Meeting Joe the Barber

Despite my quickly receding hairline, I still have a need for a quick haircut once a month. I said goodbye to my longtime Atlanta barber Stuart.  Before I left and asked him the same question I imagine many my age with a sense of humor who watched the cartoon Doug ask: Do you have a cousin who cuts hair where I’m moving.  Sadly, Stuart didn’t get my joke and didn’t know anyone and has never been to Pittsburgh, so on this front I was alone.

Fast forward to this Friday and I am sitting in traffic on 376 East, just trying to get home after a week of work and veg out.  I decide that today would be a perfect day to get a haircut.  I start thinking about which of the few barbershops I’ve passed on Murray Ave make the most sense.

After sitting through the traffic, I finally arrived back at my apartment and pull into a spot outside my building before checking the mail and running up to my third floor apartment.  I Google barbershops nearby and see the ones I’ve walked past and then check Yelp to look for reviews.  They all seem like fancy stylists who will charge me upwards of $20 and to be entirely frank, I don’t want to spend that on something that is frankly a buzz cut.

I glance at one of the places listed called Harry’s Barbershop.  I don’t remember ever passing it and it is down the hill on Murray Ave.  I figure it is worth my risk to see if this is the kind of barbershop I was looking for.

I quickly change into jeans and a t-shirt and walk towards Murray Ave and stare at my phone looking for the shop.  Harry’s is not a shop you would be able to find if you weren’t looking for it.  There isn’t really a sign on the outside other than one that says that the barbers use “RK products”.  I don’t honestly know what that means, but it is just the same.

I walk in the door of Harry’s and to the right I spot a yellow couch that is covered in plastic.  To the left I see an old stereo system and a setup reminiscent of my grandparent’s house.  The radio plays big band tunes just like the radio my grandmother always left running in their kitchen.

I spot the barber with a customer in his chair and another person sitting on one of the plastic wrapped couches and the barber offers me a seat.  I start to look around the shop, trying to soak in every detail.  In every way a barbershop could look like my grandparent’s house, this shop does.  It has this vibe that makes me want to sit there and just relax.

After mostly silence other than the music for a couple minutes, the barber and his customer start chatting.  The man in the chair is about the same age as the barber and they are talking about how much things have changed over the years.  It turns out he’s been coming there for a long time.  I hear him call the barber Joe to my surprise.  I just assumed up to this point hat his name would be Harry because of the name of the shop.

Joe is in his mid to late 70s.  There is a picture of him on the wall from what looks to be about 20 years ago.  His hair somehow is the same color it was then, a dark black color nearly long enough for a pony tail.  He is simply dressed in a smock and wears an old pair of black sneakers that are part of every grandparent’s wardrobe.

They started talking about the old days.  The customer had been in the Army and Joe in the Navy.  Judging by their age, I would guess that they were Korean War veterans, but that is purely based on speculation.  You could tell they had a special friendship formed from years of one sitting in the chair while the other trimmed his hair.

I had noticed a portable oxygen machine on the ground and worried that it belonged to the barber, but once he finished with the first customer, I watched the customer pick it up and put the machine over his shoulder.  They both asked me a few questions since the other guy on the couch was keeping mostly to himself.  They wanted to know where I came from and why Pittsburgh, so I told them in brief about my job and how I thought Squirrel Hill seemed like a pretty safe neighborhood.  I got a bit of a lecture about that from the customer before he left and then things quieted down.

Joe looked at me when the customer left and told me that the man had been coming to his  shop for many years, which I could tell.  He told me the reason he was on oxygen is because he smoked for many years and didn’t quit until it was too late.  He told me how important it was to stay healthy.  He said it as a friend would say and not in the way someone might lecture you to eat your spinach or something.

The shop was quiet again as Joe started working on the next customer.  I sat quietly and tried not to monkey with my phone as I didn’t want the battery to die.  I noticed in the corner of the room an old looking mechanical cash register with a sign on it reading “Haircuts: $9″.  I thought to myself that it had to be an old sign.  $9 for a haircut?  Maybe when I was a child, but in 2013, this seemed impossible.

