A barber of civility

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Unlike many elderly gentlemen who have thought a good deal, I still have a fine head of hair. This has a cosmetic value, in that I am often admired by folks on the street when I pass, but at today's barbering ransoms I always get real thatched out before I step in to be trimmed. My old friend, the barber, lets on that he doesn't remember me from time to time, and in January he always reminds me that he will be closed on Thanksgiving. As I hand him his ever escalating emolument, I ask him if he remembers when haircuts were 25 cents and I had one every week.

I was still in short pants (boys didn't wear longies then until high school) when I had the finest haircut of my career. It cost 25 cents. When my mother felt I was cantankerous about the house, she related my mood to the length of my hair, and she would give me 25 cents and tell me to go see Mellie. Melvin T. Collins was the barber, keeping a shop on the second floor of the building where Augustus Derosier had a grocery. Mr. Derosier was a Frenchman, and in an otherwise WASP community seldom spoke. But he kept his prices a cent or two under the competition, and with that advantage a shopkeeper needn't be a great linguist. An outside stairway reached the barbershop, which always smelled of glue and varnish, because Mellie Collins made violins in the back.

He also made sloops at his home, up the street, and sometimes would be in his boatshop (the parlor), shaving a strake, instead of at his chair. It was customary for prospective customers to look in Mellie's front window on their way to his shop, and if he were working on a boat they would tap the glass and he would attend. Mellie generally turned out a sloop a winter, and they were gentle little boats much admired. On the morning now in context my mother had handed me the quarter and I had climbed the outside stairs to find Mellie's shop empty. He came in from the back room when the telltale bell tinkled, a violin in his hands, and said he would be but a moment - he couldn't take his thumb off the joint until the glue had set. Mellie was a smallish man, his eyes always a-twinkle as if with a personal amusement nobody else would appreciate, and he affected a baseball mustache (nine on a side) which suited both the Italian barber and the Italian maker of violins, except that Mellie was all Yankee. Now he came, inquired what my parents had been up to, if my schoolwork had been acceptable, and if I would be playing any baseball. He flung the cloth about me and began with the hand-squeeze clippers that now and then pulled.

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Melvin and his wife had a son, Clifford, who was my age, and at that time while I was frittering my time in baseball and trout hunting, Clifford was mastering the bass viol. This instrument stood several hands higher than Clifford at that time, and this time, while I was half shorn, Clifford came lumbering up the outside stairway with this ponderous appurtenance and clumsily worked it through the door into the barbershop. ''Pa,'' he said, ''I think I've got that hard part so I can go through it!''

''Good!'' said Mellie. ''Let's give it a try.''

So he laid his clippers on the shelf under the big mirror, stepped into the back room, and reappeared with a violin, which he began to tune. While he was doing this, Clifford braced himself, embraced his viol, and began slapping the strings like a man fighting mosquitoes in a swamp. Such is the nature of this instrument that considerable noise resulted, none of which sounded like music to my unpracticed ear. He continued to slap for sometime, with Mellie holding his violin at the ready and tapping his foot. While I didn't recognize anything which might be termed a tune, I could see that Clifford's performance called for extensive muscular dexterity. At last Clifford ceased and he said, ''How's that?''

''All right,'' said Mellie, ''now - one-two . . .'' and off they went, Clifford repeating his flailing, but this time with the mellow violin complementing so that true music resulted. It was a Brahms sonata; I knew that because we had it on a Victor record at home. Mellie and Clifford went on and on , forgetting me in their absorption, and I sat there with the cloth about me, watching them Through the Looking Glass. When they finished, Mellie said, ''You've got it,'' and Clifford herded his viol out the door and down the steps. All for 25 cents, with a haircut included.

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