Left Field

The Rule of the Razor

Once again, a splinter group in West Texas has declared its independence from state authority-though this time, no stockpiled weapons are thought to be involved. Unlike the Republic of Texas folks, the current crop of rebels have not seceded from all of state and federal government, merely challenged one branch of it. And their revolutionary headquarters are not tucked away in the sparsely populated hills outside of Fort Davis, but located in plain view on 2nd Street in Abilene: specifically, within the Commercial Barber Shop, where a cadre of insurgent barbers and cosmetologists is refusing to back down. As Commercial’s owner, Jerry Starr, proudly declares, “We remain out of compliance, we remain in defiance, and this guy just hasn’t shown up here in a long time.”

The issue in question is whether a cosmetologist may use a razor to trim certain portions of a man’s hair, and “this guy” is Texas Board of Barber Examiners regional inspector James Tyler-apparently something of a hardass when it comes to the state barber statute. The trouble began a few years ago, says Starr, when Tyler paid a visit to the shop and noticed cosmetologist Sandy Rand shaving the back of a male client’s neck with a straight razor. (According to Starr, big-city barbers tend to trim this portion of the haircut with electric clippers, but “out in West Texas we still do that with a razor. It’s an anachronism if you will, but we still do it because we’re an 80-year-old barber shop.”)

Rand, who learned to shave with a straight razor in barber college in Colorado, had been performing this service for her clients in Texas for some 12 years, without any previous complaint from barber board inspectors. But Tyler construed her action as a violation of the barber law, which says that while both barbers and cosmetologists may cut hair, only barbers may shave beards. Tyler instructed Rand to desist, on the grounds that what she was doing amounted to shaving a beard. She would not, on the grounds that it was hair she was shearing. He left, and their dispute remained unresolved.

Then, says Jerry Starr, “when I was gone on vacation in July of 1998, this guy comes in like a little weasel and sees her shaving, and gives her a verbal warning and a written warning and a citation on the thing.” According to Rand, Tyler told her the next time he caught her in the act, he would fine her $500, and that she and shop owner Starr might be assessed $1,000 per day for each day they remained out of compliance. “I called his (Tyler’s) boss,” says Rand, “and told him I had had it with his rudeness. He said, ‘Jim Tyler is one of our most professional inspectors,’ and I said, ‘This guy is a joke!'”

Tyler could not be reached for this story, but Will Brown, the barber board’s executive director, said the board supports him without reservation: “I am eternally grateful for a man like him, because he spends a lot of time trying to train and teach. They (Rand and the shop) were not fined. They were given a warning that they could be fined. I believe the purpose of it was to get her attention. The thing of it is, just don’t. This is what the law is, and this is what can happen if you disobey the law. The law is the law.”

But what exactly does the law say? At Starr’s request, state Rep. Bob Hunter wrote to Attorney General John Cornyn seeking clarification on the matter. The answer arrived last April, in the form of Opinion No. JC-0211, Re: Distinction between “the hair” and “the beard” for purposes of the barber statute. The thoroughly researched document reviews the relevant sections of the occupations code, then sets the current issue in historical context. “Prior to the 1960s and 1970s,” the opinion explains, “a rigid sexual segregation existed between barbers and cosmetologists or beauticians, and between barber shops and beauty parlors.” In other words, men cut men’s hair, and women cut women’s hair. But during those tumultuous decades mentioned above, “both custom and law changed in this regard, as a relatively minor feature of the more libertarian temper of the times.” Unisex salons opened, and certain portions of the state statutes regulating barbers and cosmetologists were found to violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The law was altered so that any licensed barber or cosmetologist could cut anyone’s hair, regardless of the client’s sex. Yet beards remained the sole province of barbers. Meanwhile, according to a 1972 ruling, “only a cosmetologist may remove superfluous hair by the use of depilatories or tweezers, or massage the arms and busts.” (Barbers must have been sorely disappointed.)

After laying out the historical groundwork, Opinion No. JC-0211 tackles the hair-versus-beard question by going straight to the heart of the matter: sideburns. Again, the opinion’s author approaches the question historically:

We think it likely that most observers would consider the sideburns worn by the late Elvis Presley at the time of his early success in 1956 as a part of his hair. On the other hand, whether the muttonchops which adorned his face at the time of his death were hair which a cosmetologist might trim, or a partial beard which could be serviced by only a barber, is a question which in the absence of any articulated standard might well present difficulties to a cosmetologist who wished to remain within his or her licensed practice.

Yet for all its scholarship, the opinion fails to provide the kind of guidance that might have resolved Texas’ tonsorial dilemma, instead asserting that it is up to the Board of Barber Examiners to determine the boundary between hair and beard.

In Starr’s view, the entire opinion is an admonishment of the Board, subtly ridiculing its attempts to enforce such a distinction. “But these morons on the Barber Board are so stupid, they didn’t know he was poking fun at them,” he says. In a letter dated August 14, Brown reported back to John Cornyn that the board had, in a meeting the previous week, “evaluated and distinguished ‘hair’ from ‘the beard.'” It had further proposed a new regulation, Rule 51.141, establishing “The Line of Demarcation between ‘the Hair’ and ‘the Beard'”-which, the board determined, is “a line drawn from the bottom of the earlobe.” The board also defined “The Sideburn” as a part of a haircut “that must not extend below the bottom of the earlobe” lest it be considered part of a beard. “Only a licensed barber shall trim, shape or cut the sideburns with any type of razor,” the rule reads. Finally, “The Beard” includes all facial hair “regardless of texture” extending below the Line of Demarcation.

Rule or no rule, Rand says she is not about to lay down her razor. There’s been no standoff thus far, however, because inspector Tyler has not visited the Commercial Barber Shop lately. Starr has a theory as to why. “Somebody may have shot him,” he says. “He was raising a lot of Cain with cosmetologists up in Wichita Falls, and they were livid and calling us down here and asking what we were doing with it. It could well be that some of them have given him what he so richly deserves, and that is a blast with a double-barreled shotgun.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST