A Barber Shop Tale

A Barber Shop Tale

Created August 29, 2023
Last Modified September 29, 2023

This is a work of fiction, but it is based, like so much fiction, on actual events.

His name was Louis, and everyone called him Loo-ee, not Lewis. Louis did not seem to have an enemy in the world. But his ‘friends’ were not necessarily the best. Lots of friends just liked to take advantage of him. Especially teen-aged white kids. Louis had a heart of gold, but he had some special needs, and that was part of the problem. Louis had a black man’s job in a very white part of town. That his job was what those white kids thought of as a black man’s was a token of the state of society in those days. That it is less so today is a matter of degree. I was one of those kids, and I was certainly clueless. Education, or understanding, had to come gradually through the years. To my mind, anyone, black or white, who doesn’t believe this will have a tough time in life. One way or another. Still, I regarded Louis as a friend, and I confided in him more than once. I can’t say with any certainty that he ever did the same. Louis figured in the lives of more than one local white male teenager.

Louis was a ‘shoe-shine man’ in a white man’s barber shop. Louis was not young, but the white kids who used him so had no idea of his true age. Each day, after the barber left for the day, the kids, boys, would come to what became Louis’ place to hang out. The barber shop was set several feet below street level. Looking out of the large window of the shop afforded an ankle-level view of those passing by on the street. The feeling while in the shop was slightly subterranean, in more ways than one. The shop had two haircutting chairs, but only one barber, Dave. The kids had no knowledge about Dave, but he was for some reason held in high regard. Somehow, he was thought to be possessed of some undefined wisdom. He was magisterially regal. The only firm knowledge about him was that he lived several miles away, in a suburb, and he had a family with several children.

But come five o’clock each day Dave would depart the shop, presumably for home. After five the shop was transformed. Louis would remain in the shop, being blessed with the trust of Dave. Both Louis and Dave had clienteles, but they were distinctly different. Dave’s customers were derived locally, from the neighborhood. Louis’ people also came from the neighborhood, but a quite different neighborhood, more expansive, one might say more cosmopolitan. Dave’s customers were exclusively white. Louis’ were of all kinds of what were then called races. Dave was aware of this, but he had no objections, a little unusual for that era.

Anyway, in the evening, people from a broad swath of the town would gather in “Dave’s Barber Shop.” On any given evening, their number was never more than a half dozen, usually less. Most were local teens, but there were many others of various degrees of savor (or unsavoriness). Douglas was a twenty-something white man with a heroin habit, a little before the heroin epidemic arrived. Occasionally he would come into the shop and sit in the shoe-shine chair for as much as an hour, incessantly smoking cigarettes. How Douglas got along in the world was anyone’s guess. He never brought his habit into the shop in any tangible way, although it must be admitted he was sometimes high. He always came alone. He never failed to wear a dark blue suit, a white shirt, and a blue tie. It seemed to be a kind of uniform. No one knew what he did for a living, and no one asked. He was in fact a pleasant fellow. He was a jazz aficionado and claimed to be friends with several well-known musicians. True or not, who knows? But he did have the ‘gift of gab’ and he would hold forth on what was old and what was new in jazz, what was good and what was bad. My older brother, my senior by eight years, aspired to be a professional jazz pianist, so I should have had the knowledge to assess what Douglas said. Well, at my age, I did know the music, but I couldn’t tell if it was old or new, good, or bad. So, I listened to Douglas.

In that barber shop, everybody listened to everybody. In some ways, it was a listening post for the neighborhood. Fact and fiction alike were extravagantly proffered by one and all. Everyone had an opinion, and that broad scope was what made the barber shop such a magnet. Just as with Douglas knowing jazz musicians, who could say what was fact and what was fiction? Sort of how today’s world seems. All the tales I’m about to tell are hard and fast truth, of course.

