Barbershop Theology: First Haircut

Because I want to be a responsible citizen and give careful note regarding the topic, I’ll submit this preface. Alcohol abuse is bad.  Drunkenness is bad.  In fact, I would go further and say the only kind of indulgence I have ever seen that isn’t bad is the love of God.

The following recollection is one of my favorite and clearest memories, and for no good reason. I think I just chalk it up to the unique experience a kid could have 40 or 50 years ago. It’s also a tribute to all the other lessons unremembered in the people business.

The Barber’s Son and Shoe Shine Boy

As I have been remembering and writing about the hours I spend in my dad’s barbershop, it has finally dawned on me that what seemed like my entire childhood was actually a short window of time.  I was the shoe shine boy in 1965, and probably didn’t retire completely until 1968. Oh, I was in the shop a lot before and after that, but that was when I logged a lot of hours.

As the shoe shine boy I had the cool job of hanging around as men came and went all day. I listened to all manner of talk about the weather, price of cattle and/or references to hippies. Now that I think of it, hippies never came into the barber shop.

Saturdays and Saturday Nights

Saturdays were long. My dad would open the shop at 7am and we didn’t close until 9pm. I waited most Saturday mornings to go to work with my mom.  She didn’t step behind her chair until a minute past 9 in the morning.  I passed my day by shining shoes for a quarter and slipping off when things got slow to watch guys play pool, maybe play a pin ball machine or splurge to buy a Coke with a shot of cherry or vanilla in it.

On Saturday nights the street in front of the barber shop would always come alive with teenagers “dragging Main”. (Technically it’s Evans Ave. but I only throw that in for posterity.)  Saturday nights offered a unique group of customers. There were farmers who decided to squeeze another day of work into the week and maybe knock off early and go to town. While the Mrs. was buying groceries, the Mr. would go to the barber shop, maybe for a haircut, or more likely, just visit and see what’s been goin’ on.

From Shoe Shine Boy to Barber

Mom left early one Saturday night, and maybe thirty minutes before closing time, a man came in the front door and said, “Looksh like thersh a couple in front of me Oshker, I’m kinda in a hurry kuz I got me a hot date!”

I was immediately engaged because it was obvious that this guy was plastered… um, he was drunk. He was in a very good mood.

My dad affirmed that it would be a wait and then said something that made the other customers laugh. I don’t remember what Dad said.

Then the inebriated patron pointed at me and said, “Hell, looky here. Yer the dern barber’s son, I betchu can cut my hair.” This was followed by more laughter in the barber shop. It embarrassed me a little because the laughter, I felt, was at my expense.

So, I have no idea why I said it, but I blurted, “I sure can.” (I had never given a haircut in my life, but I had watched Mom and Dad give a million of ‘em.)

“Alrighty then,” he stated as he stumbled into the empty barber chair (it was a two chair shop). “Jush gimme a little trim and make me look good.”

I looked at my dad. He lifted his chin and nodded his head forward only slightly, barely perceptible. But it spoke volumes to me. It was the “get-after-it” signal.

I stepped behind the chair, grabbed Mom’s covering sheet and draped it clumsily around him. Clipping the sheet  snuggly at the neck was easy. Sharing the breathing space with this guy was not.  His breath smelled like lighter fluid.

My not-sober client was giving instructions about how much he wanted off in the back and how to he liked it trimmed at the ears and the length of his sideburns. He was a talker.

Turning to survey the tools, I quickly chose the electric-clippers. They where sharp and a bit heavy for a ten year old. I wanted to make smooth, short waves at the back of his head and rock the clippers deftly like Dad. My first two swipes upward were cautious and careful. I was barely cutting his hair at all. I decided to swallow my pride, knowing several sets of eyes were watching, and try a two handed approach.

The guy’s mouth never stopped. He was talking about how fast his car would go, the time he shot an armadillo in his yard and on and on. Right about the time I was starting a nice solid swath up the back, he decided to rear back and say, “Did I ever tell about the time…”

That’s when I took a divot out of the back of his head that would make Lee Trevino proud. It scared me so badly that I jerked the clippers to my chest, stepped backward and looked with shock to Dad. Then I stared back at the gaff.

Dad stopped his work, hand frozen above his customers left ear, and looked to my point of concern. When I looked again at Dad, wide-eyed and imagining all the trouble I had just caused for myself, he looked at me, tilted his head with a how-about-that shrug and when back to work.

Frozen, nowhere to hide, and with no one coming to rescue me, I went back to the haircut, only know I was only pretending to cut at his hair and dared not get too close with the electric clippers. There was just no telling when “Otis” would decide to start another story.

I decided to choose a safer tool of the trade. I started combing. I did a lot of combing. By the time I wheeled the barber chair around to give him a look at my work, my dad was thanking his customer and collect a buck fifty.

The other guys in the barber shop loved, and I mean LOVED, my signature in the back of his head. Veiled wise cracks were plentiful.  Dad stepped over as though inspecting my work, quickly trimmed around back and complimented the work.

Later, as we turned out the lights and closed the shop I asked Dad if “that guy” was going to be mad.

“Oh, he ain’t never gonna see the back of his head . . . and even if he did, he won’t remember where he was on Saturday night.”

Comforting words — and that was the last we ever talked about it.

Moral of the story

Look, I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I had screwed up. I was very well aware. Maybe the next time a friend of yours makes a mistake, they can own it, and you can say something, or nothing.

For we all stumble in many ways . . . James 3:2

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