Not Fade Away: One Woman’s Journey to the Barber Chair

click to enlarge PHOTO BY | BRIAN SMITH
Photo By | Brian Smith

It is like you're caught in a long, narrow aquarium full of cicadas. These cutters and their pitched clippers buzz, loop and carve out on heads.

The half-ironic cardboard barber pole standing inches inside the front glass doors says everything, but 2-year-old Dapper Barber Studio sure ain’t your grandad’s tonsorium.

The interior reveals a fetching tableau: Vin Diesel muscles around on multiple hanging flatscreens and a playlist of Latin trap and pop booms through the buzz. Gleaming, speckled black floors uphold a dozen or so cutter stations with grooming chairs and shampoo sinks, each Instagram-ready with free-standing ring lights, smelling vaguely of hair gel and spray antiseptics. Red-trimmed interior, black ceilings, this is more like some orderly, up-to-the-minute tattoo parlor tucked away as it is in a boring, beige-toned strip-mall area shared with a Bashas’ grocery and a Burger King. No beer or scotch offered like some high-end joints in more cosmopolitan cities, but not unlike grandad’s shops of yore, this one still adheres to some traditional working-class roots, sans the uniformed barber.

The place is busy today, nearly all stations filled with customer action, and Meghan German, the sole female employed here, edges the thick-haired head of walk-in customer Ricardo Montano.

The 30-year-old German is turned out in a dark blue T-shirt, fitted blue jeans, black denim bib, barber toolbelt and a freshly sculpted blonde-tipped pompadour fade cut. Her deceptively youthful face and unaffected expressions transmit benevolence and an unjaded air.

The serenity prayer, the forever 12-step chant of attaining grace and wisdom, begins in a tat on one of her forearms and finishes on the other; she’s not an addict, only seeks comfort in the words. The words trail up on one side to colorful references to her nana, who recently died.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY | BRIAN SMITH
Photo By | Brian Smith

With an impressive economy of effort, German maneuvers the clipper around Ricardo’s forehead and hairline, and a face-framing aspect quickly emerges on the short high-top fade cut.

(Fade cuts, you’ll note, consist of longer hair on top, decreasing to a buzz on the back and sides. They include sharp edges, hard right angles, and even designs, like elements of a cartouche. The cut was essentially popularized in the 1940s U.S. military, later in Grace Jones androgyny on the 1980 cover of Warm Leatherette, and by Black barbers and hip-hop stars of the 1980s. Sports heroes, rap and pop stars drive the rebooted style now. It is the kind of head art German continues to learn, will always continue to learn. The artful work is temporary, of course, only to soon vanish as follicle bulbs push up the keratin protein.)

German talks, wry and earnest monologues, emphasizing the personally irrational places she has been able to push herself through to actually arrive at this professional chair. A central question in her life growing up in Tucson was whether a troubled teen could turn her life around before the last bell of high school. She did. But first, at Tucson’s Desert View High, German played center on the boy’s football team, the only girl.“I was a lot bigger in high school, pushing 210,” she laughs. “And no one ever gave me shit for being a girl.”

Later, she got booted from that school. “They were just fed up with me, honestly, said ‘You need to find another school.’ I wouldn’t go. I told everyone off, and I fought a lot.” She landed at alt-school PPEP Tec, a popular choice for at-risk kids, worked her ass off to graduate, essentially four years of high school crammed into one final year.

Moved in and out of her parent’s house, the first time at 17, supported herself working at Carl’s Jr. and U-Haul, while also finishing high school.

“My parents were cool with it. I just wanted to see what it was like to live on my own with work and school. It’s the little shit that comes with being an adult that was hard.” She pauses. Laughs, “The shit I wanted to do and learn. I always do it the hard way. I have an issue with a high sense of pride and I never hid who I was.”

Meanwhile, she was always attracted to girls, knew it since elementary school, and when she came out to her parents in her early teens, “They just kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, we know.’” (Her relationship with her parents, she says, has always been tight and close, and she now shares a house with them and her girlfriend Briana.)

“My dad taught me how to work on cars, basic plumbing, electric, everything around the house. We lived in a mobile home and they have issues, the flooring, hot water heaters.

He brought me up to not just be a girl, he wanted to teach me the guy stuff, got me into football and basketball.” She pauses. “Yeah, that’s my dad. If we lived in poverty, I didn’t know. We never went without. Not in the slightest.” Her dad worked in auto sales and sold beer at a swap meet, where she found work at 10 years old.

Tells a story of how her dad went blind one day playing with his granddaughter. “Turned out it was MS. No one knew he had it.” Now dad is legally blind, can’t drive, but rides his bike to Walmart where he works, “without a helmet. Worries us sick. He is pretty stubborn.”

Too, her disrespect toward authority had flipped on its head, and after several post-high school years working maintenance at UA dorm rooms she got into security. The last time I saw German before today she was wearing unflattering khaki and gray, the uniform of a security company, working the gate of a Tucson neighborhood, and shoveling up roadkill. Before that she did her time working for the government, a corrections officer at the Wilmot state prison, which, to her, was little more than glorified babysitting. German, who is bi-racial (Mexican father, Caucasian mother), is part bro culture, part feminine sensitivity, can swing effortlessly between the two, welcome attributes to female corrections-officer work, tough yet sympathetic. Yet German longed to cut hair. The genesis of her inspiration is both layered and vague, but she calls it a natural attraction. She drew and studied art through middle-school and high school and began practicing buzz cuts on her other sibling, older brother Chris.

