Tales From the Chair | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Tales From the Chair 

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On September 11, I'm having coffee in a place on Irving Park, trying not to listen to the commander in chief, who's talking war in the background. I look across the street, and Jerry's barber pole is gone. Isn't this day bad enough? "Did something happen to Jerry?" I ask the kid behind the counter.

"Who?"

"The barber across the street."

He shrugs. "Don't know."

I finish my coffee and walk over to Jerry's place. The pole isn't the only thing missing--the barber chairs are gone too. A handwritten sign on the door says, "The shop is closed. My thanks to everyone. Jerry."

Oh, damn it, I think. Then I admire the sign. It's Jerry to a T. Low-key, to the point, sincere.

There are two other signs on the door, both professionally printed. The small one states, "All haircuts $11.00." The big one says, "In consideration of others, please turn off your cell phone."

"Best money I ever spent," Jerry said after I told him how much I liked the big sign. "We were almost coming to blows in here."

I wasn't looking for a barber when I found Jerry. I'd been going to Jack's for years. Jack was an old-timer with a small basement shop on Racine in Lincoln Park. We had a bit of a misunderstanding at first, but after informing him that I knew I was going bald we got along just fine.

I was hanging out down the block from Jerry's in a great little joint called Gavroche. Jerry would sometimes drop by to listen to jazz. One night he told me he always played jazz on his shop's stereo, and that was all I needed to hear. Sorry, Jack, those game shows didn't cut it anymore.

Jerry didn't have a TV in his shop, and, miracle of miracles, he was a reader too. We talked books sometimes, and even passed a few back and forth. He was from Mississippi, or somewhere south. I once told him he sounded like Robert Duvall and he said, "That's funny. He sounds different every movie." He looked a bit like Duvall--maybe that's what I was thinking.

I walked by his shop a year or so back. I wasn't ready for a haircut, but both chairs were empty. Jerry was looking out the front window, smoking a cigarette.

I went in and sat down. He put out his cigarette and went to work. I mentioned that I'd driven by a few weeks before and noticed he was closed. I'd seen a sign in the window, but I hadn't read it. I knew he'd been having health problems.

"My wife died," Jerry said.

She had surgery, and he went to the hospital to wait it out. When she returned from the operating room, everything seemed fine. He hung around a bit, then said good-bye and went back to the shop. When the hospital called an hour or so later, the place was full, and he had to send everyone away. This was his first day back at work, he said.

A few months passed, and during my next haircut a new guy walked in. He was pushing 30, and he'd heard Jerry did flattops. Several minutes later, the guy pulled out a cell phone and started gabbing away.

"Pal! Pal!" Jerry interrupted. "Maybe you didn't see the sign when you came in." He pointed his scissors at the front door.

"Oh, sorry," the guy apologized. "I gotta go," he said into the phone. "I'll tell you later."

Jerry and I went back to our conversation, and a few minutes later the guy chimed in with a comment. I wish I could remember what he said. It wasn't any dumber than half the stuff you hear in saloons and barbershops. But it was a two-strike pitch for Jerry.

"You know, buddy, I don't think I'm gonna be able to help you out today."

"Huh?"

"There's a guy west on Irving does a pretty good flattop."

"Oh," the guy said. "You want me to..."

Jerry nodded his head and pointed to the door. The guy stood up slowly.

"Where's this other..."

"West on Irving."

After the door closed, Jerry sounded sympathetic. "Poor guy couldn't do anything right, could he?"

Forty-odd years of haircuts, this was the only time I'd ever seen anybody thrown out of a barbershop.

My first barber was Pat. He had a shop on Madison in Austin. He cut my hair for about 20 years, but he never got my name right. He always called me Al. I was just a kid when this started and I didn't have the nerve to correct him. By the time I reached 30, he was still calling me Al. How could I explain he'd been wrong all those years?

Pat was an Italian immigrant, not very tall and a bit rotund. As I got older, I realized there was a sly sense of humor hiding under that accent. I sometimes suspected the Al bit was a joke I didn't quite understand.

When I was a kid, haircuts were mandated by the Sisters of Mercy and then the Christian Brothers. "Clark, get a haircut" was a frequent command. You'd think they were getting a kickback.

I was in eighth grade the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Sister Mary what's-her-name had been on me for a while about my hair. I wasn't trying to look like Einstein, but I delivered groceries after school and on Saturdays--there wasn't much spare time. They must have let us out of school early that day. I remember hearing my first conspiracy theory from the school's only male teacher. He was betting on the Hunt brothers and the John Birch Society. This was the first time I'd heard of either.

