Today is May 31. It is a special day for John the Barber.
John has been cutting my hair for fifteen years. He is the sole proprietor of a nearby barbershop, and is as anachronistic as the setting itself. The shop is something out of….. not just another time, but a combination of times. The old yellowed linoleum floors reflect the fluorescent lighting only in a confused way now, the shiny finish long gone and pocked with cracks. There is space for three chairs, but only one now remains. Filling the empty space is a large HO scale model train deck that John has been working on for years. Four trains, a dozen buildings, mountains, water, bridges, all in vivid detail. John spends his time refining the layout in the long gaps that stretch between customers some days. If you ask nicely and there’s no one waiting, he’ll set everything to moving for you and tell you more than you want to know about why he chose this car or that crossing, and how he just can’t seem to get the track angle quite right to be able to cleanly back up that engine without it derailing.
Where the barbershops of my youth would have had stuffed deer heads or plastic bass or NASCAR paraphernalia on the walls (usually accompanied by an oversized wall calendar featuring either a sketch of the barber’s church or, more commonly, a vivid photo of a somewhat clothed buxom beauty queen) John’s shop instead had a large scale model train that he occasionally fired up to circle the shop noisily, just above head level, high enough to slip past the old television mounted in the corner. For years there has been a hand written price sheet for offered services, visible only once you are sitting in the chair, right there over the old cash register that always displayed $00. As prices changed, the sign at first was modified with stickers to increase the posted cost rather than rewrite it. Eventually, John just started using magic marker to cross out the old prices and write the new ones above it. $11 became $13 became $15 over the years I have been going to John, always chasing the higher rent and electrical. Although propriety says one doesn’t need to tip a hair cutter for services if it’s the owner of the establishment, I always did. From all indications, John needed it more than I did. He’d take the twenty, look at me for an extra half second and bob his head, and then pull out the small wad in his pocket and add this bill to what was probably his week’s take.
I remember when I was a very young child, and my mom would take my brother and me up to see Mr. Locke, the barber in the then-neighborhood. Haircuts with Mr. Locke were 25 cents for kids, 50 cents on Saturdays. I always sat in The Chair, while brother had to sit on “the Bench”, a contraption that fit across the arms of the barber chair to raise him to Mr. Locke’s level. Brother always whined about it, that he thought he was big enough to sit in The Chair. I don’t recall if he ever graduated in that particular shop. Back then I would get a haircut once every two weeks or so. Always short short short. Boys in the neighborhood would ask for fancy cut styles with names like The Flat Top, The Pineapple, and The Duck. None of that nonsense for my dad’s sons, though. Mr. Locke would always begin with the question, “Do you want a Mohawk today?” and end the session with “Okay, do you think that’s good enough for your girlfriend?” At age 5 or 6, this was always funny. The ritual always ended with him handing me a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. The rare times when he handed me two were special days indeed. As I got “older” (maybe 7, no more than 8) mom would sometimes put the quarter in my hand and let me walk up to the shop, perhaps eight blocks away through the neighborhood. When we moved away from there to a bigger house nearer my grandparents, Mr. Locke was lost with all the friends I had made and all the childhood explores and adventures of those days. I was ten, after all, and things were moving forward from dirt clod battles and damming up streams to things like basketball and little league.
I can recall most every barbershop that has cut my hair since those days – places with names like Tony’s, Charlie’s, Bubba’s…….. I lay in bed last night trying to recall the places that I frequented that were hair salons or what have you and couldn’t recall a single one in all the years in Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville, Batesville, or Salem. Surely I got haircuts over that dozen year stretch. But who did the cutting and where they did it have faded from memory. Such places are soulless. Barbershops, THEY are landmarks and social hubs.
John’s shop has soul. It’s a reflection of a man who spends far too much time trying to make a living in a dying industry. He practically lives at the shop. Many times I have walked in to find him practicing his bagpipes or standing before a music stand beating on a tom tom, practicing for an upcoming parade or concert that was to include his Scottish Highlander band. There was once a sketch of John in his kilt and pipes in a cheap frame on the counter behind the chair, though that disappeared years ago. Men drop in to John’s shop just to sit and chat. I was likely to be part of a conversation about a guy whom several men knew to be part of “the mafia” or what happened at the poker game in back of the hardware store last weekend, or which local character had been arrested for drunken behavior, or whose cancer had come back. In this way, John’s barbershop is the real thing.
