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Bacolod City, Philippines Friday, November 15, 2019
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with Carlos Antonio L. Leonardia

Kuwentong Barbero


I have a confession to make: I have not been to a barbershop or hair salon in more than a decade.

Ever since I accepted my fate, stopped worrying about my balding head, and bought myself a hair clipper, my bi-weekly haircuts have been DIY affairs. I started by recruiting a helper to cut my hair and after some time, gained the confidence to cut my own hair. Over the years, I have gone through three hair clippers but I also reckon that whatever I spent on my DIY hair cutting equipment is far less than what I would’ve spent on haircuts, shampoo and hair products had I continued living in denial.

I was reminded of my breakup with the barbershop last week while at the mall, when I was in the ATM queue and the machine was beside one such shop. The wait was boring and I was somehow people watching instead of playing with my phone to amuse myself.

The barbershop had a lone customer: a guy getting a haircut. I was watching the barber do his thing and reflecting about my life as a bald man and how I haven’t been to a barbershop in ages, when I noticed that the barber and his customer weren’t interacting because the latter was too busy with his smartphone.

I started thinking about how things have changed since I stopped getting haircuts. Back then, during an era when smartphones, mobile data or wifi didn’t exist yet, we read the newspaper or a magazine, or actually engaged in the quintessential kuwentong barbero.

Because they wield sharpened steel instruments so close to our face and jugular veins, trust is very important between a barber and his client. We trust them not only with our looks, but during those few minutes, also with our lives. That level of trust is probably the reason why barbershops were conducive for conversations and why we sometimes reveal more than necessary to our barbers during those moments.

I wonder if people still make kuwentong barbero these days. Are today’s barbers still repositories of the town’s gossip and the life stories of its people, or have they become silent automatons who are expected to do their job while their customer scrolls through social media feeds? Is it easier to be a barber now that you don’t have to build rapport with dead-eyed customers and just focus on the hair and not drawing blood?

I remember my barbero when I was a kid up to my teens. He was a guy named Efren and it felt like he knew everybody in town. He cut my hair, my brothers’ and that of almost all my titos’ too. I stopped going to Efren as much after college in Manila, probably because the newly-minted city boy thought his skills were too old school for my cosmopolitan tastes so I was too young to appreciate his talent in making kuwentong barbero.I think he’s retired now but he still makes great small talk whenever I bump into him, usually at church. Efren the barber is one of the few people in Silay who is so memorable for me that I pointed him out to my kids as “That guy used to cut my hair when I had hair.”

For my readers who still have hair: Was what I saw at that mall barbershop an exception to the rule?Are today’s barbers still the chatty fellows who always know what’s going on in town and have a profound sense of its inhabitants’ sentiments on the issues that matter? I’d love to know how barbers see their job and what they think of the world today. Have the deep divisions in society led them to be tempted to slit the throats of some of their more annoying patrons? Do they still know their customers intimately through small talk and conversations while plying their trade, or is their knowledge of customers now limited to making deductions based on what their regulars are always reading on social media while getting a haircut?

The first barbering services were thought to have been performed by Egyptians in 5000 BC. Their instruments then were made from oyster shells or sharpened flint. Men in ancient Greece would have their beards, hair and fingernails trimmed at the marketplace while debating and gossiping. During the middle ages, barbers often served as surgeons and dentists. Throughout this long history, most barbershops were places for debate, gossip, male bonding or what we call kuwentong barbero.

How are barbershops coping with the internet, this era of fake news and fanaticism, and the proliferation of electronic gadgets and extreme connectivity being enjoyed by humans today? The steady and inevitable growth of hair on our heads and faces will ensure that they will continue to do business for at least another millennia, but is our increasing physical isolation amidst this electronic hyper-connectivity affecting what used to be the secondary and social purpose of the barbershop?

Is kuwentong barber going the way of the floppy disk?*  

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