Shorn Again

How I lost the Jesus look

| November-December 1996

Of all the unnerving experiences in my life—being shot at, riding an airplane through a cyclone, studying algebra—none quite matches leading a procession of children day after day through the narrow streets of a southern Italian hill town, all of them shouting “Gesu Cristo, Gesu Cristo” at the top of their small lungs to mark my embarrassed passage.

I brought this on myself, I now realize. In 1977, when most longhairs had long since retired into suburban careers, I still sported a mat like the one that cloaked John Barrymore’s shoulders in Svengali. I stood out as an obvious mark. Still, the comparison to Jesus seemed strange. The village priest had presumably warned the populace that Christ would reappear only at the end of an exceptionally nasty string of disasters. The great earthquake that devastated southern Italy would not hit for another three years, no new rough beast had taken to plying the Ionian Sea, and in any event, I lacked the necessary glow.

I was accustomed to more secular criticism. Earlier that year, a Russian émigré filmmaker had studied me with a stern eye through his lens and pronounced, “Your hair is too big.” But I liked my hair long, a symbol of remonstrance in post-Watergate America, and I did nothing more than smile and forevermore nurse a loathing for his work, which never found a following outside one or two art theaters. Yet, after a week or two of enduring the children’s jeers and with another three months to go on the archaeological mapping project I was working on, I decided the time had come to swallow my pride and join the ranks of the well groomed.

The town’s barbershop lay in the main piazza, across from the requisite Norman castle and a bad statue of a Fascist general who had been born in a villa on the flats below. The barber opened his shop before dawn and did most of his business then, for, like farmers everywhere, the contadini of Basilicata province are hard at their planting and weeding and harvesting well before sunrise. My colleagues and I, busily mapping the southern reaches of the Appian Way, were also in the fields by 5:00 in the morning, but our workday ended at noon, when the townspeople had their big meal and then adjourned for a long siesta. The barber reopened earlier in the afternoon than did most of the other shopkeepers, about 2:30, when the streets were empty, and the sounds of him stropping his razors were the only punctuation marks in the still, hot summer air. I decided to pay my visit at that quiet hour.



The next day I entered the dark portico, rattled through the doorway of stringed plastic beads, and bid the barber good afternoon. He looked up from his newspaper and for long seconds issued only a thin gargle. Finally he said simply, “Madonna,” and motioned me to sit with the air of a man on his way to the gallows.

I explained that I wanted my hair cut back to a level that would disqualify me from further comparisons to the Savior, something not too short and reasonably stylish. I gestured to indicate the rough angles at which the barber should proceed, while he tapped his scissors against his wrist and tugged at his gray mustache, studying the problem intently.