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Brian Cullman

He said it was once a week, but I’m sure it was more often. My father would go to the barbershop for a light trim every four or five days, maybe every Tuesday and Saturday. It was just around the block from us, next to Jimmy’s Shoe Repair, a few doors down from the derelict looking Terminal Hotel and directly across from the Automat. It was a long, narrow shop with five or six barber’s chairs and four full time barbers, all in white smocks, all standing at attention if they weren’t cutting hair.

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He never went on Fridays, as Victor, his favorite barber, was off that day. Victor had a stiff, formal manner, he called my father “Commissioner,” and he was courtly and attentive, with a military bearing. No hair escaped his notice, no whisker was left untended.

There was a large wooden radio on a shelf by one of the mirrors in back, but it was never turned on, and the room was filled with the low hum of electric razors, the snip of steel scissors, the mumble of dirty jokes and quiet laughter. The barbers were formal so the patrons didn’t have to be. It was comfortable. Like a park bench, with fewer pigeons.

One time, a new barber turned the radio on and fiddled with the dial. A barrage of smooth-talking voices, jingles, news bulletins and the greasy strings of “Love Is Blue” filled the room. Everything stopped; the scissors and the razors fell silent. Victor shook his head. The radio was turned off, and the hum resumed. A week later, the new barber was no longer there.

My father had grey, thinning hair, the same grey as the steel grey scissors, and it seemed like it had always been grey, slicked back with a touch of pomade or cemented in place with stick-um. There’d be a bit of powder applied to the back of his neck, then whisked off the back of his neck, a bracing, stinging liquid would be slapped onto his cheeks in a WAKE-UP sort of way, and his jacket would be dusted off, brushed off, once while he was still in the chair, then again once he’d risen and was on his way to the door.

After The Beatles turned up, I stopped tagging along, at least I stopped tagging along regularly. My hair spilled down to my shoulders, and when Victor would see me, he would raise his eyebrows with the same pained look he’d given the sudden sound of the radio.There were no words.

Well, actually, there were some words. My hair was the constant topic of conversation at dinner, temporarily replacing talk of Richard Nixon.

“Maybe if it was styled, shaped a bit,” my mother said, ever the diplomat. “That might make it alright.”

“No,” my father shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t.”

Then, in the summer of 1969, my father got shingles. And for a month, maybe six weeks, he couldn’t shave, and he couldn’t get his hair cut. Overnight, his manner changed, his look changed, even with just a few days of whiskers, just a week without Victor’s close attention. He stopped looking like a businessman or a diplomat, and there was something rakish and wonderfully disreputable about him, like a flaneur or a boulevardier; maybe not a jewel thief, but someone who could help a jewel thief find a good home for his merchandise.

I told him how much I liked his new look.

“Stop it,” he said, but not unkindly. “Stop it. I look like a hooligan.”

Now, in the middle of this pandemic, all the barbershops are closed. They won’t re-open soon, at least not in New York. And I’m neither brave enough nor foolish enough to cut my own hair, which now spills over my collar and down to my shoulders, shaggy in all the wrong ways, not even vaguely rakish, just unkempt and untidy. No one, not even a small and under-informed child, would mistake me for a flaneur or a boulevardier.

The mask helps. Or at least is a distraction. What people notice is the mask over my face, not the hair spilling every which way, like a circus gone wrong. If I’m feeling particularly self conscious, I’ll also wear a cap.

It fools no one, but it’s a distraction.

It’s times like these that I’d love to be at my father’s side, holding his hand and walking around the corner for a light trim, with Victor in charge of the scissors. We’d wander past Reiss Brothers Toys, past Jimmy’s Shoe Repair, and walk into a calm and courtly world we both knew so well. The radio wouldn’t be on, but there’d be the mechanical hum of razors and the music of steel blades, and the air would be filled with the smell of lime and Old Spice and cherry tobacco. Not a hair would be out of place.

Though my father might not want to walk with me.

I look like a hooligan.

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Brian Cullman, pictured lower left, has written for Creem, Rolling Stone, Details, and The Paris Review. A musician, producer, and flaneur, he is Music Editor at Journal of the Plague Year

Barbershop Rhythm :: Wade Walton & R.C. Smith

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