The Barber Shop
Virgil's Barber Shop
Across the street from my elementary school was a tiny grocery shop, a dry cleaners, and (in between) a barber shop. This barber shop is where I remember receiving my first haircut ... and many, many more thereafter.
In the early sixties, women went to beauty salons to have their hair coiffed, while men went to barber shops -- always identifiable by a rotating white pillar with a red swirl, which would hypnotize you if you stared at it long enough.
The barber shop I went to was owned and operated by an elderly man named Virgil (or so I remember). From my youthful point of view, he seemed like a hundred years old. He had blue eyes -- one of which was clouded over, and he looked at his shop and patrons through bifocal lenses.
Normally, he had one or two patrons in the shop when I'd walk in. The patrons were all from the neighborhood and spoke freely with Virgil and among themselves about sports, politics and local events.
The shop smelled of hair tonic, talcum powder and various kinds of tobacco smoke. All of these smells seemed to be concentrated and emanate from Virgil who might have seemed like a bit of a scary guy except that he moved incredibly slowly. He literally shuffled about his shop, sweeping up hair cuttings.
I bided my time by reading a comic book or by watching him work on one of his patrons. The normal style for these gentlemen who were either middle-aged or well past was to have enough hair to comb on the top, with very close-cropped hair on the sides. Virgil always finished up his work by using a bit of shaving cream (that he actually whipped up in a shaving mug), which was applied where sideburns would normally grow as well as along the back of the neck. I recall Virgil sharpening his straight razor blade on a piece of leather. The razor blade scared me, and I was glad he never used the thing on me.
My treatment was rather special because I was basically a runt. In order to give me a trim, Virgil would place me on a padded board that straddled the studded arms of the chair, then crank the chair up to its highest position. From my point of view, I could barely see the top of my head in the huge mirror on the wall.
On the positive side, I could behold all the combs, brushes, electric shavers, tonic bottles, canisters, towels and array of scissors. I also had a bird's eye view of the school playground across the street -- the black asphalt normally vacant on a hot Saturday afternoon.
Everything was very leisurely inside Virgil's barber shop. The men spoke in a halting way, the radio, set to a low volume, broadcast the non-action of a baseball game, and Virgil never hesitated to light up a pipe, cigar or cigarette in the middle of my hair cutting procedure, and set himself down for a short break. He would put his feet up on a stool, give his considered opinions to the gentlemen on the couch then finally return to me once he'd extinguished his tobacco time out.
This was all a regular and customary procedure, which I grew used to. My only concern was nodding off to sleep and falling to the hair-strewn floor, which looked like a long way down. The actual hair cut was something of an ordeal. Virgil used an electric shaver and moved it around my head like a lawn mower. For whatever reason he applied far too much pressure, and the metal against bone hurt like hell. I can remember tears welling up in my eyes, and Virgil would mistake this as bits of hair having gotten into my eyeballs, so he'd take a soft brush, dunk it into some talcum powder and whisk the brush across my face, ears and neck. (No blow-dryers in those days, unfortunately.
The light at the end of the tunnel was when he'd remove this small piece of wrapped paper between my neck and collar. Once the paper was removed, Virgil would remove the cloth protecting my clothing, give me a final dusting off then I would scramble down the chair, handing him the money given to me by my mother.
The buzz cuts (as they were called) were no different than those received by inductees in the Marines. I despised them (the hair cuts). Immediately after receiving a cut, the little pieces of needle-like hair would slip down inside my shirt and pinch my neck, back and chest. They would be on my face, around my nose, inside my ears.
By the time I was in junior high school I started making a fuss about being able to keep my hair longer, and having plenty of arguments with my mother -- the bride of a military man.
The early sixties led to the mid-sixties to the late sixties, and entire classes of people were judged by the length of their hair. Hair became political.
If you were conservative, thought Richard Nixon was a swell guy, and supported the involvement in Vietnam, you probably had short hair. If you had long hair, you were a hippie, a drug user (if not a pusher) and were on your way to supporting communism -- at least that was how the conservates regarded the nonconformists.
My leanings were liberal, but my hair was long because I hated getting hair cuts (and still do). I never smoked weed, never burned a flag, and became glassy-eyed when I watched Armstrong step on the moon, yet I was nevertheless banned from my graduation ceremony because "my hair extended over my back collar." That was one of my early lessons in the myopic view of any collective.
Virgil maintained his shop for a long time. After I graduated from high school I noticed his shop had shut down. The grocer next door told me that the old man's health took a turn for the worse and he finally passed away. I wasn't exactly shocked. He used tobacco excessively and sometimes even chewed the damn stuff. But, he was one of those touch stones from my youth, so I felt sad he was gone.
The barber shop closed down completely, and the grocery shop expanded by taking over the space.
Whenever I drive by this small corner lot, I can't help but think of him.