By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m afraid the corner barber shop may someday be as rare as the local blacksmith. They are being slowly replaced by places called Super Duper Cuts or Hairem Cairum, establishments that cater to clients of all ages and sexes. Often, the person who cuts the hair is youngish with purple hair. Many only charge 5 bucks or so, as opposed to the $17 plus tip that I’m currently paying. There are, of course, tonier salons that “style” ones hair for more like $50 or even $100. I can understand women putting up with this, but when did men start caring so much about their hair? Was it the same time they decided that having five o’clock shadow was de rigueur?
I may outlast this trend. My current barber is younger than me, so may still be clipping away when I no longer require a barber. His name is Frank, and I call him “Frank the Albanian” to avoid confusing him with my former barber, “Frank the Sicilian,” who recently retired.
The first barber I can recall with any clarity was Tony Bazzone (pronounced like baloney), who’s shop was a few doors from my father’s office in McKeesport, PA. Now, McKeesport was then a thriving steel and industrial city near Pittsburgh, and Tony’s customers tended to be steelworkers and the like. I was about 12 at the time, and it was the first establishment were I can recall profanity used in bulk. It was also the first place I ever saw a bikini. Tony subscribed to the Police Gazette, which was as racy as it got in 1950, at least to my innocent eyes.
He also had standards. One day when I was waiting my turn, he refused to cut a customers hair because it was filthy. “I’m not putting my hands in that shit,” he said. “Wash it before you come back.” I remember hoping my hair was clean enough to pass muster.
After my father died, we kind of fell on hard times. Often, my Uncle John would cut my brother Pete’s and my hair. Since we generally had crew cuts anyway, it hardly mattered. During my high school years, I was more or less continuously employed and began to actually care about how I looked, so it was back to Tony. Those were the days of the greasy pompadour, and perhaps are best forgotten.
I moved back to Chicago when I was 18. I lived in the Italian neighborhood around 24th and Oakley, and for many years Mario – an Italian from Tuscany – was my barber. He also happened to be a good friend of my sister and her Italian husband, so I often saw him socially as well. When I married and moved away, I returned to Mario from Oak Park, Rogers Park and Glenview rather than risk finding a new barber. I did stray once. I decided to see if I could find a nearby barber in Oak Park. I noticed a shop near the Jewel Foods on Madison Street, and thought “why not?” The barber was another Italian, but elderly. When I noticed his hands shaking, I saw the error of my ways.
I won’t bore you with a litany of my various moves over the years, but by the time I moved back to Oak Park in 1974, Mario had retired. I was working in Chicago’s Loop at the time, so usually got my haircut near the office on company time. But because my son Patrick was now getting regular haircuts, I decided to seek a local shop and found Sicilian Frank in about 1977. He remained my barber until he retired about two years ago, or just short of 40 years.
He was a gentle soul and relatively quiet for a barber. Many years ago, he had bypass surgery, but returned after a couple of months. I almost panicked, but only had to go elsewhere once. He was proud of his two children – a boy and girl – and of their successes. The boy later graduated from Harvard Law. He never lost his heavy Italian accent, so I only understood about half of what he said. Even after my son Patrick moved away, he always asked after him. He occasionally would bring in another barber to the shop, but he was never happy with them. He had a good location on Oak Park Avenue near the El, but they kept raising the rent on him, so a few years ago he moved in with Frank the Albanian in Elmwood Park. As far as I could tell, every one of his Oak Park customers followed him. After he retired, he moved to Florida to be near his daughter.
His retirement coincided with our move to Forest Park. As it happened, there was a barber shop only one block away from our building. Why not, I thought? I went twice, but the barber was a moody sort. When you have to initiate a conversation with a barber, it’s time to move on, so I went back to Albanian Frank, who is never at a loss for words.
He escaped from Albania as a young man. It was then one of the darker Communist countries. Now that it’s free, he returns every year to visit his family. He is not tempted to move back. To him, the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. He has no illusions about our problems, but they pale in comparison to those in his native country, even though it’s now relatively free. He also owns another barber shop and, like Sicilian Frank, has raised successful children. What would our country do without immigrants like the two Franks?
The traditional barber shop is one of the few remaining men’s clubs. Most days, everyone in the shop – barber and customers alike – explore the issues of the day. Can you do that with the purple-haired missy at the Super Duper Cuts? I didn’t think so. Frankly, I wouldn’t be tempted to stray from Frank’s even if there were a return to the topless barber shops that had a brief vogue many years ago.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon