My father was a man of few words. Not because he was the strong silent type, but rather because, in the twenty-three years that we spent together, it was my mother who did most of the talking. He had few opinions, my father, which he mostly kept to himself, and my life was too full of other things to be remotely interested or have the time to listen to the ones he cared to express openly.
Because he was so soft-spoken it was easy for me to dismiss him. I remember that Sunday morning November 24, 1963, when all of America was still reeling from what Lee Harvey Oswald had done to our President. “Mark my words,” my father said with tears in his eyes, “someone will kill that man.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. This is America, not some banana dictatorship,” I answered sharply in my private grief, so appalled at my father’s lack of sophistication. But within the hour we watched in shock, along with the rest of the country, as Jack Ruby turned my father’s foolish words to prophesy on live TV. He never said a word to me, and I never acknowledged that he was right.
For me 1964 was a year of endings and new beginnings. In June I graduated college, and began my first teaching job in a junior high school on Long Island that September. In December I married Ginny, my childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, and moved out of the only house I ever knew as home into an apartment. Though it was a time of great excitement, it was also a time of great difficulty for my parents. My father, unable to work, had been home for the months leading up to the wedding, recovering from yet another operation, the third in as many years. The first two had been to repair a detached retina in his eye, the last, more serious, to remove a blockage in his intestine. After each procedure his barbershop had to be closed for extended periods, and there was little income, except for what my mother earned sewing mattress covers and what I was able to contribute from my part-time job at Metropolitan Life after school.
Generally I was in too much of a hurry, running off to meet friends, making social plans, preparing lessons for my classes, getting ready for the wedding and the big move, so I hardly realized the seriousness of his situation, or the rapid passage of time. When I did take the opportunity to notice, the signs of depression were there, cut deep in the lines on my father’s face. But he didn’t complain. He didn’t say much. Yet whenever I looked, I saw it in his eyes from all those long days he had spent sitting on the couch in his bathrobe watching TV, or counting the loose change in his pockets with his glasses pushed up on his forehead. He had begun his search for old coins to replace the collection of Indian head pennies sold a year before to help pay some of the hospital bills.
In the final stretch leading up to the big day, when my father felt strong enough, he helped me paint and wallpaper the new apartment. And there were some days when he had tried to open up the barbershop. It made him feel useful and productive, he said. Over the long months the shop had been closed, many of his customers found other barbers, and his small clientele had grown even smaller. But it didn’t matter that there were no customers, because by mid-afternoon he was too tired to stand and he had to close the shop and return home to rest.
After all the months of planning the morning of December 19th finally arrived and it was difficult for me to believe that in a matter of hours I would be a married man. Following the reception in the extravagantly marbled and mirrored Eleganté, Ginny and I would fly to Bermuda on our honeymoon and the official beginning of the Christmas vacation. For us it was a time of firsts — first time in an airplane, first Christmas away from the family, and first home in an apartment that wasn’t the only home I knew. When I returned with my new wife it would be to a new life.
“Come on,” my father said to me early that clear, crisp Saturday morning. “I have something I want to do at the shop.”
“What?” In my anxiety to get dressed, to be on my way, I had almost snapped at him.
“It won’t take long. You won’t miss the wedding. Come on.”
We walked together the three blocks from the house to his shop. When I was a little boy, walking with my father had been difficult, trying to keep up with his long strides, taking two steps to his every one. It often took my breath away. But now he was the one nearly out of breath, the one who had trouble keeping up, and I had to slow my pace for him to stay with me.
When we arrived he paused on the steps until he was able to breathe. He waved to Lou Goldblatt, the dry cleaner, whose store was next to the barbershop. Lou looked surprised to see my father there so early on a Saturday, to see him there at all. He nodded and waved from behind the foggy window at the two of us, as my father fit his key into the door lock. The electric barber pole outside the shop was still. On better days, when he was able to work, I always enjoyed watching the red and white stripes spiraling up the pole whenever I walked past.
“The pole is an ancient symbol,” he had told me when I was little. “It dates back to a time when barbers didn’t just cut hair,” my father said with great pride. “Barbers were like doctors. Better than doctors. They were the surgeons. And the red on the pole is for blood.” It was something I always remembered.
Inside the shop was dark and it smelled of the Jeris Hair Tonic and the lilac talcum powder that lined the shelves in front of the two leather covered barber chairs. One chair he used to give haircuts, the second was never used. Business was never good enough to support even a part-time second barber. It was where my father sat to work on crossword puzzles, or where he took short naps between customers. Many times as a kid, on my walks to the schoolyard or Joe’s Candy Store, I would see him asleep, reclining in the chair with his feet up and his arms tucked behind his head.
