It was the early 1960’s, and there was a barbershop just a few feet away from the door to our apartment. I was fascinated by the the place. It was busy, mysterious, and alive. There were colored tonic bottles, and each had it’s own secret purpose, and there were razors and clippers and all kinds of shiny things, all organized on the barber’s station as precisely as a surgeon’s tools. And there was the strap, a long menacing leather strap that hung on the side of each barber chair. Every now and then you would hear that distinct and rhythmic slapping sound as the barber worked his straight razor back and forth across the leather strap to sharpen it’s edge before he did a shave. He would do it so fast, so precise. I’d come running when I heard that sound, then stood transfixed at the sight of a man putting a razor to another man’s throat.
Serious men would go in there to do serious business I thought, and the few times I got to go with my dad or uncle, I would listen to the men talk with an ebb and flow of steady banter that I never understood. As I matured I came to know it as cleverness and wit tempered by a mutual respect, that back and forth friendly banter that men, when being men, do so well. There was an ease about it all, a bond and candidness that I never saw when the gentler sex, as women were referred to at the time, were present. Manhood. It was grown up, and I wasn’t, but the barber shop made me yearn for the days when I would be.
I went to the barber for many years after those experiences in my tender youth, and I loved the place. But then the 80’s came along and I made a choice, for medical reasons, to shave my head. I’ve been bald as a billiard ball ever since. It was my choice to be bald at first, it’s less so now. Hence, I haven’t darkened the door of a barber shop in a while. Until this past Saturday.
This beard thing I have all over my face can get on the bushy side. Until a week ago, I had someone that would shape it for me at home but she was out of town, and may be forever now, so it was high time to find a place that could trim it up and make me handsome again.
Not just any place, it had to be the RIGHT place.
I’ll get to the point here. I like a full beard. Not quite Santa Claus but certainly not the kind that supermodels and wanna-be Chippendales dancers wear. I didn’t want to see a stylist or whatever kind of “ist” or “ologist” they are called now. I was looking for a barber shop, the old-fashined kind that you don’t need an appointment to get into. Preferably owned by a guy with an equally old-fashioned and trustworthy one syllable name.
Google spotted a place called Vic’s Barber shop just a couple of minutes drive from the gym. You can trust a guy named Vic I figured, so I headed right over.
From the parking lot, the place didn’t look like much. Just a door and a couple of windows in a strip mall with a picture of a barber pole on the window. But when I opened the door, it was like stepping into a time machine. I was back in the 1960’s again, and this was a real barbershop. The place felt warm and familiar, like I was visiting an old friend.
Vic greeted me while leaning over a customer, a pair of scissors in one hand and a comb in the other, and I told him what I needed. The name tag on his professional barber jacket told me he was Vic, I could tell from his demeanor that he ran the place. He nodded with a half-wink which meant he would take care of me, no problem, and a second later a barber invited me to a chair.
The walls were covered from ceiling to floor with autographed pictures of boxers and other sports figures. Many were famous, others less memorable, but no less important to Vic. They had all earned a chunk of his wall at one time or another. That wall told me that Vic’s was a place where all good men where equal and welcome no matter their faith or skin color or the team they cheered for.
Barbers cut hair, and they are darn good at it, but the real craftsmanship lays in their ability to massage a conversation. Nothing is off limits, politics, religion, or sports, all opinions were fair game and respected. The time in that barber chair flew by and while it felt to me like the chatter went back and forth, and the barber and I saw eye to eye on most things, it was me that had done most of the opinion sharing. The experience was great. I loved the place, and the beard trim, and promised I’d be back. It was the handiwork of a master artisan in both cutting tools and words.
I’m sure the whole beauty parlor or hair stylist experience, or whatever it’s called nowadays, has its merits. But being at the barbershop among men, the real kind, both outlaws and angels, solving the world’s problems or just passing time, is an irreplaceable experience.