Nostalgia Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Most of us hue to a blend of nostalgia and modernity, particularly the older we get. We probably color the past a little too beautifully. I’m certainly a victim of that tendency. Add to that my infatuation with all things downtown Knoxville and you have a recipe for, if not disaster, at least problems. When we moved into the city last fall, I spotted the former home of the Union Avenue Barbershop on, of course, Union Avenue. It was in the Daylight Building and they were forced to move when that building was slated for renovation. Soon I found the new location on Walnut Street, around the corner from its original site, and had that rush of nostalgia I get at random times. That was the beginning, though I didn’t know it last winter, of one very bad hair experience.

When I was very small, I got my first haircut at Mr. Welford’s barbershop in Citronelle, Alabama. I loved the whole experience: the smell of the aftershave, the thwack of the razor on the leather straps, the 1920’s era telephone that still worked, the rhythm of the older men’s voices, being with my father in a man’s world. The shop, of course, had an old fashioned barber’s pole out front, though it wasn’t considered old fashioned at the time. Inside there were two windows fronting the street with large inset areas where someone my size could crawl up and get cozy with a comic book and a transistor radio generally tuned to whatever football game I could find on the AM dial. Mr. Welford was a very sweet man who charged a dollar for my haircut and turned around and gave me a dime back to run down the street and buy a coke or a comic book.

These days I wear my hair in a pony-tail, which I like much better than the crew-cut from the Mr. Welford days. I generally get one hair cut per year, and that is done begrudgingly. I don’t particularly enjoy it and I don’t like to waste the money, but it does start to look a bit ragged, so I give in. This time I was excited, feeling that old Mr. Welford vibe, and heading toward the Union Avenue Barbershop. Maybe I should have questioned the wisdom of patronizing a place named something it is not (shouldn’t they be the “Walnut Street Barbershop?”). Maybe I should have gone to one of the several fancy hair places downtown and paid more money. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

I watched the men in front of me get their trims and exchange pleasantries with the barber. I totally gave him the Mr. Welford halo effect. As far as I could tell he did a good job on the lawyers and accountants who preceded me. Maybe I should have watched more closely. When it was my turn, I tried to make small talk (failed) and held my fist over my ponytail to show about how long I wanted it to be when he finished. He wrapped my neck in that old-fashioned onion-skin paper barbers use for some purpose I can’t identify. He lifted my pony-tail and as I waited for him to pull out the pony-tail holder and begin the trim, he raised his scissors and cut the thing off. One slice and done.

A few moments later, stunned, I paid him and quickly walked home to survey the damage. My pony-tail looked more like its name than ever before – a pony’s tail that is chopped off in a straight line. Take my hair down and it is long in the front and short in the back. Worse, it’s so short there is no undoing the damage until it grows out. To even it out now would be to give up the pony-tail I’ve had for twenty years. You’ll have to take my word for it – I can’t bear to post a picture. It made me long for those satisfying days of Mr. Welford’s shop. I didn’t even get money for a comic book. I guess I should be glad I didn’t come out with a crew cut. I suppose downtown can be a dangerous place, after all.