You’re not there to talk. You’re there to listen. To the hum of the electric razors, to the snipping of clippers. To men telling stories—stories of immaculate women they saw walking down the street just once, of the majestic hair they had before it started receding. To fathers with sons, the fathers using words the sons never hear at home with Mom. To a team of barbers bantering back and forth, ribbing each other in a way that isn’t quite harmless, telling inside jokes, referencing events that happened two days ago, two years ago, two decades ago, like a bar band that’s spent the past 20 years playing dive after dive. If you’re in a young guy’s hangout like Freemans, you’ll hear tales of chasing skirts, of fishing trips, of dads who forbid tattoos. If you’re in a place like Neighborhood Barbers, in New York’s East Village, you’ll hear mostly Russian (or is it Ukrainian? Best not to ask) and find yourself wondering if the place is a front for the mob. (And you’ll find yourself thinking that if it is, the cut’s totally worth it.)
You’ll do this as you peruse the pages of an old Playboy, or the Swimsuit Issue. (Put the iPhone away. Your email can wait.) When it’s your moment in the chair, you’ll maintain your silence, speak only when spoken to. If you’re a regular—this, of course, is the ideal—you might not have to utter a word. If not, a little explanation may be necessary, but be clear, be precise, most of all be quick. From there, you must trust. When handed a mirror to inspect the back, nod in approval, or shrug as if to say “We both know this isn’t quite right yet.” He’ll know. When done, you’ll express your gratitude quickly (“Thank you”) and then silently (waving off the change, giving a little something for the effort). On your way out, stop for just a moment, take it all in, the buzzing, the whirring, the classic rock station—there’s a good chance you’ll catch a few perfect strains of something like “American Girl” playing. And you may wonder if you’ve ever heard anything so perfect in your life, which is exactly the point. You’re here to listen.