In our community, I’m known as “Bradenton’s Favorite Barber.” And, by “our community”, I mean, “my mind.” I like to think of myself as a master barber with myriad clients who wait hours for me to cut their hair. In truth, I am the most fortunate son of a bitch I know. In my humble estimation, I have about 450 regular clients who’ve been duped into thinking I know what I’m doing with clippers and shears, who enjoy my never-ending stories and “in your face” demeanor, and pay me every couple of weeks for the enjoyment of fifteen minutes of cigar breath and pithy analysis of The State of The World. What a life.
But I am definitely in my element here. All my life I just knew there was a place for me, and the juxtaposition of my boisterous personality and a healthy respect for tradition has found a home in the barbershop.
There was a time in American history when the local barbershop was something more than a place to get a trim and a close shave. Gentleman—from the Mayor to the tobacco farmer—drifted leisurely in and out of the shop on almost a daily basis, greeting one another and staying in touch. Like the British “publick houses”—the pubs—the American barbershop was the best place to get up to speed on the goings-on in communities like Hollowell, Maine and Lenoir, North Carolina and Dyersville, Iowa. Hard-working men living uncomplicated lives had the uncanny ability to chisel down complex issues to their least common denominator. American life was lived upon a foundation of solid truths which were never questioned. And although the barbershop was a marketplace of ideas and critical analysis, such engagement was entered into with all participants under an unspoken agreement to do so within the framework of a common value system. This is not to say that discomforting or even far-fetched topics were not broached—reasoned progress demanded it. But imagination was always tempered by primeval understandings that had been silently passed from generation to generation.
These storefront shops were rich with Heart of Pine flooring, Mahogany wainscoting and cabinetry, decorative pendant lighting and large, well-polished mirrors. Beneath each mirror was a smooth porcelain pedestal sink before a solidly-built barber chair with polished chrome and deep forest-green or burgundy leather. Patrons were met with the aroma of oak wood smoldering in a pot-belly stove mixed with masculine fragrances like Clubman aftershave, Wildroot hair cream and ten-cent cigars. An array of fedoras and Stetsons garnered the brass coat rack.
In one corner, a couple of guys played checkers while a businessman in a three-piece suit waited his turn in the chair with the morning paper. In one reclined barber chair, a customer swathed in a red-striped hair cloth had his face wrapped in a steaming white linen towel while, at another, a barber dressed in white coat and bow tie blended the perfect taper, shears over comb.
The Victrola played Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and, later in the afternoon, the Cubs game live from Wrigley Field. Men forecast the weather and spoke of distant places with funny names like Okinawa and Ardennes, but also of Main Street and the heretically-proposed traffic signal and the special tax assessment to pay for it. Livestock and real estate were transferred with a handshake. Newborn babies were communally celebrated and old friends were laid to rest with respect.
Like water through the wheel at the gristmill, a community’s life passed through the barbershop.
In the year 2009, I am caretaker of such a shop, the 2009 version anyway. (I do not say “owner” or even “operator” because, to me, the shop has a life of its own that was here long before I arrived and, hopefully, will thrive long after I’m gone). The differences between old and new are typical and expected: technological advances in the world and unfathomable challenges within the family. Air conditioning, electric clippers and compact discs. On the coat rack, the fedoras are gone, replaced by baseball caps—John Deere, Dale Earnhardt, The Tampa Bay Rays. Conversation is interrupted by an orchestra of ring tones. And women customers. A few, anyway.
Death no longer waits for the elderly; motorcycle accidents, drug overdoses and cancer swipe the young from us. A make-believe world emanating from clusters of ever-larger electronic boxes exploits our emotions and distracts our attention from the real, the substantial, the true . A cacophony of talk—not music—vomits from the radio. Mike Gallagher, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Todd Schnitt—all of whom practicing somewhat right of center—madly in love with the sound of their own voices, talk. And talk. And talk. And the people, God love ‘em, they listen, convinced that these guys and gals are something more than entertainers; bards or pundits or poets, even.
Some things, however, have not changed. The issues facing Mankind may be different, more complex, but the conversation emanating from the ideologue and the naïve and sage continues towards its ultimate goal: Simplify.
One anomaly I can’t explain is the matter of time. Time—the keeping of it, the knowledge of it—has not changed since, well, it’s beginning. A minute is still a minute, an hour an hour. What has changed is how we use time. Technology has given us myriad toys and inventions to “save time,” yet we seem to have less and less free time at our disposal. Computers calculate and bind us one to another across the globe. We have an insatiable hunger to know.
In the several years I have been in my position, it has occurred to me that there are stories here. Stories from the mouths of patrons. Stories from the mouths of barbers. And stories long ago relegated to a worm hole in my head just waiting for somebody to recite the magic word that releases them from my brain. This is a book of these stories.
For I feel it is past time for we as a human society to remind ourselves of that humanity. I believe there are important missing ingredients in the day to day existence of life preventing us from receiving all that such life has to offer. Like a pinch of nutmeg added to some of the Italian food we prepare, there are pinches and dashes we omit from our daily recipes that could make all the difference. Often, those pinches and dashes are obtainable at the barbershop.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I only know what I know and what I glean everyday from a cadre of personalities as distinct as their hair. My hope is that you will find a thread to hold onto, one that will tether you to the important or reel you back, in case you’ve already drifted too far.