The man in the apron isn’t sure how to respond. He pauses, contemplating the question. He purses his lips, takes a couple of breaths, stares at the wall in front of his chair.

It’s 10:30 in the morning, and the man had prepared for this moment, but still, he’s caught off guard by the wording of the question. It had been a long time since he had to make a decision like this. About a year, in fact.

The other manthe one with the scissors in his handis used to these moments, particularly in the summer. He gives the man in the apron time to think.

The man with the scissors is named Antonio, but people call him Tony. His workplace smells of talcum powder. Old news clippings and basketball posters dot the walls, which harbor a medley of noises: the sweeping swooshes of the broom, the earnest pumps of the chair pedals, the whirring motor of the shaving cream canister, a different buzz for each set of clippers. The loudest sounds are the razors raking the necks.

Tony went to school for 1,528 hours. Most people don’t know that’s a requirement. He learned anatomy, studying bone structure and cranial nerves. He learned how to hold a blow dryer, when to use an afro comb, how to grind a razor. People in his profession used to be called surgeons. They assisted physicians by drawing bloodthat’s why the poles outside have red stripes.

Tony grew up in Durham and played football for Webb High School in Oxford, N.C., defensive end and tailbackbarely left the field. These days, it’s the Anderson Street basketball courts, and he doesn’t like it when the Duke security guards kick him off because he doesn’t have a university ID. Today he wears his white pair of Air Max, very clean. The laces are tied, loosely, the Velcro straps left open. Tony’s fauxhawk comes and goes. When it’s gone people say he looks like a Milk Dud. He has a beard, a wife and two children. He worries the that cost of summer camp might require him to dip into savings. The family was able to afford a movie last night, though. They saw Wolverine. It was good, Tony thought, but not epic.

The television sits next to the glass jar of peppermints and Tootsie Rolls. The ESPN guys are talking about Jeter. Last night he went yard on the first pitch back from injury. Girardi said, “He’s a movie.”

The man in the apron is a software engineer. The last time he was here Tony’s seat was occupied, which made him sad, but not too sad. He wears brown leather slip-ons and the type of white khaki pants that show a lot of ankle. He has kids in middle school. He’s thinking about sending them to private school next year.

Right now, though, the man isn’t thinking about his kids. He is concentrating on his decision.

Go for it, he says. The one-clip.

Tony lives by one rule of thumb: Hair is hair. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white or Asian. He believes there is only one difference between a good cut and a bad cut: two weeks.

Some of his African-American regulars stop in twice a week and ask him to smooth out a line he can barely see. His white customers visit every three to five weeks.

Tony has a certain routine when someone sits in his chair. He starts with the smaller clippers for the base of the skull. If the clippers get too hot, he reaches for an identical set. Folks don’t realize people like Tony change clippers because of heat just as often as they change them because of utility.

Next, another pair of clippers. A comb, a clip and the pink-bristled brush emerges. The customers squint. More clipper work, but finer, nipping the sideburns and forehead. A spritz of water and the scissors make their debut. Rapid snips at first, then slower, more targeted. Next the blow dryer, generating a hair storm. Out comes the towel. A quick crack of the knuckles and the cream is applied. The blade, freshly honed, is gripped between the third and fourth fingers. Massaging strokes with the thumb. Lotion. The comb again, this time with hairspray. One last brush.

A dust-off of the apron. A whistle.

Urban Archaeology is a bimonthly column that documents found objects, photos, overheard dialogue, poignant scenes; the small, everyday true moments that define life in the Triangle. Contribute to this column at