On the wall behind the chair my father had erected a photo tribute to all the neighborhood boys who served in the military from World War II, Korea and after. A young and smiling Tony Petti looked out from Germany. Andy Giglio, who everyone called “Bunny,” and Donald DeCanio were both in their smart Air Force uniforms. Louie Yodice, who had married my cousin Loretta, squatted among a bunch of sailors in dress blues. My brother-in-law Gene in army khaki, holding an M-1, smiled from somewhere in Korea where he guarded POWs. There were others too, faces I didn’t recognize. The most recent were color pictures from Viet Nam, guys my own age in jungle camouflage trying to look fierce. All the photographs with their names below them lined the wall.
On the mirror in front of the chair, displayed for everyone to see, were high school and college graduation pictures of me, my sister in her wedding dress and her husband Gene, returned safe from Korea, as well as smiling pictures of his grandchildren Lisa and Richard. I took it in, seeing all and noticing nothing. To me little had really changed in the years that he had worked in the shop.
“Sit in the chair,” my father said. He always kept a pile of clean, folded towels handy on the shelf. He dusted off the seat with one of them before I sat down, then he pumped up the lever and tilted me back gently.
My father was the only barber I had ever known, the only person to cut my hair. When I was little I sat on the booster board that he kept for children, screaming and terrified of the electric sound of his clippers. When I was older I resisted getting even a trim, until my hair was so long that my mother threatened to cut it when I was sleeping. But always, I remember the coolness of the hair tonic that he rubbed into my scalp, the softness of the sable brush he used to dust talc on the back of my neck when he was finished.
“It’s your wedding day,” he started awkwardly, “and I want to do something special for you today. I want to give you a shave.” He turned on the warmer and dropped in a new towel. In a minute his hands pressed it over my face, and it was startlingly hot and soothing at the same time. In the silence I thought about how many thousands of times in the course of his lifetime he had done this very same thing for his customers. I closed my eyes.
“You know,” he said, “I guess there are a lot of things we should have talked about before. And things we need to talk about now.”
I opened my eyes and watched him walk to the new electric soap machine to warm the shaving cream. He had bought it before he got sick. He hesitated there for a second, but instead he took his own shaving cup from the top shelf where he kept it. He ran the water hot in the sink until it sent up clouds of steam. Then he wet the soft bristles of the shaving brush with hot water and dipped it into the cup. Expertly his hands whipped the scented bar of soap into a thick lather before he carefully set the cup aside and removed the towel from my face. Then I felt my father’s soft, smooth hands touch me, something he rarely ever did, even when I was a child. I felt the soft fibers of his shaving brush spread the thick, warm soap along the ridge of my jaw and over my cheeks in the next moment. I pursed my lips as he lathered above my mouth. I watched as he selected a straight razor from those that he kept on the shelf, passing over two of them until he found just the right one. He pulled the leather strap that hung down from the side of the chair and began slowly and methodically stropping the delicate edge of the blade until it sparkled, catching and reflecting the overhead fluorescent light.
It was then that the tiny bell on the back of the door tinkled as a man stepped into the shop. “Joe,” the man said, visibly pleased, “you’re open!”
“Not today, Angelo,” my father answered. “It’s my son’s wedding day.” He turned and faced me as he continued. “. . . And I just opened the shop for a little while so I could give him a real good shave.”
Angelo smiled and nodded. “Congratulations, young man,” he said to me. To my father he said, “And good luck to you, Joe. Please open up soon. All of your customers miss you.” He smiled. “I really need a haircut, and I won’t go to anybody but you. Congratulations!” he called again as he closed the door.
My father went back to the task of shaving. He used his razor deftly, cleaning off all traces of my beard along with the soap.
“It’s very late, I know, but not too late. I guess I should ask,” he said, and hesitated. “Do you have any questions? Is there anything you want to know, before you get married, I mean?”
I looked into the mirror and smiled into his reflected face, amused by his embarrassment and touched by it as well. “No,” I said after a long second. “I think I’ll be all right.” And then I added, for his benefit, “Is there anything that you want to know?”
My father looked back at me and a smile crinkled his eyes in the corners. I hadn’t seen him smile in a long time. He wiped my face clean with a towel and cooled my skin with a splash of Pinaud Lilac Vegetal, my favorite. Although I really didn’t need it, he powdered the back of my neck with talc and that soft sable brush he knew I loved so much. And then he closed up the shop and together we walked slowly back to the house in silence.
I was twenty-two. The shop would close forever the following July, when my father passed away.