It was called a crew cut, although I didn’t know why. I wasn’t a member of any crew that I was aware of, and hated how it felt. My parents did everything to persuade me, including the argument that the astronauts all wore their hair short so their helmets would fit better. I fell for it once, briefly forgetting that I wasn’t part of the space program, and didn’t even own a helmet.
For a long time, I thought my parents were saying “cruel cut,” which made a lot more sense, anyway. At the end of the school year, my father used to take me to the shop on the avenue, where Louie the Barber would run his clippers across my head with all the skill and care of a baboon performing cosmetic surgery. I was never sure if the place was a front for mob activity, or why Louie was constantly on the verge of violence. All I know is, the threats he whispered into my ear to get me to stop fidgeting in his chair would be front-page news today. But it was the early 1960s, and grown-ups back then could call kids all kinds of names and terrorize them with menacing words and gestures, and if we dared to complain, we were asked if we wanted a knuckle sandwich. I never quite made the connection between getting into trouble and simultaneously being invited to lunch, but my intuition, as undeveloped as it was, saved me on several occasions and I almost always politely declined the offer.
The crew cut, administered in June, would last the entire summer. I don’t remember what my objection was, but I do recall my mother consoling me with the promise that shorter hair would help me stay cool, and would dry quickly. It was difficult to understand how I would stay cool by giving the sun direct access to my skull, and the duration of the drying process was of no concern to me. But by then it was too late to argue because I knew hair couldn’t be reattached, and I also didn’t want a knuckle sandwich. Then in September, just when I was starting to look normal again, they took me back to the barber for a trim in time for the new school year.
Trim, of course, was a subjective term that allowed a great deal of leeway, and as a child I had no control over the barber’s interpretation of it. In addition, the quickest glance into the mirror might be seen as fidgeting, and so I attempted to sit dead still, all too aware of the straight razor being scraped down the back of my neck. It was a harrowing experience, especially because I suffered from a nervous twitch, a condition that grew more pronounced whenever a steel blade was brought within striking distance of a vital artery. Louie sharpened the razor on a flat leather strap that hung from the side of the chair, employing a rhythm oddly similar to the one used by the butcher across the street who slapped his knife against a rough metal rod before beginning to trim steaks from a huge slab of meat.
The barbershop was an unpleasant place, a square room whose floor was covered with faded green linoleum. As the result of a strange decision that I still can’t fathom, the tiles they chose had a design that looked like cut hair, so that the floor always appeared to need sweeping, no matter how often it was done. Tall jars filled with blue liquid and black combs sat on marble countertops. Old sports magazines, missing their covers, lay tossed on small tables. The air was heavy with cigarette smoke that hung around as if listening for gossip. Worst of all — and it’s hard to explain — the striped pole mounted on the back wall reminded me of the barbershop quartets I had seen on television. I didn’t like barbershop quartets, for the same inscrutable reason that I didn’t like clowns, parade floats, and the dead animals that were stuffed and mounted in displays at the Museum of Natural History. The image of four men abandoning their shears and breaking out into song confounded me. Plus, they were unnaturally happy and upbeat, and one of them always had a scary voice that seemed to be coming up from somewhere under the ground.
As if following the lead of hair stylists and meat cutters, lawmakers try to trim the budget, management looks to trim the staff, and the parents of brides would love to trim the guest list. The word clearly means to cut back, a concept reinforced on a long-ago night in early December when my mother and I walked five or six blocks to buy a Christmas tree, which we then dragged home in the snow. My father insisted we set up the silver aluminum version he had bought. Stuck at an impasse, we had two trees that year – upstairs, the metallic model illuminated by a rotating color wheel, and downstairs, the enormous spruce that, when stood upright, pressed against the ceiling with its top tilted to the side, much like my own twitchy head insisted on doing when I sat in the barber chair and struggled not to squirm. And so, adhering to trim in its most common form, my mother and I got a step-stool and a pair of scissors and we reduced the monster to a reasonable height and width. Throughout my childhood and well beyond it, I continued to think that trimming the tree involved shortening its branches.
Sometime later, my older brother got his first car, a bright green Chevrolet with two doors and power windows. He paid me a quarter to wash it on Fridays, urging me to give extra care to the shiny chrome trim. It took me a while to incorporate this new idea into my stubbornly analytical mind. Cars, I eventually understood, had trim, and so did houses.
In fact, according to the dictionary, the word can refer to the decoration or embellishment of almost anything. It’s used to describe the arrangement in a store window, and the ornamental fixtures on the building itself. It can suggest a stylish mode of dress or, curiously, a step in preparing animals for exhibition – either alive or stuffed.
The adjustment of sails and the placement of ballast and cargo, to give a boat the desired position in the water, is called trimming. In the same way, an airplane is said to be correctly trimmed when the forces affecting its flight are in balance. To trim is the act of heading toward a middle position in an argument in order to give the appearance of agreeing with both sides. When people lose a noticeable amount of weight, we say they’ve trimmed down. And when books are printed, their pages are cut to a final trim size.
In most applications, then, trim implies that something is free from the extraneous or unnecessary, and that its parts are in proper proportion. Yet – and here we go again – a feast is frequently advertised as having all the trimmings, which are side dishes and garnishes.
Somewhat less clear is the definition that says to trim someone is to chastise or swindle the person, or even to administer a beating. And of course, in a more familiar context, a trim is a light and quick haircut that doesn’t change the original style.
Sure. Try telling that to Louie. Without moving a muscle, I mean.