Enthroned On the Barber's Chair

AS I entered the shop, I was assailed by a multitude of scents. I recognized Old Spice - Dad's favorite. Oh, how I enjoyed those mingling aromas that magically seemed to make me older than my years.

Mr. Joe, the neighborhood barber, greeted Dad and me as he applied hot lather to a burly Baltimore longshoreman's face. I was three years old when Dad introduced me to the rituals of getting a haircut by a professional barber. Until then, Mom had sheared my hair with a pair of sewing scissors.

For much of this century, most communities in America boasted a neighborhood barbershop where men and boys gathered for a cut, shave, and engaged in manly conversation on fishing, hunting, sports, cars, females, and politics.

In time, economic and cultural changes brought on the arrival of large, anonymous unisex hair salons in malls, eliminating many local barbershops. The camaraderie I experienced when receiving a haircut from a barber, if only for a fleeting moment, has been lost. Since that first experience at Mr. Joe's, haircuts had always been adventurous.

INTENTLY, I watched Mr. Joe take five quick strokes with a straight razor across the longshoreman's lathered face. Afterwards, he wrapped a steaming towel around his head; 30 seconds later, the longshoreman's mug was splashed with a blue-colored liquid reminiscent of Blue Sky flavoring for snow cones, except that it smelled like the bouquet that Dad gave Mom for her birthday. Upon seeing that man wince, I decided to have none of that. Rising - rubbing his face - he proclaimed, ``Joe, youa artist!'' and paid 50 cents for the shave - tipping Picasso a quarter.

Mr. Joe looked at me and snapped a towel as he finished wiping the chair - no, a king's throne like in the movies. Perched high on a pedestal with an enormous cushioned crimson leather seat and back coverings, the chair had heavy snowy porcelain armrests, brightened by gleaming chrome fixtures. The most exciting feature of this noble seat was that it spun completely around. Oh, I fell in love -

hard - with this chair. Before I climbed upon such luxury, Mr. Joe placed a booster seat across the armrests. Two long years would pass before I took my rightful place in that chair. ``Next!'' Mr. Joe called out. Dad hoisted me onto the seat.

Suddenly, a fluttering sensation hit my stomach. Was it Dad snatching me up, or apprehension at unveiling the coming mystery? With efficiency born from decades of cutting hair, Mr. Joe wrapped a scented tissue around my throat and covered me with a body apron with racing cars. Hearing the familiar clipping sounds of working scissors, Dad smiled at me. ``That's my big boy.''

I was in heaven listening to Dad and Mr. Joe discuss an upcoming fishing trip; then my glory shattered. A buzzing, high-pitched whine filled my ears. Tears cascaded down my face. Both men laughed. Then Dad took my hand, reassuring me. Mr. Joe explained how the clippers worked. I relaxed.

Minutes later, I was brushed clean, doused with the manly scent of talcum powder, and the chair spun around to a wall of mirrors. Gazing upon my image - hands rubbing hair stubble - I giggled. ``My head feels neat.'' I left Mr. Joe's with my first crew cut and a gift - a chocolate Tootsie Pop swimming in my mouth.

Like most things in family life, the task of keeping track of haircuts fell to Mom. When hair touched ears, off I went, returning with a crew cut. When I asked Mom why I couldn't grow my hair longer, she replied, ``With your crew cut, I can spot ticks easier.'' Then her cursory head inspection ended with a loving head rub.

When school came, Mom let my hair grow long enough for a part and frontal flip - the Beaver Cleaver look. By second grade, I went to Mr. Joe's alone.

It was the 1950s, and neighborhood parents kept a vigilant eye on local kids. Finally, I told Mr. Joe how to cut my hair. ``Gimme an Elvis cut!'' With raised eyebrows, he asked, ``Is this okay with your mother?'' ``Yes sir,'' I said. He cast a disparaging look; I held firm. I received the Elvis look.

When I arrived home, Mom's inquisition began. All answers were wrong. Back I went - with Mom. ``Joe, he gets a Beaver-do. Understand.'' ``Yes `em.''

Mr. Joe laughed as he worked. Mom glared at me for what seemed like an eternity. I learned a lesson: Mothers rule the world and men tremble before them.

Years passed. When I played varsity sports, my independence was such that I truthfully told Mr. Joe - by now gray and wizened, but mentally sharp and proficient like his companion the straight razor - how to cut my hair. The problem was, my teammates sported the College look. I followed - neatly trimmed sides and back and with enough hair on top for a part, combed sideways. A dab of Brylcreem ensured that the hair lay flat.

In the summertime, I allowed my locks to grow. Unfortunately, my girlfriend smashed this rebellion. ``My parents won't let me date a hippie,'' she said. Back to Mr. Joe's.

AFTER graduation came military service. In Vietnam, when I was with the Lima Company Rangers, the crew cut was a blessing. It provided relief from the heat - heat that turned an Army nurse's bobbed hair into an Orphan Annie-do in hours. And Mom was right. While on patrol, we rangers had easier access to hitchhiking leeches that latched onto an uncovered head.

Eight years later, military service, along with crew cuts, ended. I entered the workplace, becoming part of the 1980s culture that had men getting perms. A beautiful masculine ritual, the weekly haircut by a barber, was rendered impotent by cultural change that had me calling a stylist for an appointment and hoping Maurice could take me on Tuesday. Of course he could - for $30.

My wife, a Georgia belle, offered to perm my hair. I scoffed, ``Only a professional coiffeur touches this crown.'' What a fool I was. The woman has permed hair for decades. Outdoing Maurice would have been as easy for her as it would be for Twyla Tharp to choreograph a high-school dance recital.

For years, I futilely searched for another Mr. Joe, still mourning the local barbershop's demise. Lost forever was a gathering place to celebrate the brotherhood of men. Silently, I weep that my stylist does not have that wonderful chair that made me feel like a king - if only for a day.

Now in the 1990s, perms are out; stylists still rule. But at 1 o'clock today, Maurice is in for a shock. I've decided that he'll gives me a crew cut and we'll talk about fishing!

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.