By Carlo Rotella


It’s your regular barber’s duty, his cultural role, to have pretty much the same conversation with you every time you get a haircut. He streamlines your head inside and out, and sends you back into the world with a renewed sense of continuity, of the throughline that helps define who you are.

My barber and I talk mostly about popular culture of bygone eras—extinct TV shows, forgotten music, and especially newspaper comics. My haircuts aren’t complicated, just the number two clipper and a little clean-up, and they don’t take very long. We can spend the whole time considering the moral greatness of Peanuts, the rigorously sustained unfunniness of The Lockhorns, the genius-level rendering of razor stubble in Tumbleweeds, or the failure of deliberately weird revisionist comics like Zippy the Pinhead to even begin to approach the psychotropic strangeness of square ones like Big George or the blood-freezing Family Circus.

We’re not young, but we’re nowhere near as old as that makes us sound. We’re not crotchety, and we’re not really nostalgic, either. We’ve just tacitly agreed to talk about a past we’re often too young to remember as if it were the present. It’s time travel on a budget.

Barber shops, like boxing gyms and libraries and the corridors of the State House and certain bars, are good places for that kind of time travel. They’re places where the past holds its own against the present and future, places where it can be more desirable, cooler, to be all 1926 than to be all 2013. The past is respected, even glorified, in such places as the source of the meaningful traditions that hold them together.

Of course, my barber and I are making up this past as we go along, piecing it together out of half-remembered fragments. His idea of fidelity to ancient tradition is hauling in a black and white TV to the barbershop so he can show episodes of F Troop on VHS. Mine is turning off my cellphone before I come through his door. At my last haircut we went back way past newspaper comics and ended up discussing the advantages of corresponding with quill and parchment rather than email. We agreed, as if we knew what we talking about, that there was a lot to be said for the times when planning to get together with a friend went something like, “I’ll meet you along the river after the spring thaw.”

Pure fantasy, obviously. But there’s nothing wrong with that; there’s nothing wrong with making it up. It’s probably good for you to invent a bit of high ground, removed from the present, where you can turn your back on the future to take an appreciative look at the past.

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