The white teens who came every day rarely came alone, but in twos or threes. They were exclusively white, not unusual in those days, and it’s still true today. The teens had several objectives. Often, they would have their shoes shined. In those days shiny shoes were de rigueur in some quarters. Today, sneakers are more common than shiny shoes. This shoe-shining afforded Louis with a part of his modest income and served another purpose as well. Louis had few vices, but unfortunately alcohol had to be counted among those few. A shoeshine was a good opportunity to slip some extra cash to Louis. It took only a few shines until Louis had enough to go to the local liquor store to buy a pint of his favorite, Seagram’s Golden Gin. Sadly, the kids giving Louis enough cash to buy that pint was what led to the morally ambiguous activities going on there. Just as Louis was burdened with an alcohol habit, the kids apparently wanted to go to the same place.

There was a back room attached to the barber shop, and when Louis returned bearing his treasure, he and three or four young white boys slipped back into that room. For many teens, initiation to alcohol means beer. To friends of Louis, it was Seagram’s Golden, neat from a paper cup. Consumption of alcohol was the main activity in that barber shop of long ago, accompanied by a good deal of boasting and fantasizing, which was decidedly incidental. Some of the kids were to be afflicted with an alcohol habit, facilitated by the barber shop culture. Louis did not possess a malevolent personality. To the contrary. But alcohol binds some people with a tenacious grip. Control may not be an option.

The barber shop was not the only place frequented by the young boys on that block. A few doors away from the barber shop was a deli eponymously named Nemo’s store. The attraction of Nemo’s store was due to Nemo’s background. Nemo was from a Middle Eastern country, Syria if memory serves, and had regional culinary knowledge. He wasn’t really that hip, but he could make a really mean sandwich. It was from Nemo that I came to know about pita bread. So, many times on a Saturday afternoon I would go to Nemo’s and buy one of his marvelous pita sandwiches. Cheese, any of several deli meats or sausages, lettuce, tomato, and a topping of choice. It was Subway before Subway but better.

Fridays were special in that neighborhood. The local grammar school, just a couple of blocks away from the barber shop, held dances for eighth, ninth, and tenth graders from eight to ten. These were fully chaperoned, and turnouts were usually large. The teens who frequented the barber shop felt entitled to attend, but far too often they were in no condition to do so. They went there anyway. The chaperones dealt with the situation firmly, but for some reason never reported that inebriation.

Sometimes, the kids were sober on a Friday evening, and would be allowed into the dance. The large room was dimly lit. Many a budding romance started on one of those Friday nights. Slow dances might afford the first opportunity for a tumescent young boy to surreptitiously, or so he thought, feel his partner’s breast. Nowadays, it would seem kids are sexually active at a much younger age, but that’s progress.

Afterward, one contingent, male and female, would venture to a local restaurant and bar just a few blocks away for burgers. Although the place served beer and wine, none of the kids ever tried to buy any. As it happened, the place had a somewhat peculiar specialty that they served, frog’s legs. They were sometimes eaten instead of burgers.

As the teens from the barber shop got a little older, say, eighteen or nineteen, there was a local bar that did serve beer to older teenagers. Who knows, maybe they bribed the police. In any event, serve they did. This place had the superbly ironic name of Puritan Bar. But back to the barber shop.

Louis did indeed have a heart of gold, and sometimes it cost him. He was willing to buy gin for his teen customers, but inevitably it called up a certain amount of pity mixed with contempt. Not from all, but from a few. There was something sad about Louis. He didn’t seem to have much of a life without gin and the barber shop. He didn’t exactly habitually frown, but his smile lacked a certain animation. He seemed forlorn without a daily dose of gin. He was never what one might call drunk, but he did not seem fulfilled without alcohol.

There were others who came to the barber shop, mostly men, but occasionally a woman. At least one woman, Liza, showed up from time to time. Why she came was anybody’s guess. Louis didn’t seem to have any kind of special relationship with her. She was a rather thin black woman, dark-skinned, and rather good looking. Unfortunately, she was usually falling-down drunk. More than once she stumbled to the washroom to vomit whatever was in her system. Sadly, the best description of her was pathetic.

