The chaos started when one of the barbers took off his shirt. He appeared to be in his mid- 30s or so. Wears glasses. Tall and husky. Usually making jokes. He had on a t-shirt underneath a long-sleeve shirt. When he was trying to take off the long-shirt, his t-shirt was pulled up revealing a bit of bare stomach. Another barber said something to him about it, as a joke, and that’s when it started.
“Why you looking at me like that?” he said.
“What you talking about?” the other barber asked innocently, barely concealing his smirk.
A response, predictable and boring came soon after, “Why you looking at me like that? You must be one of those body boys?”
The other barber laughed and corrected him. “You mean batty boy.”
At this point I began shifting in my chair, hoping they would stop. I’m an introvert by nature, though not always by practice, and find public engagement difficult and public confrontation miserable, but the ethical impulse is often too strong to ignore these kinds of things. I began negotiating in my mind, how much I would tolerate before I said something. Their conversation kept escalating.
“You must be gay,” the barber that took off his shirt kept going at it with the other barber. They seemed very comfortable with each other. Probably friends outside of work. The object of the ridicule was also a tall and husky guy. He wore an oversized black t-shirt, and a baseball cap. His face was adorned with a meticulously manicured beard. His voice was deep and when he laughed his movements became very aggressive. He talked with his hands a lot.
“Naah, you must be gay.” They both continued to laugh.
“Why you looking at me then? You a faggot? Faggot ass.”
There were a few more “faggots” tossed between them over the course of the next few seconds as I calculated my response. Each “faggot” followed more raucous laughter. My barber remained silent, finishing up my haircut, and I kept shifting in my seat increasingly agitated. I kept hoping they would stop, and then maybe I could ignore them. But they did not.
They were not looking at me directly or else they would have seen the distress in my face. My haircut was winding up and I was handed the mirror to examine the final product. Still calculating my response. And then finally, I chimed in, “I don’t want to hear the word faggot,” I said talking over them. They stopped what they were doing. I repeated it again as if it hadn’t landed, and I wanted to continue to assert myself, “I don’t want to hear that word,” I gripped the armrests on the chair to keep my hands form trembling. Then more silence.
I don’t remember the rest. We all searched for language. My complaint set off a white noise in the room. I said a few more things. Followed more silence and confused looks on their part.
“I didn’t say it,” he finally said, the barber who was called “faggot.”
This brought neither relief nor clarity to the situation. Defensively. Guiltily but with a hint of defiance, a hint of threat in his voice. An already tall man, he seemed to make himself seem taller and more imposing as he was speaking, perhaps the normal response to being challenged by another man.
“He said it,” I pointed directly at the other barber, the one who took off his shirt. He was still stunned and look confused, as if I misled them.
I violated their fun and transgressed their space. Soiled it with my frustration. I introduced an element that they had never been forced to think about and probably did not want to think about.
“I just don’t want to hear the word. You can continue on with your conversation. I just don’t want to hear that word.”
I got up from the chair and paid my barber. As I walked out to leave, my barber and I shook hands and he thanked me. The other two stood like statues, their eyes burning a hole in my back with their resentful gaze.
** Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer. You can reach him @charlesstephen2