Remembering a Barber Shop

by

06/01/2008

Jamaica, Queens, 11432

Neighborhood: Jamaica, Queens

Some years ago, I came across a story in a magazine, possibly The New Yorker, entitled “Emil J. Paidar”. That name struck a familiar chord. I had seen it staring at me so often from the footrests of the barber chairs where I had my hair cut, in my early childhood, that it was practically embedded in my long-term memory.

The shop I visited for those haircuts in Jamaica was located on 166th Street, near the last station of the old elevated train on Jamaica Avenue, and a block from a bus terminal. Ben Katchor’s graphic art showing such a neighborhood perfectly describes the seedy and dilapidated atmosphere of this area.

The barbershop was located very close to the side, or stage, entrance of the Loew’s Valencia Theater. I would stand at the stage doors with my mother on one particular night of the week, when there was a drawing of some tawdry prize, as an added feature of the movie show. You either had to be inside the theater, if your number was called, or waiting outside the stage door, where the number was broadcast over speakers, and if you could fight your way through the crowd there (this was during the Depression, after all, and many people, including my widowed mother, couldn’t afford the price of admission) you could go up on the stage and claim your prize. I don’t ever remember her having won anything (whether it was a piece of china, or whatever), but I do remember standing out in the cold with her, hoping to hear our number being called.

I did infrequently actually attend the theater, most probably at a Saturday matinee. Children my age were forced to sit in the narrow side sections only, and a uniformed “matron” patrolled the aisle looking out for any wrongdoing, such as trying to sneak into the center sections. The acute viewing angle, from this vantage point, made every actor look like the “Thin Man.” This theater, incidentally, was one of the few with faux Spanish architecture (hence the name “Valencia”). Projections of clouds slowly moved across the ceiling, giving the impression of an outdoor courtyard open to the sky at night. Sometimes watching those “clouds” was more interesting than watching the movies themselves.

Getting back to the barbershop, there was a sole proprietor named Abraham Fagin, who lived on Snedeker Avenue, in Brooklyn. (I gleaned this information from his State of New York Barber License in a frame hanging from the wall.) He was a short, middle-aged man, with black wiry hair. Looking back on it now, I never saw another person getting his hair cut while I was there. His scissors kept up a continuous “clip-clip” – whether he was in the act of cutting hair or not. It was as if he had motorized fingers that worked at a constant rate. He always addressed me as “Sonny,” a convenient way not to have to remember or even know a boy’s name. I gave him a quarter for the haircut each time, and he pocketed it without comment. (Who knew about tips in those frugal days? I certainly wouldn’t be expected to).

The shop itself was long, narrow and unimpressive, with a row of 4 or 5 barber chairs (the majority unused), facing a mirrored wall, with its opposing wall also mirrored. The reflections of these mirrors naturally gave the impression of infinite space, with an infinite number of chairs. There was a high tin ceiling, and hanging light bulbs. A door apparently led to a rear room.

During my haircuts, I consistently looked down at my feet, and thus the name “Emil J. Paidar” became impressed in my memory, just as it was impressed in the cast-iron footrest.

As I said, I never saw any other customers, but there was a constant flow of middle-aged men coming and going, into the back room, and out of the back room, in and out. They could have been in training for parts as the habitués of the Bada-Bing Club, in The Sopranos.

One particular occurrence stands out in my memory, after nearly 70 years. A man opened the front door, stuck his head partially in, and asked Mr. Fagin: “Cops come?” Without looking at the speaker, the barber nodded his head, his clipping scissors not missing a beat. “Take ‘em?” Again, the nod of assent, together with the constant clip of the scissors. The man said “‘Bye” and he was gone.

I must have been going to Mr. Fagin for haircuts for several years while we lived in an apartment house nearby in Jamaica. One day during my visit, after he had completed his tonsorial efforts, and dusted me off, he said, not unkindly: “Sonny, you’re getting too big. I have to charge you fifty cents from now on.” I have no recollection where I went for a haircut from then on, but I think it was the last time I saw the name “Emil J. Paidar” until the magazine article, many years later.

 

Philip Wesler is a retired engineer, living in Walnut Creek, California. He is about to enter the penultimate year of his eighth decade.

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