John is my elder, as would be expected. There are no young barbers in the traditional sense. He appears to be in his late 60’s although he has variously claimed to be eight years and twelve years older than my 54. John has never been particularly consistent in his presentation of himself. Barbers have to have the gift of gab, and perhaps the tale sometimes overcomes the reality. I allow John the dignity and privilege of spinning his tales as he wants to that particular day. So I am not sure if John really was a Green Beret in Viet Nam, or perhaps a cook or a barber even back then. His reactions to current events suggest political leaning that range from Libertarian to Liberal, depending on the day and the mood. But his disgust for politicians was universal. He railed against the Democratic city council and the tea party congressmen with equal venom. He’d always pause from cutting my hair and step in front of me so I could see the seriousness of his position in his furrowed brow, which was just fine with me when he had the straight razor in his grip.
The only time I truly saw John angry was for a reason beyond any rational explanation. His shop is adjoined to a local tavern, and one afternoon a thirty-something fellow wandered in and gushed over the train set up. John was pleasant enough, it didn’t appear that he had seen this one before. What was clear in seconds was that this fellow had only recently departed the tavern, though his arrival there was apparently hours earlier. The fellow stood there and rambled on and on about a train he saw once and his friends in the western part of the state and how much John’s train set up was worth, and John’s responses got shorter and shorter. Finally, the fellow stepped into a conversational hole no one would know was there – he made some vague reference to the Hatfields and the McCoys, comparing some trivial local confrontation to that interfamily gang war. No sooner had the words left the fellow’s mouth than John erupted. “You’d better shut the &#$* up! You don’t know who the @#$& you’re talkin’ to! My great grandfather was a McCoy! You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, now get out of here. NOW!” The entryway was vacated, and I sat there in the chair wondering what had happened, and whether I was going to lose an ear to the straight razor that day.
Clientele followed John’s personal life through all its ups and downs. As the economy turned south several years ago he lost his house. I imagine it was mortgaged and remortgaged as he tried to keep afloat on a barber’s income. He talked with despair about his grown daughter’s choices and his absolute need to help her financially, and with pride about his son and his high tech job. Both may have been true, in whole or in part. I heard about his church life, and his health. I saw pictures lovingly and pridefully displayed of new grandkids, and the wonder gleam in his eye, along with a bit of moisture, when you asked about them.
But today, May 31, is a special day for John the Barber. My most recent visit was in early May, when I went in for my first summer cut, the one that as a child was the right cut for my dad’s sons: “John, slap a #1 in the trimmer, start above the eyebrows and keep going back ‘til you hit elastic.” He always chuckled at that. On that day, after settling into the chair I noticed the circling train track was gone, the kids’ photos, the television. I turned and look at John and said, “Please tell me you’re remodeling.” He just shook his head and pointed to the price sheet, which had been replaced by a hand written note: “On May 31, this barber shop will be closing for good.” I groaned and turned back to him. He forced a smile and said that he was taking his trade to an uptown barber shop on the street level of a senior living apartment building. He told me he had been assured he could have a chair there for the rest of his life. His grin widened. I didn’t see any real glee behind it. He asked me if I’d come see him there. I harrumphed and allowed as I HAD to, that it had taken years to finally get him to the point he could cut my hair halfway decent and I had no intention of breaking in someone new. He chuckled at that. As I got up from the chair, he handed me his new business card, with the uptown shop’s address and his hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 5.
I was awake early this morning, as in 3:30 AM early, and thought about the upcoming day for John. Was he relieved to finally be free of the struggles of running a business? Was he defeated by its demise? Was he happy at all to just be a barber and not an owner? Will he ever be able to enjoy retirement? So as this day ends and I know he has locked the doors, I think about John and his life. Whatever that life has been, he deserves to enjoy the path ahead. Godspeed.