The North Star
Many years ago, when I was a kid, they published magazines like “True Detective”, “Police Gazette” and “Confidential”. These, like todays “Slate”, “Travel and Leisure” and “Fitness” were niche publications. The niche into which they neatly fit was barber-shops. People would rarely buy these magazines for home consumption. They were meant for the barbershop crowd.
The members of that constituency assembled mostly on Saturdays, generally in the morning. This was a rotating ensemble of regulars who, barring a big dance, wedding or some extraordinary social event, convened every other week. This was the bimonthly audience to which “True Detective” and others of its ilk directed their literary labors.
Saturdays at the barbershop in my town meant sitting on one of six sturdy vinyl-covered chairs with chrome-tubed arms, reading those magazines and listening to what was going on in town. As a kid, you sat and listened. And you learned. You learned how guys talked. You learned about the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers. You learned about that SOB from out of town who took a poke at someone’s uncle at a wedding reception. You learned about the new foreman who was breaking if off on the guys who worked the third shift at the wire mill. About the new addition they were thinking of putting onto the firehouse. About that rich guy with the big house down by the beach who was putting in a swimming pool which, the stupid SOB didn’t really didn’t need. About the boat that got away down at the dock. And, as a kid, you learned to keep your mouth shut so you could learn.
Barber shops were walk-in businesses. They all had a barber’s pole on the side of the building, red and white striped, sometimes rotating but generally not. All were welcome there. All men that is. Sometimes you drove by first to see how many were ahead of you. Once in, you sat and waited your turn. When you were called you sat in the huge white enamel chair with the black leather seat, back and arm rests and the metal footrest, essentially an early version of the Barcalounger. Then the barber – my guy’s name was Jerry– would crank up the chair. You said something about taking a little off the top and trimming the sides and he went to work. It didn’t matter what you told him, he would do pretty much what he wanted, sometimes even approximating the way he did it last time. He used scissors and an electric trimmer. No razor, scalp massager or other foo-foo stuff. When you got older he would lather around your ears and the back of your neck and do some kind of magic with a straight razor, often not drawing any blood at all. Every once in a while, if it wasn’t too crowded, he would snip out the hairs in your nose and ears. Then he’d slap some astringent-smelling stuff on your hair and comb it out. When you were done he’d remove the cloth that covered your clothing, flap it out and deposit the residue of his labors on the floor. Sometimes, between customers, he’d even sweep the hair up off the floor.
Going through all of this every other Saturday [for some of us right before going to Confession] added a sense of order to our lives. The barber was a constant. He was, like the North Star, Spring Training and the Memorial Day Parade, something you could count on.
For some, I fear, this world no longer exists. You don’t go to a barber anymore, you go to a “stylist”. You don’t just walk in, you call for an appointment, thank you. And the barber -excuse me, stylist– is not Al or Tony or Vince; it’s Heather, Brandi or Cilantreaux. These folks don’t wear turquoise barber smocks with scissors and combs sticking out of the breast pockets. Now it’s t-shirts sufficiently short enough to see their navel rings. The background music doesn’t waft out of an old radio in the form of ballads by Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Vic Damone; now it’s a fancy sound system surrounding you with either New Age lutes and drums or some kind of edgy rock. When your “stylist” begins the modern coiffing ritual she shampoos your hair seasoned with contortions that are about three steps shy of a lap dance. And the standard-issue tribal symbol tattoo across the small of her back that shows when she’s reaching for the styling gel is just a bonus, I guess. All this programmed choreography for only $45.
But members of the pre-designated hitter generation should not despair. There are still some of the Old Guard around. My guy is Mike. His shop, the Okeh Barber Shop on Whalley Avenue, really is a “barber shop”. You don’t need an appointment. You can walk in anytime. You can talk about the Yankees, pro football, the Yale sports teams or find out what’s going on in the city or your neighborhood. Mike is up on all of this. The magazines, granted, have progressed to GQ, Esquire and ESPN the Magazine, but the old reliable New York Post remains. So does the barber pole, the parade of regulars as old or older than I and, despite an occasional young girl brought in by her father for a trim, it’s a guys place where guys sit and read and listen to “The Music of Your Life” and wait for Mike or his partner, Placido, to say “OK. You’re next.” When you leave you actually smell like you just came out of a barber shop, not a perfume counter. And, you know what, it looks like you just had a hair cut.
For $12.50 plus a tip, time stands still. It’s worth every penny and more. Things are just like they should be.