James has never had a good experience in a barber's chair. For reasons he's never been able to fully articulate, haircuts have always brought high anxiety.
He's bounced around over the years from low-cost hair-styling chains to high-end salons, never finding satisfaction.
"I find it exhausting that there's a part of my body demanding this kind of attention," he says. "In some ways I long for the day when I'm old, tired, bald, and no longer give a damn."
The whole ritual is fraught with discomfort for James. He doesn't handle any part of it with aplomb.
Last week was typical. He walked into a Great Clips in south Minneapolis with his stringy, limp brown hair appearing every bit as if dropped there from a second-story window.
He felt the eyes of everyone in the room settle on him as he moved awkwardly though the doorway.
"It may be all in my head, but I don't think they see a person walking in the door. I think they see an arduous afternoon project with limited potential. I just don't have good hair."
James says he has yet to find an easy answer for stylists who ask what kind of cut he's looking for.
"What I want to say is, 'Make me as handsome as you can. Take this head of mine and create something wondrous.' What I end up saying is, 'Just off the ears and just off the collar.'"
The cut itself is only half the battle. James's frustration at being unable to eloquently direct the stylist is matched by his fear of the conversation that follows. He is a private person who would just as soon avoid small talk, but he worries that stylists prefer chatter to help pass the time. Long silences are as uncomfortable as stilted dialogue. He wants the patter to center on the weather, or the news, but invariably he's asked what he does for a living.
"I don't like to tell them that I run an exotic pet and reptile store. I'm certain they'll make assumptions about my personality. Instead I just say I answer phones for a dental office. They drop the subject after that."
With this trip to Great Clips, James had one of those clumsy moments that have often haunted his haircuts over the years. The 40-something stylist had positioned herself to his left side and was bumping into his elbow, which jutted out from the arm of the barber chair.
"My elbow ended up being perfectly in line with her crotch, and when she leaned into it I frantically deliberated whether or not to pull it back. Moving it suddenly could send the message that I knew something awkward was occurring, and that might just create more tension. But leaving it in place could make it appear as if I'm some sort of pervert.
"What helped was that the woman was talking the entire time, explaining how she and her father had never gotten along and that her parents split up when she was 15. But my elbow began to feel as if it were actually on fire. It bothered me that she wasn't backing off of it. I thought of pretending to cough, using that as an excuse to shift the elbow, bringing my hand up to cover my mouth, but my whole arm was stuck under that damn bib. I had this creepy sensation of being thrust into a cheap porn film. Then she stepped to the back of my head with her clippers and I realized I needed to stop thinking so much."
When the cut was complete, the stylist moved her hand mirror around James's head and asked if he was satisfied. He said yes, as he always did, even though it was yet another cut that made him feel unattractive and boring.
"What am I going to say at that point, 'Do it again'? My hair's already on the floor. I don't look like any of the photos on the wall, and they're obviously unable to do anything about that."
James tipped her nonetheless, as if absolving her of responsibility for another cut that made him look like a Lutheran minister. He walked out to his car with gel, spray, and conditioner, hoping to continue the project in the privacy of his own home.
Next month he would visit a different barber, perhaps the expensive place downtown. But the boost to his self-esteem would prove elusive, and within a year the mid-life balding process would begin in earnest.