I want to find a hairdresser. Or a barber – the difference is a matter of cost and prevalence of ‘product’. In my case hair is not prevalent and product finds little to work on.
I don’t really need a haircut, not even a trim of my whiskers. The purpose of my trip to the barber is to get close to people. Barbers, like doctors (in older times the two professions were one) are people who work intimately with the body. They are paid to touch, like embalmers, sex-workers and massagers. (Many years ago, while still unhappily captive in the virginal state I visited a number of massage parlours in Hong Kong. I was a window shopper; I left untouched, a confusing experience for the service providers.)
Here in Yangon I want to bring my short hairs to the hairdresser. I ask the concierge form directions. She smiles – I’d pay good money any day just to bathe again in the smiles of Yangon – and says ‘Certainly sir’. It is very close. Just next door. Fortunately she does not add ‘You can’t miss it’, because I know I can. And I do.
I take the escalator to the third floor of the building indicated by the smiling one. I step off the moving stair and find myself in a supermarket whose narrow aisles and jampacked shelves are an indoor replica of the street markets outside. No-one here speaks English. In the home hygiene section – which is very close to the smoked, salted, cured and pickled fish section – an employee smiles and wants to help.
“Barber?”, I ask.
She smiles and shakes her head.
Another smile, another shake.
Between the fishes crowded in their oily jars and the soaps and toothbrushes and loofas, we two are a crowd. I perform a cramped charade in which I shave myself and finger-scissor my scalp. This time the smiles come with a nodding of the head. The lady points to her left, waves to her right, semaphores straight on, sir, smiles, nods a few times and farewells me. Three minutes later I am back. This time my lady of the home hygiene and fish section conducts me in person to the hairdressers whose shopfront I had passed a number of times, its windows being full of dated-looking TV sets and computers and earphones.
Inside there are three chairs. In one a lady of middle years sits with bits of silver paper in her hair. Her naked feet are being rubbed with oils, her calluses pumiced and her nails trimmed and painted.
She looks sublimely ridiculous. And contented.
A matronly woman waves me to an old fashioned barber’s chair, sits me down and drapes my front in a thin cape of pink cotton. The cape has pretty frills at the hem. The lady does not speak. Should I?
After a silence I look up and back over my shoulder and follow my hair lady’s gaze to the TV set on the far side of the room. She watches as a man steals up a darkened stairwell towards another who is unaware of his approach.
The scene, in black and white, is one of mounting suspense. The stair climber carries a heavy handgun. His quarry, a skinny bloke, walks around the landing aimlessly, whistling. His hands are empty. The man with the gun is powerfully built and has a menacing way with his unaimed gun.
The camera shifts from the armed climber to the unwitting waiting man. The waiting man turns his back to the stairwell at just the moment when he might have seen the climber’s warning shadow fall on the floor before him. Gunman broaches the top stair, raises his gun and abruptly the screen is occupied by a slim lady wearing bright fabrics of non-black and white who invites the viewer to become rich overnight by buying a ticket in the lottery.
My hairdresser releases an audible outbreath. The lady with silver paper in her hair breathes out, her foot beautifiers and the four of five unemployed adults crowded around the screen all relax and my hairdresser has time to ask: Mister, you America?
I am not. I say Australia. The lady nods and smiles happily – Yes, Austria. My sister Germany. Another happy smile.
I say and I show that I’d like my whiskers cut short. I indicate the clippers. The TV show is altogether too engrossing and too exciting for me to submit to the cut-throat razor.
There is no further conversation. My lady flicks a switch, the clippers hum a soft, low speed sort of hum and start idly to nibble at my stubble. The man with the gun aims at the skinny whistler. His shot misses and the skinny man starts to pay attention. My hairdresser does not: her clippers cruise the surface of my face in a pacifist manner, threatening neither hair nor hide.
Skinny man knows how to handle himself. His movements are a fluid flurry of legs and arms as he spins low towards the bulky man. His kick to the armpit of the shooter – the gunman’s arm is raised as he fires again – disarms the thick man and upsets him. The hairdressers and the foot beautifiers and the crowd of unspecified watchers closer to the screen (now grown to eight persons) are united in their appreciation of the kick. The gun slides to the staircase, the thick man regains his feet, he shows his teeth to the skinny spinning man and closes with him.
For the next many minutes the two men wrestle, trade fatal blows to vital organs, throw each other across the landing, stomp on feet, faces and hands, hyperextend joints to dislocation point and grunt a lot.
To this point the scriptwriter has not earned his wage. Neither has the cutter of my beard: my face is warm with the caress and massage of the innocuous clippers and my beard is intact.
During the next ad break an oversize sack of rice makes its way from the escalator towards the wide open door of the parlour. Grasping the sack are two thin brown arms. Above the sack the skinny face of a young male looks seriously this way and that.
No-one speaks. The bag of rice is dumped onto a counter directly in front of the TV. Now voices rise in urgent chorus. A clamouring as the thin hand waves a receipt, someone signs, money changes hands, the rice man counts it and leaves at just the moment that the skinny man grabs the gun and chucks it down the stairwell. Meanwhile a third man steps from the elevator and enters the landing unseen. He assists the bulky man in overpowering the athletic skinny man. This takes a good ten minutes of grunting and emotionless brutality, as the skinny man performs a good deal of ballet and aerial escape. With every escape the crowd in the salon claps, with every reverse they draw breath.
Ultimately, the newcomer presses the elevator UP button, the elevator arrives and is despatched upwards. The man now forces open the outer elevator doors in time for his teammate to fling the aerialist through the open door into the lift well. The flinger grunts, the aerialist screams, a crashing sound is heard and the multihued lottery lady appears and invites us all to buy some more tickets.
The crowd is silent stunned.
I can’t help feeling my face is an anti-climax. But the haircutting lady appears satisfied: she switches off the humming clippers, examines my face, nods her head, holds a mirror behind me (an odd thing to do as the arena of all her operations has been anterior), nods her head again, rubs some Chanel No. 5 onto my face and jowls and removes my pink frilly cape.
She accepts ten American dollars without complaint. And I’m happy: I reckon ten dollars is a fair sum for the live entertainment and the TV show.