A few moments later, an old woman walked in.  It was clear that Joe knew her, but she was a little bit off. She walked in saying something about the bathroom and went to hang up her coat before sitting down on the couch close to me.  She smiled and I could see her age if from nowhere else from her teeth.

She asked me if I belonged to Temple Sinai, which funny enough is the Reform Synagogue I’m thinking about checking out.  She invited me to go over there for shabbat services and despite my disheveled look in jeans and a t-shirt insisted that they would take me dressed that way.  I kindly thanked her and told her I would check it out another time when I felt like I was dressed appropriately.

She asked me what my name was so I gave her my full name.  She told me her first name, but insisted on not giving her last, because her family was famous in the area.  I told her even if they were famous in the area, I probably wouldn’t know who they were since I had just moved from the area.  So like every other time I say this, she asks where I’m from and I tell her Atlanta.

She starts to tell me what seems like her life story as I sit there and starts complaining about something.  I don’t know how it comes up, but I end up talking about Cuba and she insists that the country is an impoverished hell-hole of sorts and how things were better there before Castro.  I respond in the way I always do, by tell her nobody is starving and the literacy rate is far higher than it ever was before he took power.

She claims that the literacy rate stats are bogus and goes on to tell me about some time spent in Miami in the 1950’s.  She says that the Cubans in Miami danced really well and that she was a good dancer too.  She tells me she’ll show me and gets up and starts dancing by herself around the shop.

Joe looks like he might start laughing, because the whole scene is ridiculous.  She looks at me and smiles and tells the woman that she dances like a North Korean.  Offended, she stops, and for probably the 15th time says something about how his father was a good man, invites me again to go to Temple Sinai and leaves.

Joe looks to me again and sort of apologizes for the woman and I thank him for the amusing show I’m getting.  He tells me that after the old woman got divorced something happened and she’s never been the same.  He says that she is lonely, so she acts out like that and that you just have to have pity on her.

Joe finishes the other customer’s haircut and before he leaves wishes him luck finding a job since he is about to finish school it seems and it is finally my turn.

I walk over and sit down in the barber chair and he covers me with a bright red smock.  It appears that at some point in time, Joe or somebody else went to a fabric store, bought a sheet of fabric and then ripped it to the size he needed.

Joe asks how I want him to cut my hair by asking if I want it short, medium, or long.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a less specific question for how I want my hair cut, but after seeing his work on two previous customers, I trust it and ask for it short.

Joe is the kind of barber I love.  He is the old school of barbers who turn their chairs into a sort of therapy session.  While he cuts your hair, it is like sitting with a therapist, but his tools are scissors and talc rather than a copy of the most recent edition of the DSM.  He talks to me about his long time marriage and his parents marriage.  I tell him my certain level of jealousy for that era.

He asks me if I have a wife or a girlfriend yet and I explain my simple living situation.  I ask him about his kids and he says they live pretty far away, so he doesn’t get to see them much.  He looks like a loving grandfather, I can just feel it.  He tells me that his father was a barber in the area before him and so was his mother.  I now can guess that Harry, the shop’s namesake was probably his father.

Joe tells me I need a girlfriend to help me clean my apartment and I chuckle saying it would be nice to have someone clean up when I’m done cooking.  He seems impressed that I can cook and want to know if I prefer store bought tomato sauce or homemade.  This is clearly a sort of litmus test from an old Italian cook.  I tell him I prefer it homemade and with some good wine in the sauce and he agrees.  He mentions using a recipe from the old country which makes me smile.

The whole time, Joe is talking to me and paying intense attention to every little part of my head to make sure I leave with a nice haircut.  When he finishes, he blow dries the small amount of hair off of me and smiles.  He looks at me and says,”That will be $9,” and I of course question this thinking he is joking despite the sign inside.  I pull a $20 out of my wallet and ask him for $5 back thinking he deserves a good tip, especially for the nice haircut and his general kindness.  He wishes me luck as I leave and tells me that I’ll find someone when I least expect it.  I walk back to my apartment knowing that this is the first of hopefully many times Joe will cut my hair.


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