Midnight Oil show I saw in Atlanta when I was 25.

I have tried hard to think why it was so much fun. I mean, some of it is obvious. Springsteen came out with about 584 different musicians and opened up with "Land of Hope and Dreams" -- what has become the baseball song -- and it sounded great. His voice was full. He was engaged. He roared through "Cover Me" -- shocking Little Steven by demanding an obviously unexpected guitar solo. He crowd0surfed through "Hungry Heart" though the crowd was confused by this concept (Springsteen kept pointing to the stage, and the crowd did not seem to be picking up the cue. "Never again," Springsteen shouted when he finally made it across). He was emotionally caught up by "My City of Ruins" -- stopping in the middle of it to ask the crowd if there was someone they were missing on this night. He was funny and happy when he danced with a Hungarian woman during "Pay Me My Money Down."* He loved it when Nils Lofgren did his famous 360 guitar solo.

*At some point in every Springsteen concert now, he goes through the audience and collects requests -- people will write down songs they want him to play on various kinds of signs. Someone wrote as a request "Dance with a Hungarian woman," and so Bruce did. Although the funniest part was that someone had requested  "Born To Run." "You don't have to request that," Springsteen said happily. "You're gonna get Born to Run."

Oh yes, he joyously roared through Born to Run. He blasted through Dancing In the Dark and Badlands and Tenth Avenue Freeze Out like it wasn't the 10,000th time. Though it was. It was typically energetic and joyous and great -- the very reason I keep going to Bruce Springsteen concerts.

But there was something else about this concert, something unspoken and mysterious and difficult to sum up.

Only, as this guy was shaving me … I got it. Bruce Springsteen knows something. This guy in the Atlanta barber shop knows something. And it's something worth knowing. They certainly have bad days. They certainly have exhausted moments. They certainly have times in their lives when they want to mail it in, give half an effort. Who, really, would notice? Springsteen could do Born to Run in his sleep and most people would think it was the greatest thing ever. This guy could cut the shave short and I'd have no clue. 

So what do they know? They know what I would love my daughters to know … that life is about delivering your best effort, giving the best you have, all the time, even when you're tired, even when you're discouraged, even when you are alone, even when other people will not see it or acknowledge it or even accept it. Sure, it was Oakland. It was a Friday night, another stop in another city on another tour. And Springsteen is in his 60s now, not the young rocker, not the boy pulling out of here to win, not the strutter who knows it's hard to be a saint in the city, not the kid who just got a big advance from the record company. 

Only, there was Springsteen -- 63 years old now -- and giving all he had. It's like every song he was actually singing, "I love this. Sure, I could be on a beach somewhere drinking Pina Coladas. I could be giving half an effort and cashing checks. But what's the point of that? What kind of life is that? I would rather be right here, right now, doing this than anything else." And the people sang with him -- they too were exactly where they wanted to be. And being around that spirit, that sense of purpose, that much love of life is about as much fun as anything in the world.

Well, yes, I do romanticize Bruce Springsteen shows. And Atlanta shaves. When the shave and haircut was over, I sat up and felt my face -- smoother than it had been in years. The guy looked down proudly and said, "Ah, now you are a new man." Hey, maybe. It's a new year. You never know.