by Joe Eliseon
When I was a little boy, my grandfather would take me to the barber’s every once in a while. He had apprenticed himself to a barber in Sicily in the hope of becoming a doctor. He never became a doctor, but he learned how to pull teeth and provide some basic first aid. He did some barbering in the Italian Army and when he first came to America. Then he decided he could make better money by buying a cafe. He ended up owning bars and nightclubs.
But my grandfather never forgot his barbering origins. If ever he saw my hair curling around my ear, he’d snatch me up, deposit me on the wide front bench seat of his big, emerald green Chrysler New Yorker, and whisk me off to the barbershop.
As far as I knew, all barbers were named Joe or Vincent, mostly Joe. Every Italian neighborhood had a Joe The Barber. I suppose even my grandfather had been known as Joe The Barber for a few, fleeting minutes. But our particular Joe The Barber was also known as Joe The Portuguese (pronounced port-a-gee’), which distinguished him from all the other Joe The Barbers. Years it dawned on me that “the Portuguese” indicated an ethnic distinction.
To a boy my age, going to Joe the Portuguese’s barbershop on a Saturday was an adventure worth the loss of your precious weekend freedom, not to mention your hair. Joe’s shop occupied a corner in the basement of a big, downtown hotel. To get to it, you walked across the main lobby and down a white marble flight of stairs, broad as your house and flanked by gleaming brass banisters. As you descended, the sacerdotal scents of Witch Hazel, Bay Rum and Barbasol rose about you. The solemn warning sign above Joe’s door, “NO LADIES ALLOWED,” sealed the hallow’s threshold.
But it was open to me. I felt myself among the elect, deeply honored to be one of the only one and one-half billion members of my sex allowed access to the liturgical mysteries of male grooming.
A short, fat man, his bald head fringed with a neat ring of black hair, Joe peered at you over a thin pair of glasses with three-quarter, black frames. He wore a crisp, white barber’s jacket bearing the red-lettered badge, “Joe.”
An old, portable TV sat on a table a few feet from Joe’s barber’s chair. He watched it while he cut your hair. He didn’t need to keep his eyes on you. He’d seen millions of heads like yours before. He’d point the chair away from his mirrored walls and toward the TV. Both of you could watch.
At my usual haircut time, Joe favored “Candlepins for Cash,” a local duck-pin bowling show that always preceded the Red Sox games. Once, so engrossed was I in the drama of a seven-ten split, I failed to notice that Joe was coming up behind me with two handfuls of cold lather. He intended to lather up the back of my neck and trim it with a razor, a classy touch.
But I didn’t expect it. He touched the lather to the back of my neck. The sudden cold shocked me. I let out a yell and leaped out of the chair. Poor Joe almost took a heart attack. My grandfather had to pick him up off the floor.
Joe’s barbershop introduced me to political discourse. I remember the occasion well.
My grandfather and I had walked in just as Joe was putting the finishing touches on an old, Irish gentleman. Joe always concluded with several ceremonial flourishes: the final cleaning of the neck, the whipping away of the covering cloth, the brisk whisk-brushing of the shoulders and back. The Irishman’s shoulders loomed broad as a barn door. Joe could hardly reach his brush across them. The old man’s hair and beard were completely white. He wore a dark green three-piece suit and thick-soled, brown wingtip shoes. The glittering links of a golden chain bridged the pockets of his vest.
As he paused to pay Joe, he pulled up on one end of the chain. Out of his pocket popped a huge, gold pocket-watch. He caught it one big hand and flipped open the cover with his thumb. I had never seen a clock you could hold in the palm of your hand before – and in gold, to boot.
The man caught me staring at his watch. He smiled. I held on to my grandfather’s hand. I recall my grandfather clothing, too. He wore a silver-grey pinstriped suit and a grey fedora. Men dressed like adults in those days.
The Irishman said a cordial “Good morning,” nodding to the both of us. He exchanged a few words with my grandfather in a clear, strong but lilting Irish brogue. His gaelic trills struck me as exotic. My ear had grown accustomed to my grandfather’s deep, sonorous, latinate intonations.
They were talking politics. I distinctly remember the Irishman saying, ” … and I wish Teddy Kennedy would SHUT HIS YAP!” My grandfather concurred. It was the only polite thing to do.
Joe The Portuguese’s barbershop was always well-stocked with Playboy and Esquire magazines. Once, while waiting as Joe cut my grandfather’s hair, I picked up a copy of Playboy to look for cartoons or comics. I flipped through it impatiently, annoyed at not finding any I could understand. I remember saying to myself in passing, “Aren’t these ladies cold?”
As Scripture says, “To the pure, all things are pure.”
(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.