Around three years ago, she ditched her 9-5 and “the security, benefits, a great company, to follow my dream. Wanted to do what I wanted to do and work for myself. By all means, it’s not easy, especially with COVID. But I would never give it up.” She’d saved her money (“every penny”) and entered the Hollywood Barber College. Graduated and newly licensed, she taught there before finding her own chair in a barbershop.

* * *

Driven in large part by media; part guerilla hipster marketing, part rise in masculine self-care and vanity, the recent resurgence in independently owned and operated barber- shops in Tucson and worldwide is big. Forbes reports barbering one of the fastest-growing professions in the country, if not the fastest, a nearly $30-billion-a- year industry. Dapper Barber has only been here a couple years, opened just before COVID, when local barbershops saw their business cut in half. Still, business booms.

“These places seem to be popping up all over,” German says. “People are opening barbershops who don’t even cut hair, which isn’t a good thing.”

The last barbershop she worked was owned by a non-barber. “It’s hard to be around things you just don’t know. You need to know solid, legit barbers, for one. That’s how you run a barbershop, fill it with great barbers.”

Her cutting career and client following rose almost solely on the back of social media—TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, even an easy booking app, the exploitations of head work. It’s a pathology of personal branding, the newish idea of Yankee conformity and selfhood. The only real difference here is it forces social interaction, a client must interact with a barber. “The right hashtag can change your business,” German says. Take out online communities and the shop’s only strength would be walk-in traffic and literal word- of-mouth, and considering we are still caught in a pandemic, that isn’t much.

She is self-employed, an independent contractor who pays weekly rent for her space. She got in at Dapper Barber because its 11 barbers are all “amazing,” including the work of its two owners.

The grandad barbershops, she says, are more about perfecting a few specific things, “they are more tailored to clipper over comb, old-school block look. We do more on the fades and literal razor work, it’s more involved.” Difference between hair stylists and barbers? “The biggest difference is barbers are licensed to shave with a straight razor. Hairdressers use styling shears, work with longer hair, and they don’t use a straight razor.”

Ricardo’s eyes are closed under her buzzing hand as she continues. “Everybody who comes in here wants to stay fresh. Everybody wants to be clean, that nice clean fade, straight razor shaves, beard trims and straight-up haircuts, that sick design. Beards are 100% in, fades too, especially now that summer is coming. And every barber does their fades and haircuts different, they all look different.”

Here is a woman in what was, and still mostly is, traditionally, a men’s grooming enterprise. “Definitely,” she says. “There’s one woman in every shop, we’re like a novelty.”

She claims to feel no intimidation, like her days playing boys football. “A few [male] clients are like, ‘she’s gonna cut my hair?’ Or they’ll say they prefer a guy to cut his hair, and I’m like ‘Okay.’ You know when you get that look. So you spark up the conversation, and do the work, show them. One haircut is all you need.” She pauses, adds, “I enjoy being underestimated.”

German cuts, on average, three women a week, which flies in the face of the men’s grooming stereotypes. “Sometimes it’s a mother of a son getting a cut and they like what I did. Sometimes they want an undercut, or they’ll want a design they saw that I did.”

At the Hollywood college, German taught fellow Dapper barber Humberto Becerra, the 24-year-old has been cutting professionally eight months, at this chair since day one. Like German, he walked away from a secure, well-paying corrections-officer career.

The bilingual barber is a budding student of philosophy, particularly stoicism, and it shows. “I feel like America is rigged for you to be depressed,” he says between cuts. “And it’s like no matter what you do, someone will say something. I worked fast food, managed a shoe store, law enforcement. So, yeah, if I’m going to work hard it’ll be for myself. I am my own boss.”

He talks of working the prison, a level-four yard; high security for the unruly offenders, murderers, rapists. “There were hitmen there who could put out hits. I was worried for my safety. If you’re a nice person, they will fuck with you. Everyone there is so miserable.”

His work is now split between the grooming, setting appointments, and managing social media. “Ninety percent of my social media content is hair. And probably 90% of my business is from social media.”

Like German, his commitment to barbering appears unwavering, and likely no one will ever put a hit out on him now, even for a bad haircut.

* * *

Back at German's chair, she's talking a love of rugby, playing for Old Pueblo Lightning woman’s team, and the knee injury that forced her out. The knee now pops out in pain if she sits wrong. She’s careful after standing long hours.

She’s rare to dwell on the past, particularly after an anguished breakup with a partner of seven years. She internalized the hard truths of love and soon met Briana, whom she talks of often and glowingly. “Briana and I can makes things work after learning the hard way. She’s literally just like me, super stubborn, super annoying, super strong-willed. It’s not that she needs me it’s that she wants me.” A moment passes, she adds, “She has to deal with a lot in return.” She’s the “glue that kept me together these last few years,” helping, for example, when COVID got the best of her income.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY | BRIAN SMITH
Photo By | Brian Smith

German spins Ricardo in the rotating chair, arranges the light and mirror, grins, says “Okay!” She lifts her phone and snaps away. “I document every head I cut, good or bad.” Ricardo is all grins and gratitude. She removes his bib, brushes him off. He stands, hands her $25 for the cut with a finster tip, and strolls out. He will return for her hands.

For info on Meghan German, go to linktr.ee/megthebarber.

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now worldwide on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. You can also pickup his collection of short stories, Spent Saints (Ridgeway Press).
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