Haircuts $20
Jason Snell

The old riddle goes like this:

You're in a small town, one with only two barbers. One of the barbers has a terrible haircut -- there are long strands of hair in some places and bald patches in others. His competitor, on the other hand, looks great. Not one hair is out of place.

Which barber do you choose?

The correct answer is that you choose the barber that looks terrible, because if there are only two barbers in the whole town, they must end up cutting each other's hair. The barber with the bald patches is the one who gave the other barber the great haircut.

It's a dumb riddle.

Joe, my old barber, was just like the guy with the nasty hair in the riddle. He looked awful, but his haircuts were cheap and looked sharp. My father and I had been going to Joe since my family moved here 15 years ago. Dad was almost completely bald by the time I was 10, but he still went to Joe every month.

Joe told dirty jokes while he cut hair, and discussed whatever sport happened to be in season at the time. He also loved the kind of food that doctors warn you not to eat. And that's why Joe keeled over mid-haircut one day and dropped face-first onto a floor strewn with little piles of wet hair.

With Joe gone, the only other place in town that I could go was the salon that my mother visits twice weekly to get her hair bleached. The alternative to the salon was putting a bowl over my head and trying to cut it myself.

The moment I walked into the place, I could tell that it was nothing like Joe's barber shop. Joe's smelled faintly of beer and Old Spice, while the salon smelled of wet hair, hairspray, shampoo, mousse, and nail polish. It was a disgusting combination. I wondered about the people who worked there -- what kind of condition were their noses in? Had the stench completely ruined all sense of smell? Maybe they just walked into a salon one day, took a big whiff, and declared, "Ah, haircutting, that's the job for me."

In addition to wishing I had a clothespin stuck on my nose, I felt extremely out of place in the salon. There were women sitting under hairdryers, women getting their nails painted, and a few women with plastic bags and cotton wrapped all around their heads. And I was there, some kid with his hair a bit too long, wearing a faded T-shirt and old jeans that probably needed to be thrown away.

Then I saw the person walking toward me from out of the back of the salon. She was six feet tall if you measured her from the bottoms of her black spiked heels to the top of her wild blonde hair. She was wearing a spandex jumpsuit, with a little red sash tied around her waist. I guess the sash was supposed to make her outfit look more like fashion and less like a wet suit. It didn't help.

"I'm Robin. You must be my three o'clock appointment," the woman said. Her hair was fluffed up several inches above her head all the way around, and I could see dark roots showing underneath it all. She wore four pairs of earrings.

I nodded and smiled. She led me into the back of the shop, and I began to think of what I was going to tell her about my haircut. All I wanted was something simple -- shorter hair. Nothing fancy, just the same style as I was wearing, only shorter. I didn't want to wear a plastic bag on my head, and I didn't want to get my hair cut in some cool new style. I just wanted my hair to look like it always had.

There were sinks in the back of the shop. I sat down in a chair next to one, and she began washing my hair. This was something else that Joe had never done before. It was almost like I had my own personal servant. Clean my shoes, feed the dogs, and while you're at it, wash my hair.

Robin was quite unlike Joe in another way, too. When she leaned forward to begin washing my hair, her chest moved right in front of my face. I was leaning back in a chair, water spraying into my hair, and the only place I could look was straight up. Right into Robin's cleavage.

"So, you're Janice's son, right?" she asked me.

"Yeah," I said to the spandex.

"Are you going to the Junior College now?" Her fingernails were massaging my scalp. It felt great.

"No, just to high school."

"Is this your senior year, then?"

"Hmm?" I was too busy focusing my attention on her right nipple.

"Is this your senior year?"

"Uh... yeah."

"What are you going to do after you graduate?"

"I'm not sure."

She leaned back. Suddenly I could see the ceiling again.

"Okay, let's go back out to the chair," she said, and wrapped a towel around my head.

Robin led me out to a high-backed chair, and I sat in it. She covered me with a plastic sheet, and unwrapped the towel from my wet head.

"How would you like your hair cut?"

I paused for a moment. I hated it when people asked me this question. Did I look like a recent graduate of the Ace School of Beauty? I had no idea about how I wanted my hair cut.

"I don't know. Pretty much the way it was before. Not too short, or it'll stick up all over. A little longer in the back."

"Okay." She began cutting.

She had no problems with my conservative hair style, I guess. Sometimes I wish someone would tell me "change your hair!" It might actually get me to do it. As it is, my hair has looked the same since I was ten years old.

Once I almost did something to change that. I held my head over a sink filled with peroxide for twenty minutes, like a suicidal person holding a loaded gun to their temple. In the end, I chickened out and drained the sink.

"I guess this is the first time you've had your hair done here," she said.

"Hmm?" I wasn't paying attention to what she was saying. Instead, I had been drifting. That's one of the things that always seems to happen to me when I get my hair cut -- I drift, and begin to fall asleep. I don't know what causes it.

"I asked you if this was the first time you've had your hair done here."

"Yeah. My barber died."


How many barbers around town had died in the past few months?


"It's too bad about him. He was a great guy. It's kind of scary that people can die, just like that."

"Isn't it, though?"

That was the end of our conversation, which is just as well. It wasn't exactly material you'd expect to turn up on Nightline.

After Robin had finished cutting and blow-drying my hair, I realized that she had cut it too short. Hair was sticking up all over. She had also cut the sides much shorter than the top. There were no initials carved into my head -- believe me, I checked.

"That'll be 20 dollars," she said.

I handed her the $20 bill that mom had given me. I guess she knew exactly how much a haircut cost here -- about $12 more than Joe charged.

"It was nice having you here. Come back soon."


"Oh -- one more thing."

I turned back around, noticing that there were little black hairs all over my faded T-shirt.

"You should think about getting an earring. In the right ear. It'd look really cute."

I nodded, smiled, and walked out of the salon. Next door to the salon was a jewelry store, one that pierces ears. I knew that fact only because my mother had taken me with her when she had her ears re-pierced when I was seven.

An earring?

I stood outside the jewelry store for a minute or so. Then, scratching my neck, I turned away.

I tried to pat down all the hairs sticking straight up out of my head as I walked back to my car.

I've made up a riddle. It goes like this:

You're in a small town, one with only two hairdressers. One of the hairdressers has fluffy pink hair and a nose ring. The other has the sides of her head shaved, while the back of her hair goes halfway to the floor.

Which hairdresser do you choose?

I'm not sure.

It's a dumb riddle.

Jason Snell ( is the editor of InterText and TeeVee. He's the Features editor at Macworld magazine.

InterText stories written by Jason Snell: "Mr. Wilt" (v1n1), "Haircuts $20" (v1n2), "Peoplesurfing" (v1n3), "Gravity" (v2n1), "The Tired Man and The Hoop" (v2n6), "The Watcher" (v4n3).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Jason Snell.