Bald Man In A Barber Shop

barbershop
Just Trim A Little Off The Sides

On a bright yellow morning in December of 1963 God taught me the reason a bald man needs a haircut, the fact that Jackie Kennedy didn’t care who shot her husband, and that I was supposed to hate niggers because I looked like one.

I was sitting inside The Buzzcut Emporium — across the parking lot from Snoozie’s Trattoria — smelling white powder puffing off the soft brush with a blond wood handle that Jimmie the barber was waving against the neck of the tall, skinny, bald man who sat in the swivel chair.

I didn’t like the way Jimmie made loud speeches while holding a straight razor close to the wiry man’s throat; and the bald man sneered and blew me a kiss. So I slumped, slouched and curled my body until I became invisible. Then I slid what was left of me back against the wall, and I leafed through a copy of Life Magazine.

I stared at the Abe Zapruder colored photos of JKF’s assassination. I stopped breathing when I reached the frame where his wife Jackie held her man still and wide open to the shot that turned one side of the president’s head into red mist.

“She was sad, but she was free,” said God. “The secret service man who climbed onto the limousine’s back bumper practiced his lines and moves ahead of time.”

I considered asking God a question about Calvin’s concept of Predestination, but the barber’s voice distracted me.

“You want I should blend the sides with the fuzz around your ears. That right?” said Jimmie.

“Yeah, that and give it a proper washing, maybe even lighten it up some for the summer months,” said the bald man. Then he pulled what at first looked like a squirmy guinea pig from the pocket of his permanent-press slacks and handed the creature to Jimmie.

Turns out the pig was his hair.

Pig, wig, what the fuck, I thought. This guy’s an independent thinker like me, or he’s a nut case like me; and in either event Johnnie Rebello was right to recommend that I write my next story about whatever might happen here on a Saturday morning.

I rubbed my hand through the mess of tight curls that sat on top of my brain, and I listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as a cop walked inside and approached Jimmie. That tinkling bell, I realized, appeared in far too many of the stories I wrote not to hold some mysterious significance inside my psyche. Something to do with arrival and departure.

The cop wore a hat. The kind the bread man wore in the early 1950s when I was too young by a slip to go to school. I think I was in love with the bread man. It was all about the way he smelled. Sweet and hopeful as lemon sunlight shining on baby-green grass.

The fact that the bread man’s visits interrupted the beatings my mother gave me for being a weird child who was born inside her gut and could get back inside her head anytime he wanted to go there served to deepen my affection for him.

He would knock on the door, and my mother would drop her weapon, quick stop screaming, and growl at me to suck up my tears. Then she’d start singing and smiling like a television housewife who smelled like lavender perfume even after lusty sex.

I was only four or five years old at the time, but my daily travels inside my mother’s mind led me to understand — in the vague but focused way that babies comprehend the complicated aspects of communication — the connection between the beatings and her intense sense of physical frustration. A few years later, when I learned how to make myself come, I realized what she’d been missing, and how the bread man’s visits fit into the picture.

“Come on in,” she’d say when she opened the door.

He was tall and handsome, and his fingernails were clean.

My dad was short and nondescript, and his hands were always dirty from working hard-labor jobs on the railroad. Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Steam locomotives left over from World War II, dedicated to lugging tourists from Philadelphia to South Jersey and back again.

The bread man sported a fresh-pressed brown uniform and a snappy cap with a shiny black brim.

My dad wore grease-stained overalls and a pinstriped canvas hat that surrendered to his sweat.

The bread man filled the air with the aroma of sugar frosting and jelly doughnuts.

Dad stank of kerosene and coal tar.

And the cop carried no scent at all.

“Gotta stack of Wanted Dead or Alive posters here,” he said. His voice squealed past the fine hairs inside his nostrils and came out sounding like a sax gone sour. “Mind if I tape one to your window?”

“You know me, Bernie. Semper a Member of the Chamber. Here, I’ll hang one on the mirror, too. Who you lookin’ for this time?”

“Thug named Harry Felton. Guy wrote a book a few years back, then made himself drunk forever when no one but old ladies wanted to read the damned thing. Couple of months ago, he snorted down the wrong kind of cocktail and totaled a Packard automobile. Almost killed his own fat ass, and crippled his queer passenger, then escaped the hospital with the help of his agent just after we pressed him with a DWI. We suspect he went looking for an old dame named Gloria Lakeland. Seems like he had a score to settle with her.”

“Lakeland from down the road in Railsford? Did he find her?” said Jimmie.

