A Barber’s Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm



E 86th St & York Ave, NY, NY 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Herman the German waited for his prey. He turned a small Iron Cross over in one hand slowly measuring the length of each of its four silver edges. His quivering lip shook an inch long ash off his cigarette’s end. It fell onto the top of his Austrian sandals with the matching black socks. A loose thread sizzled. He didn’t notice. It was 3 pm. It was time.

Hanging onto the sides of the store’s doorframe he leaned out towards the street. He twisted his smooth shaved face to his left and stretched his upper body back and forth, back and forth.

At three o’five, Michael, Steven and Gerard turned the corner, marching up the avenue towards the barber shop in prison formation using their cardboard school bags as sledge hammers. They slammed the sidewalk in time while whistling chain gang-style. Herman’s heart leaped. The Murphy boys were getting haircuts. The three boys, 12, 10 and 8 years old faced their sentence defiantly. They dragged their bags into the store and dropped their butts into the three barber chairs.

Every eight weeks, Mr. Murphy stopped at the barbershop on his way home from his Transit Authority job at the Coney Island hub. He prepaid three haircuts, 75 cents a piece with a quarter tip for each and delivered a short speech during the transaction, “Herman, each boy’s head should resemble the village green – short, trim, tight.”

Mr. Murphy had two intractable haircut rules: First rule: no hair makes contact with the back of the T-shirt when the boy is in the sitting position. Second: each boy’s hair must be short enough that it’s impossible to pull.

Rule Two caused my best friend Steven great pain one day. During a Math class, while Steven entertained two girls in the back row of St. Joseph’s fourth grade classroom, Sister Mercedes caught the usually sharp boy off guard. She crept down the aisle till her shadow hovered over his head. Oblivious to all, blabbing on to his entranced audience, he was Paul McCartney cute, Steven had no warning as the nun went to her classic move, the hair pull with a neat neck snap. Sister Mercedes mastered this maneuver over the first ten years of her career on countless knuckleheads. Other nuns froze kids in mid air by threatening a “Mercedes” if the shenanigans didn’t stop immediately.

Sister Mercedes pounced. Trying to pull the hair out of Steven’s head, she came up with nothing. Too short. Again, she tried. Only air. She had a better chance of going away with Father Ryan for the weekend (her deepest secret desire).

Disgusted, the nun slugged Steven in the forehead with her Sisters of Divine Charity two-pounder ring. Punching boys into submission was a respected tradition at St. Joseph’s. The nuns called it cleaning a kid’s clock. The punch thrown at Steven’s face barely missed his nose when he instinctively flinched forward offering his forehead as a target. Bingo! Barely conscious, Steven’s head swung backward towards the blackboard making a beautiful thud on impact.

“How are you?”


“How many fingers do you see?”


After a series of questions, all answered blankly, Sister Mercedes sensed Steven’s recovery when he correctly reported the year, 1964; and his age, 10 years old. Satisfied he’d live; she got back on her broom and flew to the front of the classroom to resume teaching. Later, Steven collected compliments on the tattoo left by the nun’s ring. For two days, if you carefully looked at his forehead after wiping away the sweat and dirt, you could read most of the ring’s inscription, “The Charities of Christ Urges Us.”

When the triple haircut routine first started, Mr. Murphy came home to find the three boys sitting at the dinner table. From the apartment’s entrance door, he viewed stray hair lying over the back of each boy’s T-shirt.

Without closing the door, or coming further in, he barked, “Do I see unacceptable hair lengths? Are you mocking me?” There will be no mocking! “Anita, hold dinner.”

Mr. Murphy dropped his shopping bag full of on-sale tube socks (Three for a dollar. Assorted colors.) and ordered the boys out the door and back to Herman’s. They arrived just as Herr Barber was closing his door.

“Herman, these aren’t the haircuts I asked for… I demand you fix them right now or I want my money back including the tip.” Mr. Murphy said.

Herman looked the boys up and down, in that “sign zee papers” kind of way. We always expected a Nazi spy to pop out of the back of the store.

“Mister Murphy, these boys look wunderbar!” Herman said.

“Your ass will look wunderbar if you don’t open the door and cut their hair,” Mr. Murphy said.

Deflated, Herman turned around, flipped the door lock, hit the light and reached for his barber coat off the door’s back hook under the Kaiser Wilhelm portrait.

After the deed was done, Mr. Murphy nodded his approval, the boys pouted, and Herman dreamed of a Fourth Reich… a better Reich… where haircuts were done once!

Oh, Herman missed the Village Square in Leipzig where the young frauleins sent him admiring looks following the war. He earned his Iron Cross in France in 1943 as a seventeen year-old Barber College student. Herman performed more than 700 haircuts on German soldiers during a two month campaign in northern France.

Every Steuben’s Day in late September, Herman closed his store and joined other German-Americans celebrating their heritage in the annual parade that ended in the center of Yorkville’s German town. An early riser, Herman put on his Lederhosen, high yodeling socks, short “Von Trapp Family” jacket, and an Alpine hat with a single feather. He ran up 86th Street to secure a good position in front of the RKO Movie Theatre. There he stood on a milk box with a blue cornflower pinned to his lapel, madly waving two German flags for the entire parade. If it rained he replaced one of the flags with an umbrella. He knew all the words to every song. For weeks after the parade if you needed a haircut, Herman would softly sing Edelweiss in your ear while fighting back his emotions. Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow for ever.

