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Trinidad with all the trimmings
“Is there a wait?” I say, popping my head round the sliding door of a barbershop in Port-of-Spain.
“A white?!” One of the coiffeurs asks, perplexed. The whole shop turns to look at me.
“A wait!” I repeat, before adding apologetically, “I’m from England.”
“Oh!” The shop erupts with laughter.
Barbershop experiences in Trinidad are entertaining, just like my barber’s back home, Kenny’s in Wood Green, where last year a teenager was stabbed while sitting in the chair and in January gunshots were fired outside.
My haircutting history is chequered. Our mother used to cut our hair, which often ended in tears and demands for the damage to be rectified by the Nigerian hairdresser at the end of the road who barked instructions and had fly-paper dangling from the ceiling covered in fly carcasses. Eventually our mum had enough of our ungrateful complaints.
“Here’s £5!” she said. “Get it done yourself.”
These were my early teenage years. The “hi-top fade” was in fashion, modelled on the movie House Party. I couldn’t risk my credibility being tarnished because of my mother’s ineptitude with the clippers.
I don’t have fully afro hair, nor do I have white hair so I was in a grey area. Did I go to a black barber, a white one or a non-ethnically affiliated one?
My brother and I experimented with Caribbean barbers but found them too brusque, spinning us round in the chair and jabbing away with the clippers. Eventually we settled on a Greek-Cypriot barber. We grew up in an area with a large Greek-Cypriot community. The owner, Chris, and his sons had curly hair; it seemed to make sense.
Chris’s became our go-to barber for years. He was polite, courteous, good with the scissors and only mildly racist. In such a multicultural area he had a plethora of targets, but he’d look carefully around the shop before launching into a cheerful tirade.
“These bloody Albanians!” he’d say, peering into the mirror, scanning the waiting area. “These bloody Turks/Muslims/Poles…” The ethnicity was interchangeable. I’m sure when I wasn’t in there it was “these bloody blacks!”
It was just his way of making small talk. Casual racists lack imagination and xenophobia is an easy substitute for meaningful conversation.
We outgrew Chris’s after a while. Casual racism becomes tiresome when your protests fall on deaf ears. I drifted through a series of meaningless relationships with barbers—my criteria were: (a) was it cheap? (b) could I park outside? (c) will the barber do exactly as I instruct?
Perhaps I was too demanding in these relationships. They would start off with that exciting thrill of the unknown, blossom into camaraderie but then something would happen. Maybe a stray hair left uncut or an overly savage skinhead cut. Things would turn tense, cold. I would make my excuses and look for somewhere else. With barbers it’s best to make a clean break; you can’t be seeing another barber on the side. They know. They always know.
Eventually I found Kenny’s. I was scared at first. The dancehall and reggae booming out on a Saturday afternoon was intimidating. The chip shop next door appeared threatened by their proximity. It was a hub for stoned locals who appeared from their council estates via the betting office. It was a hub for Chinese “pirate” DVD vendors plying their trade.
It was staffed by a Jamaican from Portland with thick, long dreads and a Swedish wife, a British-born Trinidadian with a passion for fried food and a mad tattooed St Lucian who was only 21 but had fathered three children with three different women.
Conversation ranged from football to Vybz Kartel and back again. When girls passed the shop they would break away from their customers and run to the doorway to watch them.
After the stabbing they had security cameras installed and a security lock on the door. When I told them I was moving to Trinidad they were excited and jealous.
“You have to try doubles,” said the Trinidadian. “You have to try the weed,” said the Jamaican. “You have to try the women,” said the St Lucian. Kenny’s prepared me for the madness of barbers in PoS.
On Duke Street the barbershop is a liming spot. Drunk customers refuse to pay and get locked in. Men chip in to buy bottles of puncheon. Lotto results are a major event. Sunday Punch keeps you occupied while you wait.
My first Trini barber, in Hadeed’s on Henry Street, was hit by a car and died.
Meanwhile, at my newly discovered barber the laughter eventually died down but soon the surrealism reached new heights.
A woman came in selling products and I heard prices called and orders placed. Turning round, expecting it to be haircare products, I see sex toys in boxes!
“I get these for my girl so that when I’m away she won’t go looking for a next man,” my barber says. I try not to imagine where his fingers have been.
On the TV, Italy vs Uruguay threw up a shock result and a predictable vampiric assault by Luis Suarez. I pay the man his $40.
“Do you know a guy called Benny in England?” he asks me.
“Does he live in London?” I say
“I don’t know.”
“London is quite a big place...”
“He’s a Trini,” he says. I look at him, nonplussed.
You wouldn’t get this level of comedy in a salon and that’s why I’m sticking with my grimy barbershops, with all the trimmings.