“Yep, that’s the broad. She showed up yesterday lying in her own bed, naked, embarrassed and two days beyond dead. Her neighbors smelled her remains and called us. A note, written in red lipstick, was tacked to the headboard. Just two words: Epilogue Forthcoming. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right.”

“What’s this world coming to, Bernie?”

“I can’t answer that one. That kind of language is too twisted and high-falutin for me to want to understand.”

The cop left, and the bell tinkled.

“You’re next, kid,” said Jimmie. At first I didn’t know he was talking to me. I was too busy trying to stay invisible, and thinking about how much I hated Jackie Kennedy, to pay careful attention to the present moment.

And as far as present moments go, even back then I realized that time was a desperate concept we invented so we wouldn’t feel too dizzy and start to fall down. Being physically and emotionally tortured makes some children wither inside and turns other ones into hyper-sensitive psychics. I was a damned smart kid. Intelligence was the only thing I knew for certain that I owned, although intelligence disappointed itself by telling me that I could never be the best or the most.

“What’s wrong? Those big ears of yours not working today?” The tall bald man, who wasn’t exactly bald anymore, punched me on my shoulder and pointed to Jimmie. “Man’s talking to you, you bookworm faggot shrimp,” he said.

His trimmed and copper-toned guinea pig was sitting on top of his head. It slipped a little bit to the left as he bent down toward me. But his thin-lipped mouth tilted off to the right side of the universe, so on balance I made sense of the view.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I like your haircut.” I kept my facial muscles tight when I spoke, so as to be sure that my expression added nothing to my words.

Of course, I was being a wise-ass motherfucker by saying I admired his orange pig wig, but I’d learned from my mother’s beatings, and from the tough acting kids at school who spat on me and had wax inside their flat shiny ears, that given the choice between a subtly delivered wise-ass compliment and none at all, the insecure among us would always ignore the sarcasm and accept the compliment as a gift.

The tall, skinny man twitched his head from left to right, the way a spastic entertains an uncontrollable tic. He pushed his polyester shirt down deep into his permanent-press slacks, scratched his balls while he was down there, smelled the fingers he pulled out and turned toward the Buzzcut Emporium’s door.

And by force of habit I listened to the doorjamb bell tinkle.

“Climb aboard, kid. Mind if I call you kid?” said Jimmie the barber. He placed a padded board across the swivel chair’s arms. I shrugged my shoulders in answer to his question, wiggled my ass into position, and wished I wasn’t short like my dad.

“Please. Can you give me a flat top? Leave it longer right up front?” I said.

“Flat tops are for real hair, not for what God gave you. You got nigger’s wool. Only one way I can try to fix it,” he said. Then he grabbed the electric razor and I listened to it hum like an attacking squadron of green-head houseflies.

“My dad told me I don’t have to get a buzz cut this time.” I heard the pleading whine inside my voice and hated myself for begging this bastard.

“Your dad’s the little guy who works the switch house down the way, isn’t he?”

“He works hard,” I said.

“Not hard enough at controlling his wife. But look, kid, you don’t want to go through this life looking like a woolly headed licorice baby, so just let me do my job. The only reason I took you in here was because Johnnie called me from over at the Trattoria and said you had potential in spite of your looks.”

“You know Johnnie Rebello?” I said.

“Like a man knows his brother, cause that’s what we are. I’m Jimmie Rebello, but most guys call me Jimmie The Razor. You’re still a young punk, though, so just keep calling me sir.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Rebello,” I said as I watched my nigger’s wool fall to the black-and-white tile floor.

“Johnnie says you’re an author. That the way it is?”

“I write stories, but so far no one wants to publish them.”

“Well, what do you write about, kid?”

“Melancholy dead guys who live in Happyland. About them and about everything else.”

I thought about how if I ever wrote this barber shop into a story I’d have to change all the characters’ names, because no one would believe that they all ended with the same sound. Johnnie, Jimmie, Bernie, Harry. Then again, I thought, life was odd and so were my stories, so maybe I’d leave well enough alone.

“That might be your problem, kid. Trust me on this. Dead guys can be melancholy, but not here in Happyland.”

“Your brother, Mr. Johnnie, told me the same thing.”

“Must have heard it from me. We talk a lot. On the telephone, that is. I can’t convince him he should leave his favorite corner booth, walk across the parking lot and visit me here. He tells me that exercise is for fools who think they’ll live forever. Sometimes I think he’s got a point.”

“Mr. Johnnie is a wise man.”

