As a youngster growing up in the 1950s in the small Irish enclave of Woodside, Queens, I can remember my father taking me in tow, at least once a month, and walking down Skillman Avenue to "Paul's" barbershop for a haircut.
The shop had its own unique smell, as well with the smell of cherry, wintergreen, apple, and butternut-flavored pipe and tobacco smoke mixed with the scent of hair tonics, pomades, oils, and neck powders. The moment a man stepped inside, he was enveloped in the warm and welcoming familiarity. Even as a young child, I could sense that a barbershop was a cool hangout for men and their sons. In retrospect, I now realize that our monthly trips to the barbershop had, over time, become a family tradition.
Many men have been going to the same barber all their life and have introduced their sons to the same chair and the same barber. It was "a Guy's Place." No appointments at the barbershop. First come, first served, everyone else takes a chair and waits. Unlike Mom, Dad did not hover around me, inspecting and critiquing each and every snip of the barber's scissors. Dad simply grunted, "Make sure you get the hair out of his eyes!" and then returned to his chair to read that day's newspaper.
Of particular interest to me were the framed pictures of supposedly available haircut styles that hung on the wall featuring movie stars sporting various hairstyles. I remember once pointing to a picture of Elvis Presley having his hair cut upon entrance to the U.S. Army in 1958, and telling my father that's who I wanted to look like. My father almost doubled over laughing and telling me, "Paul is a Barber and cuts your hair. He's not a plastic surgeon and can't do a damn thing about your face!"
As I grew older, "Paul" ultimately retired and his shop closed and I found myself getting haircuts by stylists at unisex chain salons, but the problem’s been that many of the people who work at salons are not trained barbers. They’re cosmetologists. The difference between the two can spell the difference between a dopey-looking haircut and a great one. A barber is trained to cut with clippers, the main tool in cutting a man’s hair. Cosmetologists, on the other hand, are trained to use scissors. Their training is also geared towards catering to women’s hair. They become experts in styling, coloring, and perming — things a man has no need for. Well, that's not exactly true. Back in the 1980s, my brain synapses must have been misfiring because I did go to a Supercuts salon to have my hair permed on a dare. I won the bet ($50,) but I spent the next six months walking around with a hat 24 hours a day in a failed attempt to avoid looking like a bad imitation of Mike Brady, the father from the Brady Bunch television series. That ended my experimentation with "stylists."
Barbers, on the other hand, are interesting guys with interesting stories to tell. There is conversation about politics, cars, sports, and family. Guys read the newspaper and comment on current events. In between the banter, jokes are told and laughs are had. And everyone is involved: the barbers, the customers getting their haircuts, and the customers waiting to get their haircut. Adding to the enjoyment is that a variety of men take part in the conversation; young, old, and middle-aged join in the mix.
The problem I have stems from the fact that although my local barber, "Dino," has been cutting my hair for many years now, he didn't work out of a barber shop, but simply rented chair space in the various Broad Channel hair and nail salons through the years.
Unfortunately, just over a year ago, Dino lost the rental space when Ella and David's Beauty Salon closed. Not ready to admit defeat, Dino managed to rent space nearby in a shop on Cross Bay Boulevard, where he set up his single barber chair, clippers, combs and other accoutrements of his trade. Did I mention that Dino's new space is located in the "Perfect Pet Spa," a dog grooming service? I still have to make sure I arrive to the shop early for a haircut because, as before, the locals start arriving at the shop right around 9 a.m. to have their hair washed, brushed and dried or simply to have their nails cut. It's not really as weird as it appears, but I am really getting annoyed with my beloved Grace's insistence that I start wearing a flea collar.
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