It rained that afternoon, one of those cold, hard rains. It seemed like it was raining all over the world. I headed over to Pat's before going to the grocery store. I was the only customer, and we went back and forth between the barber chair and the back-room TV. Years later Pat would tell me that he'd run a card game in the back all through the 40s and into the 50s, when Chicago was still pretty much a wide-open town.

One day I came in and there was a big sign on the wall: "Haircuts By Appointment Only." Pat showed me his appointment book. It was full for a solid year.

The neighborhood was changing from white to black. I couldn't see any of the new residents asking Pat to trim their Afros, but he wasn't taking any chances. "I don't know how to cut that kinda hair," he said. He made it sound like his lack of skill had led to the sign.

Pat eventually moved about two miles west on Madison to the far side of Oak Park. I moved northeast to Irving Park near the lake. But I'd take the el out to Harlem and Lake, then walk to Pat's. It was probably an hour each way, but it was always worth the trip. We'd talk about the old neighborhood. He'd keep me posted on neighbors who still came in. My friends who went to Pat had long ago figured out who this Al character was.

By this time some of my friends had given up on barbers. Long hair was the fashion, but Pat didn't hold it against them. He always blamed the girls--they were the ones who liked long hair. The guys were just trying to get some action.

In the mid-70s, my Uncle Tom was in Oak Park Hospital, just around the corner from Pat's. This was at the beginning of his losing battle with colon cancer. One day I decided to kill two birds with one stone: first, I'd get my haircut; then I'd visit my uncle.

Uncle Tom appreciated a nice short haircut. He never understood the long hair or the politics of the 60s, but he was my favorite uncle by far. On his deathbed, he went in and out of consciousness. "I like Jack," he said at one point. "I don't agree with his politics, but I like him."

His wife, my Aunt Rosemarie, said, "Did he ask you to agree with his politics?" She was my favorite aunt.

When I got to Pat's, there was a new sign in his window: "Hair Styled." I knew immediately that Pat had died. He would have filled another appointment book with phony names before he'd style anyone's hair.

My next steady barber was a guy around Kedzie and Irving. He was so boring I don't remember a single story.

Next I moved to Southport. The guy there wasn't a ball of fire either--all he ever wanted to talk about was his various real estate investments. But he was close to home, and if I closed my eyes I could pretend he was a plane droning by.

One day the barber pole was gone. I should have quit right there. He said his wife, a hairdresser, had set up shop in the back room. He promised the front room would stay the same. I hung in until they added tanning beds.

A friend named Jack told me about Jack on Racine. He lived down the block. "Does he have a barber pole?" I asked.

My first cut was fine. Jack was a nice old guy. If the TV wasn't on and he started talking, he almost always ended up in western Nebraska picking sugar beets in his youth. It was backbreaking work, he said, and he could make you feel the pain. He'd never gotten over it.

The day after my second haircut, I was combing my hair in the morning, and there were a few extra strands above one ear. My domestic partner figured it out. "He gave you the flap," she said.

Sure enough, I had the beginning of a comb over, just a little extra hair to hide my bald spot. I cut it off, and the next time I went in I told Jack not to bother. If I hadn't said anything, that strand would probably be about 15 feet long by now. And, of course, I'd be locked into Jack. That was the point, I'm sure. It would be our unspoken lie, and it would be awfully hard to switch to another barber. So the next time you see some fool sporting a comb over, have a little sympathy. His barber might have started it without his knowledge.

Now I'm looking for a new barber again. Jerry's gone. I can't go back to Jack--he closed up a couple of years back, and I fear the worst. He wasn't a spring chicken, as they say, and sugar beets take their toll.

I've asked a few friends for recommendations, but most of them don't even go to barbers. They go to hair stylists or to Supercuts. I have one friend who goes to a place where they'll give you a head massage if you ask.

What's the world coming to? I wonder. Some day all those red-and-white (and-sometimes-blue) poles will be gone. It'll be a much sadder world than it already is, but life goes on. Hair grows. I'll probably end up cutting my own someday.

I tried that once in sixth grade. My mother had gotten a pair of hair clippers and I thought I'd see how they worked. And before my thought was complete I had a two-inch bald spot on top of my head.

There was no way I was going to school like that, so the next morning I was sitting in front of Pat's when he opened. "Hey, Al, how you doing?" he asked. "What's with the hat?"

I was late for school, but I had a note from my mother and a brand-new crew cut, the last one I'd ever get. The typical nun wouldn't show an ounce of mercy. She'd probably read the note aloud to the entire class. But I'd lucked into Mrs. Vallo that year. She looked at the note, smiled, and then whispered, "I knew it had something to do with your hair."

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