Closed Shave: T. O. Bobe, the Girl and Curl

Frank’s Barber Shop was located on the north side of Chicago, slightly off Milwaukee Ave. Aside from his perfect turnedoutedness, Frank also played some mean cuatro-style on his guitar while reclining between cuts on a vacant chair. The TV never got an antenna, so telenovelas shorted in and out while people came and went with gossip and children getting a summer trim. Frank finally returned to Puerto Rico in the early ‘oughts (possibly via Charon), leaving his amiable if usually drunk assistant to serve a dwindling clientele. Several years later, the Kraft durch Brewing corps and rentier speculators closed Frank’s shutters forever. Que sera sera, as the late Doris and Sly sang – es la vida barbaro in the twilight of a town’s guild trades.

The red and white barber’s column came from the Moors, when haircutters were also bone setters. The candycane spiral of cells denoting propriety, neatness, and care of the outer self has since became ubiquitous. An old story from the Gold Rush mentions the self-proclaimed ‘world’s fastest barber’, who could shave and cut a customer in under a minute. Though he reportedly never drew a drop of blood, business was dire. The lesson is that some gimmicks just will not work, especially near the throat. Mr. Gică, the hero of T. O. Bobe’s masterful Bucia (Curl), might understand, but he is a far less flashy operator. Bobe is the leading examiner of kitsch in Romania, a kind of anti-Eliade who snoops around the trash dump rather than the hierophant. Bucia is already a classic back home and has now been translated into English with great élan by Mr. Sean Cotter. T.O. also writes for television and the flicks. I imagine his TV show as strange snippets playing at 3 AM on a set malfunctioning like Frank’s.

Bucia is made-up of the musings and visions of a certain Mr. Gică, the ‘world’s greatest barber’. Mr. Gică is a good-natured Underground Man whose Anglicized name almost makes an overcoat (G, as in Masonic or gangster – concealed arms, conspiracy). His pensées gently prod a universe of objects with the patience of a crab. He listens to Piaf singing rien, which sounds rain in English but not in limba română where it limbos less than nothing (which is nimic – or mimic?). Regret is best done in the afternoon, collecting on the windows of an empty room of a closed shop. You also cut in film editing – or mutilate, as in the Past (celluloid leader also curls, and unexposed footage is likened to a worm’s tail in Catalan). This is just a movie in a book for barbers, maybe for hairstylists too… I know, my love, that I am in a different movie, that our names are already scrolling in different credits, I know for sure that in the crowd by the exit, we will be alone. s Mr. Gică’s scrap-confessions are in the form of homework, word-lists and psychic dictation, formal announcements in different voices, all perversely moving and petrified. And it is hard not to see this barber as a Japanese traveler wandering in late evening thoughts: Pagodas stacking their dreams against each other. Bobe’s strategy is serious-minded I think, though giving it more weight than a gray scalp would dull the edges. He is comic without being cruel; a classicist, but the keeled kind. Naturally Señor Gică has a muse, the Dulcinea-pale goddess for all old men made fools by mulling over younger girls – younger girls still young in old men’s memories, now clipped down to daydreams. But mostly dl. Gică cuts the hair of footballers. A barber does not practice his trade at night.

Ice Cube was right when he said that the death of a barber shop is the death of a whole way of life. With the closure of even the most disreputable joints – and this even goes for churches – the social world is cut down to a bald nothingness of transparently-evil markets and FIRE sales. The word-games that abound in Curl are what passes for company in a fallen world of isolates, the last of a disfigured Self of cuts where the nomanklatura catches Ulysses in Cyclops’ other eye. The Securitate has given up watching, or it has taken to making privatized soap operas for new aristocrats and TinyUrls. Lightness is Bobe’s Tesla weapon: dove’s footsteps, snow and down and foam. Likewise, Nasee Yehuda, the proprietor of Madison Street Barbers (2429 W.), is known as the Ace of Fades and is no phony. Guinness says that as of Oct 2018, Anthony Manichelli of New York, at 107 years old (and with no plans to retire), is the world’s oldest practicing barber.

Hair and nails keep growing, the first reminder of death observed long before the myths made around watery reflections and burnished bronze. The Fayum mummy portraits seem so realistic only because everyone has a decent haircut; the rest is too real for real (or surreal). Life-portraiture was an intermediary image, not an impious wish for immortality or a memorious hostage-taking. So machines needed to be inserted between seer and seen, under the patent of Lucifer the Light Bringer. Photography captures a paranormal made normal, a paramemory which haunts the living with a likeness of memories seized from the departed. It is no wonder that séances and spirit photography also pushed camera technology forward, along with the terrorism of documentary drive and the temptations of Cubism. Camera hides chimera.

Which brings us to the three Rembrandts now on display at Chicago’s Art Institute. The most curious of them is the most banal. It may not even be by him, exactly. The Master’s 1645 Young Woman at an Open Half-Door shows a stable girl – or is she a barbara, a ‘barber’s wife; that is prostitute or ‘dishonest woman’, a word that also conjures wine-dark and Cimmerian – staring mysteriously off stage left, hands on a Dutch door. Much could be hazarded about her look – post-tryst, suspicion, looking to get out, an accusatory glance etc. This is a psychological reuse in oils which almost presages the snapshot, but not quite.

Endless reproduction – and also the possibilities of forgery, motion, and evidential deception – coopts each agonized reverie as if to taunt us with the remains of a Past that photography has now rendered untrustworthy. In contrast, Rembrandt’s portraits show anonymity or generalization using particular scars, noses, watery eyes, eccentricities of hand or grin (see his anatomy lesson with its twisted duplicate hand; the portrait of an old man often mistaken for his father, etc). People on the street reminded those who looked at his portraits of the painted hands (and nails), painted mothers, and painted smiles initialed by Rembrandt. He was not interested in the future, which was the present from where everyone has always seen and from where they will always. This is why there is nothing of the ghostly in any of his paintings. The idea that the paintings of the dead have anything to do with the dead is a sentimental reproach of the modern expert, who, like even the greatest photographer, sees a potential grave in everything. Life is never enough. Death and its messengers are in everything.

Rembrandt was very cheerful, like Van Gogh and like T. O.’s barber (Theo’s?). The puns and references of Curl are the late-period transit excursions of his sitters. The young girl is playing a trick, which is evident from a smile that extends inward despite the red-herring of an out-of-frame focal point: she is not looking at your present or your shoes or your fly. Although there is certainly a bit of Scheherazade there, fending off the Reaper with mundane tasks like Mr Gică does with his poems (a book called Seasons is excerpted, but I don’t think Bobe means us to think the barber wrote it; rather, it’s an imaginary and unnecessary MS.), Rembrandt’s girl deals in a present of no mysticism. The difference between the Romanian and the Dutchman is flat time, flowing and flown. And also the neoliberal epoch, as opposed to that of classical commercial capital. Between hair long-lived and the heart – fingernails, too – is the Deluge and another curling star on barb and mane. Moon, Saracen and cuckoo clock. But limb, not tongue because, after Mr. Gică’s death, his hair will grow a little, proving its independence, showing that its parallel life is a little out of synch, like the sound in a satellite transmission.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.