“So I eat free of charge at the Trattoria once a month, and in return I give him a haircut to match his restaurant’s decor.”

“Like I said, Mr. Johnnie is a –”

“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. I don’t need you to praise my brother.” Jimmie swung me around in the chair. “You see the mug hanging on my mirror over there? Guy’s name is Harry Felton. He’s an author, too. Old, drunk and on the run from the law. He let a temporary need for love ruin his life. Happens to all you brooding artist types. I’d be careful if I was you.”

I stared at Harry Felton’s photograph, and then at my own reflection in the mirror. Harry had nigger’s wool, too. Gray to my brown, but his curls were just as tight. True enough, he looked lonely and just about dead. But he held his head high and winked at me.

I climbed down off the board and out of the swivel chair. I pulled two quarters out my pants pocket and handed them to Jimmie.

“Glad I met you, Mr. Rebello, sir” I said. “But I don’t need love. I need success. And the next time I want a haircut, I’ll look for Harry Felton’s barber.”

I remember leaving the Buzzcut Emporium, but I can’t be sure that the doorjamb bell tinkled on my way out.

An Amusing Anniversary

Raining Rice and Revelry

I suspect that a man learns to forgive when he moves away from a melancholy interpretation of events and toward the delightful. Either that or he simply grows too old to consider himself so important as to claim past injustices committed against his person as a worthy cause for sympathy.

Dad was a storyteller.

“Once upon a time, I was working for the railroad company, Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line,” he said to me. “I was part of a crew of men who lived inside a box car and traveled the rails from town to town. When we reached a station where repairs were needed, to the tracks, to the cars, or to the station house itself, we did the work.”

Dad loved the railroad. I knew this because whenever he told me stories of his adventures there, I could smell creosote in the air around us.

World War II had recently ended. Dad came home from North Africa to Atlantic City, New Jersey — to the house where he’d grown up on Arctic Avenue — and he found himself lost, lonesome and depressed. He slept on the living room couch, because he didn’t feel like climbing the stairs that lead to his childhood bedroom, and because he realized that he couldn’t be a child any longer. Most mornings, as he told me, he failed even to shave his face. Why shave? Shave for whose sake?

Today we’d describe his malady in terms of difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Back then, no one bothered with any such description. Men were supposed to be men. Oprah Winfrey wasn’t born yet. Veterans were expected to become part of the super-dominant society that the USA had become and to get their butts back to work.

And so Dad went back to work a lonely man who grinned his way from one sunrise to the next.

The Crew, Dad on The Far Left

“She kept the cleanest counter inside any Newberry’s Five and Dime I’d ever seen. She was pretty, Anthony. She reminded me of Claudette Colbert. I knew I was going to marry her. Love at first sight; that’s real, I tell you.”

Only problem, as my father’s version of the story had it, was that Dad’s best friend, Frank DePalma (fourth from the left in the crew’s photograph) fell in love with the same girl. But as Frank was indeed a best and noble friend, he gave way and space to Dad. Frank let Dad have first shot at the girl.

Mother resisted Dad’s every flirtation for a while. After all, she yet pined away for Wayne, the Navy man who suffered a “nervous breakdown” soon after his discharge from the service, a disgraced patient of Ward Eight.

As all such tales of film noir romance must end, however, Dad’s grin won the day. On one spring evening, the aroma of love mixed with that of nubile honeysuckle dominating the atmosphere, young Rosario Toscano showed up on Florence’s wooden porch and knocked on her door. She opened both the door and her heart, and accepted the one-quarter-carat diamond mounted on a sliver of a golden band that he offered her.

One day later, Florence changed her mind about marrying Rosario; but her father, Anthony, insisted that she’d made her bed and now must sleep in it.

A June wedding was planned and later executed. May God bless the ancient Romans for the chosen date.

Rosario and Florence spent their first honeymoon night inside a room of a favored hotel. Many years beyond the first and final take of this scene, and well out of my mother’s earshot, Dad told me another short tale.

“She was a virgin, just like The Virgin Mary I prayed to when I was lying on that couch on Arctic Avenue. And she was scared to death of sex. So when I tried to hold her, she went for the third-story window. I think she would have jumped out and down if I hadn’t saved her.”

The Hotel Still Stands Proud Today

In years now gone by, I’ve oftentimes written about the misery of my childhood days and nights. The beatings, physical and emotional, born of early resentment and doubt. Oh woe is I, said my melancholy mind.

