I have never been fond of barbers, but now I may have found the perfect antidote to my apprehensions at PePe’s Barber Shop in Mérida, Mexico. Colonia Alemán to be precise.
My hair is too fine, and has a mind of its own, and there is an intractable cowlick. As a child it didn’t really bother me. There were low expectations, and the bi-weekly walk down the hill to the barber shop was a ritual that felt comfortable. From college days on, however, it became a chore, even if all I ever wanted was a simple haircut.
In the nineties, during three years in Los Angeles, I frequented a Korean barber in the building next to my apartment. We never spoke a mutually intelligible word, but our pantomime routine achieved fairly acceptable results. In Delray Beach, Florida, I felt reduced to patronizing large chains with barbers who never seemed to remain more than a month or two.
It is difficult to feel loyalty under such circumstances. When we moved to Boynton Beach, Florida I was delighted to find a more traditional shop where the barbers had been ensconced for years. They knew me by name, and welcomed my return visits. Their shop was a true period piece; one might not have been surprised if Floyd from “The Andy Griffith Show” were to step from the rear storeroom. The clientele was consistent, and one generally had to wait a bit, even if an appointment had been arranged. There were magazine racks filled with appropriately macho journals such as “Guns and Ammo” or “Field and Stream.” At some point they must have realized that not all clients fit the stereotypes, so there was also a solitary copy of Architectural Digest.
Within a few blocks of our house in Mérida there are several barber shops The first is run by a smartly dressed young man whose shop features posters of other smartly dressed and smartly coiffed young men plastered on the walls. The cost was half of what I paid in Florida, so it seemed reasonable. The other patrons were much younger than I, and the music blaring from the speakers was geared toward them. They seemed to think the exotic cuts in the posters might be flattering. But for me it just wasn’t a good fit, and I lack the apparently requisite tattoos and piercings!
I decided to give the second, more archaic, shop a try. It is called Estetica PePe. Pepe has been running his business for decades in the same place, with the same decor – no posters on the wall. A sign listed the price at 100 pesos, about US$5.50. I soon discovered this was a source of consternation for locals who are tiring of Mexico’s climbing inflation, but it was half what the other shop had charged and a quarter of many in the U.S. There were no magazines on the table next to the waiting bench, only copies of several daily papers that are read widely in Mérida. A younger woman assisted in PePe’s operation. There was no wait, and she invited me to her chair, asking how I would like my hair cut.
The banter between barbers soon turned to politics, and even with my inept Spanish I could tell they were discussing the ongoing saga of the corrupt governor of Veracruz State, (recently returned to Mexico to face justice), the seemingly universal dislike of the U.S. administration and newly uncovered espionage against journalists trying to ascertain the details of the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in 2014, an ongoing story in the Diario. It all seemed pretty routine for a barber shop.
After ten minutes or so, another client entered, obviously a regular. PePe welcomed him and invited him to his chair. The conversation took a quite unexpected turn at this point, to the famous Yucatecan poet Raúl Renán, who died recently in Mexico City at the age of 89. This alone would have caught my attention, since I had never encountered discussions of poetry during haircuts in the U.S. But I was floored when the barber and his client began to exchange excerpts from Renán’s poetry – from memory!
This was becoming a pretty unique haircut after all – I could hardly believe what I was hearing! I may never hear poetry in a barber shop again, but perhaps I just might. In Mexico, anything is possible.