I needed a haircut. That’s how it all started.
It’s a Brooklyn barbershop. No sign in front, but there’s a spinning barber’s pole. Inside, it’s barebones. Three chairs. Three barbers. Three guys getting haircuts. There’s a bench and a Playboy from December 1976. I sit down.
The barbers grunt and snip, grunt and snip. I question the body hair choices of women from the 1970s.
One guy gets up, hands the barber some cash, and leaves. A silent transaction.
The barber looks my way and gestures for me to come over. He’s bald, which is strangely comforting. I consider bringing the Playboy with me, but no. I walk over and sit in the barber’s chair.
“What we doin’ here?” he asks, boosting up my chair.
I knew what we were doing here. I needed something masculine, cool, classic. A little James Dean, a little Marlon Brando, a little…
“So what we doin’ here?” he asks again, a little louder this time. He organizes his scissors.
“Just a trim.”
The barber looks at me, then stretches his bottom lip and nods like Robert De Niro. “A trim. Good.” He drapes an apron around me and tightens it around my neck a little too tight.
I hear a nasally, Brooklyn-ish voice next to me. “What you want is a straight blade cut. Tapered sides. A smidge off the top.”
All the barbers turn and look. I look in the mirror next to me.
It’s Ryan Gosling.
“Definitely straight blade. Blocked in the back. Always blocked in the block.”
My barber turns to Ryan. “I told you about this.” He shakes his scissors. “I told you about doing this.”
“I’m just telling the kid what the kid needs.”
Ryan speaks with the callousness of a dockworker from Long Island. Ryan is from Canada.
My barber stares at Ryan, then at me. “I think you need scissors. Layered sides. Inch off the top. Round in the back.”
Ryan smirks, laughs through his nose.
My barber looks at Ryan, then back at me. “What’ll it be, kid?”
I look at my barber, then at Ryan, then back-and-forth a few times.
“What he said.” I nod to Ryan. “Straight blade.”
My barber looks at the other barbers. They put their hands up. They want nothing to do with the situation.
My barber points his scissors at Ryan. “You! You, goddamn you.” He fumbles for words, then tosses his scissors, throws his apron on the floor, and stomps out of the barbershop.
Ryan’s barber jogs out of the barbershop after my barber. The third barber gets back to grunting and snipping. Ryan gets out of his chair. I start to get out of mine, assuming I’d leave.
Ryan goes, “Sit.”
Ryan takes off his apron, gives it a shake, folds it into a perfect square and places it on his chair. I notice it has a cursive “R” printed on it. He grabs a straight blade and stands over me.
“Don’t move, alright.”
For the next ten minutes, Ryan cuts my hair. I knew he was finishing up when he’d cut a little, stand back, then cut more, and stand further back.
“Blocked in the back, alright.”
I feel Ryan shape the hair on my neck. Then he puts the blade down and removes my apron.
I realize this is the first haircut where my barber doesn’t ask if it looks okay before putting away his tools. I don’t know if it’s because Ryan isn’t a professional, or because he knows the haircut is perfect.
When I look in the mirror, I have my answer.
I take out my wallet, unsure who to pay. The third barber, the one still cutting, calls over.
“Just leave it on the chair.” It was like this had happened before.
I leave a twenty on the chair.
The third barber goes, “And don’t forget to tip your barber.”
I pull out a $5 bill and walk towards Ryan. He’s wearing a leather jacket and a backpack. I hand it to him. Without looking up, he takes the bill and stuffs it into his pocket. He walks out of the barbershop.
When I get outside, Ryan is leaning against the building, next to barber’s pole, looking around.
“Hey, thanks for doing that, cutting my hair. I’m–” He looks at me. “–a big fan of yours.”
Ryan nods. I start to walk, then I turn back.
“Can I ask you something?”
He gives no indication that I can, but I do anyway.
“What should I do with my beard?”
He thinks about it for a moment, then goes, “You don’t do anything. It grows. Shave when it feels right. A man must have his code.”
I start to walk, then he says, “Hey. You wanna get some wings?”
It’s safe to say I wanted to get wings with Ryan Gosling.
Ryan walks and I follow. We enter a pub. A butchy Polish woman greets us from behind a bar. “Y’all can sit at the bar.”
Ryan ignores her and walks towards a table in the back. The woman watches Ryan, her neck rotating with each of his steps. We sit.
The Polish woman comes by with menus. “What can I get you fellas?”
I check the menu. I don’t see wings. I look at Ryan. He nods assuringly.
I ask, “Do you have wings?”
The Polish woman looks at Ryan. “The wings! Always you with the goddamn wings!”
Ryan laughs, almost giggles.
“How many wings you want?”
I feel like I know the answer. “12 wings.”
Ryan cuts in. “No. 24 wings.”
She snatches the menus and walks away. A minute later, she comes back with waters. Ryan and I sip our waters.
“You like water?” Ryan asks.
“Yeah, I like water.”
The wings arrive. A silent meal. There’s celery to counteract the spiciness. Ryan doesn’t eat any, so I don’t either.
We finish our wings and the Polish woman clears the table. Ryan throws some cash down, including my crumpled $5. He stands and puts on his backpack. There’s a streak of red buffalo sauce on his cheek.