More recently, however, after looking at some photographs of those early times, photographs I placed as part of a tribute to my dead brother John, a cherished friend wrote to me to say:

“It is the photos of three brothers that I dwell upon, and what I see is almost an exact negation of some of the word-meanings in the accompanying text. And also within your previous postings over the years that have forlornly mourned the horror of persistent maternal misbehavior.

At that time I considered writing to my friend to explain that my parents were masters of the setup shot. Each and every family-album photograph was staged both to present the face of perfect love and to hide the sadness of the third dimension.

Yet if my friend is reading this article here today, may he know that he did me a favor by way of his remarks. True enough it is that my mother and father pretended to live a life of 1950s’ marital bliss, and true enough yet again that I fell victim to their pretense. True as well, however, is the happiness my parents discovered within the boundaries of an anguished home.

So where, then, is my delightful interpretation of this cheerless story?

Where?

Mother and Dad loved each other, that’s where the tale must begin and end.

Where?

Well, I am here to interpret events in the fullest manner they deserve.

Where?

Inside the smile that this moment shows itself upon my face.

So, Happy Anniversary, Mother and Dad. Thank you for the stories, and thank you for my life.

That’s Me In There

La Cosa Nostra

After the war, my dad went to work for one of the big railroad companies. He became a member of what the bosses coyly named a carpenters’ crew, a gang of eight men who lived inside a couple of boxcars and traveled from town to town, from one railway station to the next, to make repairs to company property.

They cut, planed and nailed new boards into the shaky walls of signal houses. They slapped, splashed and brushed fresh coats of creosote onto war-worn railroad ties. They scythed tall meadow grass to keep the tracks clear and the horizon in sight. They shoveled cinder gravel onto steep embankments, stirred turpentine into five-gallon buckets of oil paint, drilled holes into metal, and pounded rivets into rails.

Years later, when I’d become a boy and they’d become a collection of folk tales and arguments, these same men — alone, in pairs, or in parties of three or four — came to visit my father, to see how much his kids had grown since the last time they met, to stuff their bellies with my mother’s pasta and pastry, to swig golden shots of sharp whiskey, to chug and swallow bubbly Dago Red, to cherish and embellish their memories until they gained the grace of legends.

They sat around the dining-room table, touched each other on the arm, clapped each other on the back, and refilled each other’s glass with more Dago Red whenever a more open expression of love threatened to break surface.

And they laughed out loud through our home’s open windows, loud enough to remind our neighbors that the war had ended and that a new world had been born from the blood these friends had left behind. A world connected by track, labor and legend; a giddy world of prospect and promise. A world where a man once again could feel safe enough to entertain stories.

His Story

He is the oldest son of a family that forever recalls the Mediterranean, and so he is required to sit at the table with these unshaven men whose words smell of creosote and turpentine. He sips wine mixed with ginger ale. He nods and he smiles, and always he agrees. He lets them call him Anthony, Sicilian king, first-born son.

He listens and he commits their tales to memory.

The time Gianni poured too much salt into the pot of spinach, on purpose, because the boys had been riding him hard about his lack of spice.

The day Frankie met Carmela at the five-and-dime counter and fell in love over a plate of meatballs and spaghetti.

The following day, when Rosario learned Carmela’s secret, and then stole her heart and hand away from Frankie.

The night Nicolas landed in jail after hitting the fat cop who had dared to call him a coward.

The night Mancuso cried in his sleep, and Rosario held the man like he’d hold a woman, wept and whispered into Mancuso’s ear that he understood, held the man close enough and long enough that Mancuso again began to believe that the war had ended.

The boy listens and grows drunk on the affection these men share by way of their stories, the same stories they tell each other each time they meet.

He never interrupts them. He owns no desire to speak.

He respects the sound, shape and curl of each and every word that passes into the wake of the word before it; and soon enough he understands the weight and wisdom of the breath inside each syllable.

These men are his lovers. Their touch is his caress. Their fondness for the past is his craving for the future, his yearning for a time when he too shall live inside a boxcar with a gang of men who love the boys who died beside them.

The boys who died begging for their mothers, while reaching for their fathers.

This crew, this table, this wine, this heart song is his blood.

This son is his father. From the moment he leaves his mother’s womb, he is to become his father’s encounter with a young boy’s terror.

His father will die and he will remember. He is bound to remember. The veterans seated round the dining-room table command him to remember the war.

To recall the Mediterranean.

To hold one’s weeping brother.

To kiss the edge of a nightmare.

To cherish La Cosa Nostra.