The first barbershop I can recall going to more than once was on Harvard Street in Allston, up the block from Herrall’s Ice Cream. The man who ran it was perpetually ill-shaven and the windowsill of his shop was littered with springs, wires. screws, and other discarded innards of watches he mended as a side line. His eyesight wasn’t too good and the haircuts I got from him were never more than mediocre, but I’d go back because it was close to where I lived and because I liked looking at all that junk in the window.
My next regular one was Stanley’s on Western Avenue in Chicago, on the next block from the Empty Bottle. Stanley spoke almost no English and I spoke no Polish, so aside from his confirming, “Regular haircut?” the rest of our communication amounted to smiles, nods, and the exchange of currency. Stanley cut exclusively with scissors so he was constantly flicking the blades open and closed to rid them of lingering hair. The sound of metal swiping metal was like a refrain throughout my visits. Stanley’s was unisex and a woman, perhaps Missus Stanley, often worked at the second chair. There was also an apartment behind the shop that they would sometimes disappear into. The shop felt like an extension of a home.
About eleven miles south down Western was Johnnie’s Barbershop. It was a door down from Hardboiled Coffee, where I worked when I lived in Beverly. Johnnie was semi-retired and told me, half-joking, that he only went in to get away from his wife. I often saw him napping in the barber’s chair as I passed on my way from the coffee shop to the dumpster or the parking lot. But men whose hair Johnnie had cut their whole lives would bring their young sons in regularly. That probably kept him going. He reminded me a lot of the watch-mender in Allston because both their hands shook as they worked.
After leaving Beverly, I started going to Metropolitan Barbers in the Monadnock Building. That building might be the most beautiful high-rise in Chicago and that fact had a lot to do with my going for haircuts there. But the barbers kept changing to the point that the last time I logged on to their booking site, not only was my favorite barber gone but their hours of operation were cut in half. I decided to try a place closer to home.
Barker’s Barbershop opened a couple years ago on 18th Street, just west of Halsted. They have three or four chairs going all the time. I went a few times before settling on a young kid named Julio. He wasn’t twenty-one yet but had just become a father to a baby girl. He takes his time doing his work and takes obvious pride in it. We talk about how the neighborhood around the shop is changing. He likes some of the new spots to eat.
I like to sit in the waiting area and watch the barbers work. Those Hitler Youth-type haircuts which are in style now take a lot of care to get right and likely require weekly touch ups to maintain, which can’t hurt the shop’s bottom line. I don’t remember ever caring as much about my appearance as many of the young men in the chairs do. I shaved my head with clippers myself or had a girlfriend do so through most of high school and college. Barbershops seemed like unnecessary extravagance. But then I saw those springs, screws, and clock-faces in the window of the shop on Harvard Street and went in.
Now I can’t even recall the last time I wore a watch.
—I reviewed William Inge’s very flawed Natural Affection for the Reader.