Herman had no room near the entrance to plant a barber pole so he hung a photo of a barber pole in his window. It looked stupid, but it helped block the view in or out. This was important to a kid because if the jerks saw you in the death chair, they’d come in the store and spread out watching you get scalped – all angles covered to enhance the commentary. After a crew cut you always looked weird. The hyenas followed you home tormenting you all the way. Kids wore baseball caps year round to cover the damage. The barber pole photo was my friend.

Despite the dread of getting a haircut, it was fun sitting in the barber’s chair. You were way up high so you could survey the entire store. If Herman turned the chair to the left, there was a chance you’d get a view of a man paging through a Playboy in the “off limits to kids” waiting area. Even from that distance, the photos would be delivered tout suite to the sturdiest room in my brain where my art collection hung on its walls. This room was my favorite stop on my way to dreamland. It sustained me till I found Dad’s stash. Sadly, Mom found Dad’s stash too and it was no more. This left me no choice but to remove the sheets covering my art and return to my private gallery while counting sheep.

Up in the chair, two things bugged me on Herman’s counter under the mirror, the Butch-Stick display and the long combs in the glass jars with the blue water.

Butch-Stick was a waxy hair product that made your crew-cut stand up in front like a lawn. First of all, I hated getting a crew-cut. Girls wouldn’t look at you. That there was a unique product to make a crew-cut look better, made no sense to me since I thought all crew-cuts were bad ideas. Adding insult, the ad accompanying the display was a sign showing New York Yankee star, Roger Maris, with a bubble to the side of his head saying, “I love Butch-Stick!” Well Roger, that’s great, just what I needed, thank you very much. Every two months, I give my Father 50 reasons why it’s not a good idea for me to get a crew-cut and you go and hit 61 home runs. 61 smacks to my head delivered by my Father, “If a crew cut is good enough for Roger Maris, well then it’s certainly good enough for my son.” With all due respect, up yours Roger.

Then there were the combs in the glass jars in the blue water. If for any reason I was glad I was getting a crew cut, it was because under no circumstance did I want my Teutonic trimmer pulling one of those frigging combs as long as my arm out of the blue water and putting it on my head. It was common knowledge that no one ever saw Herman leave the store to go the bathroom from the time he opened in the morning till the time he closed at night. Herman’s store had no plumbing besides the lone sink in front of the barber chairs where he rarely washed his hands. There was no bathroom. In the building next store, there was a water closet in the back of the first floor hallway. He never used it.

I walked by the store ten times a day. Herman’s store fell between my apartment and Joe’s Candy store. I played for hours in front of the store’s window all week. Herman’s head was always right there in the window with the monocle, the shiny bald top with the buzz cut on the sides (at least he had a crappy haircut too). His cigarette dangled from his mouth always coming this close to going into your ear when he leaned in to do your sides while butchering you. You felt the heat of the ash. Herman was not visible during most of the haircut. A swirl of smoke enveloped your head. You only knew he was there by his smell. A cocktail of cigarettes and talc. With luck, the cloud parted briefly while you were turned left and you could distantly eyeball a girlie magazine. How did Herman get through his day with no retreats to the hallway next door?

I knew Herman kept a liverwurst sandwich and an apple in a brown bag under a copy of the Staats-Zeitung newspaper in the drawer under his prized Grundig radio. The radio always tuned to a short wave German station. I was hooked on a German rendition of “The Blues in the Night.” Herman was a trim man. He practiced the gymnastic rings at the Turn Verein three times a week and limited his Schaller and Weber meat shopping to once a week. Food was covered, that left peeing.

How could Herman muscle through the day without relief? This mystery led me to the blue water. My theory, once a week Herman placed a tidy bowl toilet cleaner in the long comb jar in front of the first barber chair. If you looked in the window on Monday, the second and third chair had comb jars but there was nothing in them but combs. Dry as a witch’s teat. Start watching the second comb jar on Tuesday afternoon. The blue water table rose till Thursday when it peaked, and then the third jar started filling up. Sometime on Saturday, all comb retainers were filled to the brim. I believe when Herman’s leak was unstoppable he stood at the window and pulled the shoulder-high sheer curtains shut. His eyes darted from side to side while he centered himself strategically behind the barber pole photo. Once hidden, totally backed up, he took his bird out and pissed into the jar like a paper dragon moving serpentine through a Chinese New Year’s parade.

Saturdays being haircut day, I bet Herman only had one chance to pee all day long. I pictured the Saturday pee home movie looked something like this: Did you ever see a male horse start to go? It takes off like a fire hose, flying around in all directions; the pee soars in a series of chaotic circles.

One late Saturday afternoon while throwing a ball in front of the store, I saw Herman’s head resting on the curtain rod in the front window. He had a weak smile on his face. He was customer-less. I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. Puzzled, I noticed his eye without the monocle was flying around in its orbit. He looked like he was moaning. My interest disappeared when my throwing buddy Steven yelled, “Heads up!” I turned and chased the ball down the sidewalk leaving Herman to his private moment.

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§ One Response to “A Barber’s Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm”

  • Will Rice says:

    Herman sounds like he was a great guy. Bet Herman never asked for public assistance or mugged anyone. Sounds like a person who respected culture and had to eat a lot of shit from snotty little rug rats who don’t have respect for their elders, as well as from irate customers who should know better.

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