At the other extreme was Kool. Kool was a cool black man who knew exactly how to be cool. He was always dressed to the nines and had a casual yet knowledgeable air about him. He was quite tall and lean. He might have been an athlete in his younger days. Kool was a close buddy of Louis and a regular at the barber shop on Saturday nights. He was immaculately dressed in suit and tie, belted cashmere overcoat, carefully cleaned and blocked dove gray homburg hat and pointy perforated two-tone shoes. He smoked Kools.

They don’t come any cooler than Kool.

Despite appearances, Louis did have a home. For those in the know, the home he went to was called Mama’s Place. Mama’s Place was in the basement of a house on a street a few blocks west of the barber shop. Louis lived upstairs with Mama. The exact nature of the situation between Louis and Mama was known only to a few, but everyone assumed Mama was Louis’ paramour. Still, I can’t remember any kind of overt intimacy between them.

Mama’s Place was a speak-easy. You could go there and drink almost anytime, but mostly late at night. Early in the morning was more like the truth. Those at Mama’s Place on any given night were almost exclusively black. Whites who did show up were under-age and had found a place where they could drink without risk of discovery by authority. Mama clearly had some sort of agreement with the local police and was never raided. As for myself, I liked Mama enormously.

About thirty was the maximum number in the place at any time. The array of personalities frequenting Mama’s Place was, let’s say, astounding. There was, to be sure, the expected assortment of just plain drunks, the same as could be found in licensed clubs. Very few females came there. The array of regulars was a cross-section of the poorer portion of black life in that city. Excepting the white kids, the middle classes were not to be found. That assortment of the less fortunate found Mama’s Place to be a sort of recompense for their lot in life. Not so for the young whites who came there. What young whites could take away, if they chose to, was a lesson that the White Male Supremacy most had been taught, not always explicitly, was tragically false. Most had been taught to fear black men, a way of reinforcing the dominance of middle-class whites. A trip to Mama’s Place was a lesson in how things are and aren’t.

There were episodes that were comical. The language barrier between the black men and the white boys could sometimes be substantial. Some of the blacks spoke with a Southern twang unfamiliar to the boys. I remember one occasion when a black man sitting across from me kept repeating “let me play with your ass.” Fear rose in my throat, and I felt that maybe the stories told by our fathers about the dangerous and violent behavior of black men were true after all. It was only after several repetitions of the phrase that I finally, fool that I was, realized he was asking “let me block your hat.” I laughed inwardly and felt a wave of relief course through my body, felt proof of the malicious effects of what our older and wiser elders taught.

Mama’s Place was second only to the barber shop for comfort. In that barber shop, many an hour was spent in speculation about the way things really were. None of us knew anything at all about the true state of the world, but that didn’t stop us from acting as though we did. In the barber shop, despite the gin, some of the conversations were anthropological or sociological object lessons. All the negatives learned on the streets were countermanded by the talk in that marvelous shop and by the camaraderie of Mama’s Place. On the streets, white teen-agers were taught, sometimes by their own families, but also by friends and acquaintances, that white males were superior to everyone else, especially if they owned property. This had been the received ideology of white males, those of Northern European ancestry in particular, for several centuries. It resulted in imperialism, colonialism, enslavement, genocide, a long list of horrors.

Those white kids who hung out in the barber shop would never be part of the powers that performed those horrific acts, but they certainly would acquire the racist attitudes pervasive to this day. The barber shop and Mama’s Place could not help but have a positive effect.

But the attitudes of the white culture were not so easily overcome. Most of the kids would harbor at least some of the baleful thoughts acquired at large for their entire lives. As for Louis, and Mama too, they were compelled by the forces arrayed against them to lead lives of desperation and relative poverty.

Eventually, I went off to college. There were even fewer people of color there than at home, except for custodial and other menial activities reserved for them. I gradually forgot much of what I had learned from Louis and from Mama. At the end of my undergraduate years, I went back to visit the barber shop. Louis was gone, and Mama was dead as well.

Louis returns to my memory from time to time, and I still wonder if what he taught me can help me to lead a better, more worthwhile life.