I point to my cheek. “Oh, you have some sauce…”
He laughs, like he thinks I’m kidding.
When we get outside he says, “Sometimes you gotta bring an experience with you, you know?”
At this point, I decide to hang with Ryan until he tells me not to. We have fresh haircuts. We have stomachs full of wings. Our future together is uncertain, but exciting.
We walk down the sidewalk and pass an auto body shop. Ryan kneels and opens a garage door. When it opens, there’s a mechanic working on a pristine, vintage red Mustang.
The mechanic looks over at Ryan. “You’re late.” The mechanic nods at me, then looks back at Ryan. “Got the part?”
Ryan approaches the Mustang and caresses the hood.
“Ay, you can answer me when I’m talkin’ to you!”
Ryan pulls out something clunky wrapped in a towel from his backpack.
“So you got it. Coulda said so.”
Ryan looks at me. “Spot me.”
Ryan kneels, then lies backwards on one of those wheely things mechanics use to get under cars.
I push Ryan underneath the Mustang.
The mechanic looks at me. “She’s a beaut, eh? From ‘76. Candy red. You could fry an egg on that thing.”
I didn’t get the reference, but went with it. “Yeah, probably scrambled, too.”
I hear clanking. The mechanic whines, “Careful under there. She’s sensitive!”
The clanking gets louder, as if Ryan was trying to aggravate the guy.
I hear Ryan from underneath the car. “Okay.”
I pull the wheely out. Ryan leans up, hands covered in grease. The mechanic throws Ryan a rag. Ryan wipes his hands, then hands the rag to me. I wipe some of the grease onto my hands.
The mechanic asks, “How do I know it works?”
Ryan answers, “We drive.”
“You need to be somewhere?”
“Thinking of getting wet.”
“It’s three in the afternoon! You getting wet now?”
We get into the Mustang. Ryan drives. The mechanic sits in the passenger seat. I’m in the back.
The mechanic tells Ryan, “On your cheek, you got ketchup or something.”
Ryan turns to the mechanic and holds a stare for what seems like a minute, simultaneously accelerating. Ryan speeds through Brooklyn, then across Manhattan. A silent ride.
Ryan parks outside of a warehouse on the west side of Manhattan, a block from the Hudson River. Ryan gets out of the car. So do I.
The mechanic gets into the driver’s seat, then rolls down the window. “Alright I’ll see ya tomorrow.”
Ryan and I enter the warehouse. It’s deserted until we get to a backroom. Three Mafioso-looking guys are smoking cigars and playing blackjack at a small table with a pile of cash in the middle of it.
Ryan goes, “Hey, we’re getting wet.”
One of the Mafia guys goes, “Now?”
Ryan gives him a cold stare.
“Okay, okay. There’s a yellow one in back. Bring it back when you’re done this time.”
Ryan walks to the back of the warehouse and returns with a yellow kayak, two paddles, and an orange life jacket. He tosses me a paddle and the life jacket. We walk out to the dock.
Ryan drops the kayak in the water. He opens his backpack and pulls out a sleek, black life jacket and puts it on. It’s got a cursive “R” printed on it, just like his apron.
A few minutes later, Ryan and I are kayaking down the Hudson River. I know he isn’t satisfied with my paddling when he stops paddling, looks around and hums to himself. I paddle by myself until he’s happy with my form, then he joins back in.
After 15 minutes, we pause. Ryan pulls out a plastic bag of blueberries from his backpack.
“Sure.” Ryan tosses me a blueberry. I catch it and eat it.
“So, do you still have that scorpion jacket from Drive?”
He hesitates, tosses me another blueberry, and goes, “There’s a difference between being ‘the man’ and ‘a man,’ you know?”
“Yeah, I see what you’re saying.” I eat the blueberry.
Ryan points with his paddle to a nearby dock. We paddle to it, tie up the kayak, and get out.
Ryan walks towards a dumpster. I follow, hoping this isn’t when he stabs me and disposes me. Although if he did, I’d be okay with it.
Ryan rolls out a jet black motorcycle from behind the dumpster. He kicks the kickstand, then hops on. He revs the engine three times.
I’d never been on a motorcycle before, but I manage to hop on the back with the grace of a loyal biker chick.
A few more revs, then we ride out onto the highway. The engine growls. I take a close look at Ryan’s hair in the back. It’s blocked, just like mine.
I yell to Ryan, hoping he can hear me over the engine. “What’s next?”
Ryan turns his head and smiles. There’s still buffalo sauce on his cheek.
I gaze into the distance, trying to figure it out for myself. After all, a man must have his code.
Straight ahead, I see a truck with a ramp. Would we drive onto it, shooting the bike into the sky, just like E.T.?
To our right, I see a helicopter. Would it hover next to us so we can make a daring aerial getaway, letting the motorcycle crash and burn?
And on the left, I see a pair of bald eagles. Would they swoop down and fly on either side of us, making us a real-life embodiment of a biker tattoo?
I didn’t know what was next for us, but it suddenly didn’t matter.
Did this mean my quest for masculinity was complete, or had it somehow just started? I debate this question in my head and even consider asking Ryan, but I don’t.
If I learned anything about masculinity, it’s that some things are best left unsaid.