The back of my neck has always been way too itchy. The itchiness began when I was a kid getting haircuts and when the need to scratch comes now, I sometimes think about Al the barber and my visits to his shop in the late 1950s.
For a time, I liked going there. There was that flowery clove and musk smell of the Pinaud Clubman aftershave he slapped on the back of my neck when he was finished, and the hand sized whisk brush he used to apply the powder—the one with the same smell and brand name. Except for the slap and the sting, I loved that smell; still do. It’s the only brand of aftershave I’ve ever used in nearly fifty years of shaving.
Al’s barbershop was on Bronxwood Avenue in the Bronx. It was less than a mile’s walk from my house in the Edenwald Projects, and only a block or two south of Our Lady of Grace Church where I went to Sunday Mass. Al the barber was a short, stocky man with a full head of curly grey hair which, due to his stash of green goop sitting behind the Wildroot Cream Oil, was always slick and never out of place. He had an olive, wrinkled complexion, and his face erupted with evenly scattered drops of sweat, even in the winter. Al would use his sleeve to wipe the glistening beads from the tip of his nose, sometimes not catching them before they dripped onto his fingers as he clicked away, the comb in one hand dancing with the scissors in the other. When I first visited Al’s with my parents, he would smile and give me lollipops.
As I got older, I went to Al’s on my own. His smiling face gradually began to reflect the taste of sour milk, apparently curdled by the time he cut my hair. I always had the feeling he was looking at me like I had cooties—though my hair was always clean from the bath I was required to take the night before. I had no idea, then or now, why he looked at me that way. My contemporaries today suggest that the look was because I was a kid and only had fifteen cents to give him as a tip. Looking back now, it makes sense. But back then I only smiled in response. Sometimes when I smile, even today, it is not for joy or pleasure or amusement. It is just a mask. Not planned, it’s automatic, a flinch, just a bittersweet residual of social anxiety which, over fifty years later, still persists.
* * *
One day right before Christmas when I was about eleven, I went for my monthly haircut. I was sitting, reading a comic book—probably Superman, he was my favorite—and patiently waiting my turn, but I couldn’t help but overhear the loud conversation Al was having with a man whose hair he was cutting. The man was attentive to Al’s discourse, alternately grunting uh-huh and, when there was a pause in the scissor dance, adding his nodding head to hell yeah. Al was complaining about different Negroes—this was still the late 1950s, and he didn’t even use that word, but its bastardized form—wanting to come into his shop over the past few months:
“Just the other day another nigger kid comes in here, walks right past me and sits right in that chair. I look at him and say, ‘what do you want?’ He says – ‘need a haircut!’ I say, ‘not in here you don’t!’” Al had claimed not to know how to cut any of their hair and said—his face, especially his mouth and lips stretched into a sneer, eyes squinting, nostrils flared—he didn’t have the correct tools for those goddam nappy heads… Al continued, “So the kid starts to say somethin’ but I say, ‘look kid, I can’t cut your hair. I don’t know how; and besides, I don’t have the right clippers and scissors.”
Al said he wouldn’t trust, couldn’t trust sanitizing his combs, clippers and scissors after using them on them. Al beat his chest, his left hand pressing the comb to his heart, as he pointed out each word with his right hand using the scissors like an orchestra conductor’s baton and proclaimed how he had “sent them all packing to goddam Sawyer’s”, a few blocks away… “Again this little nigger starts to say somethin’… Now I hold my hand up (Al held up his hand, palm facing out, as if to swear on a Bible) and I say, ‘look kid, why don’t you just go to Sawyer’s? He can cut your hair just fine. You walk out of here over to 225th and turn right and it’s only a few blocks down’… And again (Al’s eyes were now bulging), he starts to say somethin’, so I say ‘that’s it kid, it’s gettin’ late but you can still make it there before he closes.’ The kid looks at me and this time he don’t say nothin’… He finally gets up, and as he walks out the door I say ‘good luck kid’, and he turns around and he looks at me, and I say, ‘—but don’t come back here!’…Can you goddam believe it?” (Al said this last shaking his head, laughing.)
As I sat there listening, I looked at myself in the beveled mirrors and saw the reflections of a green and red lettered Christmas decoration hanging across the wall behind me. I concentrated on reversing the letters to decipher it so I would not have to hear to any more of Al’s discussion. It looked like this:
“NEM DRAWOT LLIW DOOG ,HTRAE NO ECAEP”
Sometimes when a mind is occupied, focused on one or more activities, it becomes numb to any background diversions. They are there, but they can be ignored automatically. Thankfully, the barbershop patter became just another backdrop—like crickets, or traffic, or rain—as I stared, in amazement, focused on the irony of the holiday message.
Other times, though, when a mind is deep in thought, it’s the absence of normal background stimulants that cause awareness; the proverbial quiet before the storm, and when the barbershop became hushed and still, I felt a chill on my arms and a reddening in my face. Al must have noticed something in my expression. I could feel him looking toward me. I was the only other customer in the shop. Preemptively avoiding Al’s piercing stare, I buried my eyes in the comic and again flashed my instinctive shielding smile. But most of the smile, the part that I didn’t want Al to know about, was for the emptiness of that green and red Christmas decoration, its beautiful message so far removed from the barber shop which was its ill-fitting home. The patter soon returned, and I once again became safely obscure, though the feeling imbued in my gut whenever I thought about Al and his barbershop had been uncovered, a stain which could not be erased.
* * *
My route to Al’s from the projects was going west up 225th Street toward Bronxwood Avenue. Just a few blocks before Bronxwood, on the left, stood Sawyer’s barbershop. It was hard to miss; alerting everyone to its existence was a huge sign overhanging its barber pole:
“IN TROUBLE? SEE A LAWYER…NEED A HAIRCUT? SEE SAWYER”
For years before this episode at Al’s, I walked by Sawyer’s on the way to get my haircut, never tiring of the marketing genius of Sawyer’s sign; it always made me laugh. I would often look into his shop—just a sideways glance—from across the narrow street, curious, but unwilling to be noticed. Growing up in my old neighborhood, sometimes being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be dangerous. I had to be careful where I walked and what I looked at. It’s just how it was back then, in the Projects in the Bronx. Still, I glanced, and I wondered how Sawyer’s varied from Al’s, besides the obvious contrast of the black faces in Sawyer’s with the white faces at Al’s.
After listening to his tirade that day, I only returned to Al’s once or twice before finding another barber. Traveling those last few visits I risked walking on the same side of the street as Sawyer’s, taking the time to get a closer look while passing. I walked neither too fast nor too slow with a clear view into Sawyer’s window. I saw his smiling face and the laughter which surrounded him—talking with his customers, clipping away—and I considered whether his clippers and scissors were any different from Al’s.