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Kindest cuts

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While the rest of the kids were getting their oil changed over spring break, I was getting my ears lowered. I visited the guy who gave me my first haircut as a child. He was still cutting hair, one day a week, in the same upstate New York joint he'd been working in for 40 years. And it felt like that long since I'd last seen him.

Remo has been barbering his whole life. He arrived from Italy in the late 1950s, a confirmed scissor-and-comb guy who had to be trained on electric clippers. A friend found him a chair in the shop he later bought. In my mind's eye, across the decades, that shop seemed as big as a football field--sunlit and sparkling clean.

Present-day reality was a little more mundane. The shop seemed tiny, a little dingy with age, and lit with bare fluorescent bulbs. The embossed tin ceiling hadn't changed, though, and neither had the tiny black-and-white tiles on the floor. And there was Remo himself, still gracious and workmanlike in his 70s.

All of the sights and sounds came back: The feel of the paper strip going around my neck, and the clip that held it in place; the striped cloth he threw over me; and the exotic bottles that lined the counter. There was the Ajax strongman and his display of unbreakable combs, and another display of nail clippers. There was the big soft brush that Remo doused with Pinaud Clubman Talc and used to scatter the tiny hair clippings.

Barbers provide a special kind of intimacy for men. They're part uncle, part friend, and part touchstone. They tell stories. And they listen. Maybe that's why I remember mine so well.

When I lived out west, there was Ben, a staff barber at Columbia Pictures in the 1940s. His job had been to cut the Three Stooges' hair. Where else could I have learned that Shemp had the most luxurious hair, that Curly swore a blue streak, and that Moe was kind enough to loan Ben the money to open his own place?

Since moving to the Triangle, though, it's been hard to find a barber I can connect with. There was the Christian barbershop up the street, which lured me in with a free coupon delivered by the Welcome Wagon. While I don't mind hearing "God bless you" after I sneeze, I don't need to hear it after I get my haircut. Then there was Grady at the Friendly Barber Shop in Carrboro, who also had four decades in the business. I asked how he got by during the long-haired days of the 1960s and '70s, and he remembered having to work part-time as a bail bondsman and repo man to make ends meet. Hiding in the bushes wasn't his cup of tea, though, and he stuck to barbering. We could have had a good thing going, but it was cut short by Grady's untimely death.

There was Austin in downtown Cary, but his place is always full, and I can't spend all afternoon reading GQ. Then, there was Bill in Morrisville, the son of a Pentecostal minister. He didn't quite cut it for me either. He spends a lot of time playing online slots and wouldn't see the last Star Wars movie "if it were playing across the street on a Sunday."

I'm still looking for a place to lay my head.

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