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Simpler times, simpler looks by Manny


Cleaning out my grandmother's house was like cutting the final tie with my childhood. In the days I'd spent there, I was surprised about how little had changed in the small town where I grew up. As I put the last boxes destined for the Salvation Army in my trunk, I decided to drive down Main Street to get a bite to eat.

I tossed the framed photo of my brother and me into the car -- a bit of nostalgia to keep. My grandmother had been so proud of us posing in the matching sweaters she had knit. Boy, did we ever look dorky, sporting very barbered looks -- little boy bangs snipped short mid-way up the forehead and a tight taper around the ears.

I glanced into the rearview mirror. I'd come a long way since grade school with a very cultivated, metro-sexual, salon look (and yes, frosted highlights!). I pushed my heavy forelock back from my eyes. The stylist had done an excellent job with the highlights -- and she charged a pretty penny for them too! The old barber would never recognize me, was my guess.

As I approached the town center, my thoughts rushed back several decades. Life was simple then. The big thrill was hand dipped ice cream cones every other Saturday, right after getting our haircuts. What was his name? The barber? Larry? Or Martin...?

The ice cream shack was still in business! I should get a cone for dessert, for old time sakes.

Then, I saw the swirling barber pole. That shop was still in business. The site triggered a memory. Larry Mancini, no, Martini -- that was the barber's name. Larry Martini!

Instinctively, I found myself walking toward the shop. For a moment, it seemed like my father and brother were walking with me. But, my brother had fallen into opioid addiction and taken his life several years ago; and, my father was in the final stages of early-onset Alzheimer's.

I paused to look into the window of an antique shop. My hair was so long! The stylist had barely trimmed the tips -- full and flowing past the base of my collar. A good look for me, but I should have had her take off at least another inch....

Each building brought back a memory -- the post office, the VFW hall, the shoe repair shop, a fancy jewelry shop on one corner and an ornate bank facing it. And, at the other end of the block four church steeples -- Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Baptist. The rich Episcopalians had the tallest steeple....

As I approached the barber shop, I wondered whether Larry Martini would still be cutting hair?

The sign on the door said open, but not a single person was in sight, not even the barber.

The place looked frozen in time. Nothing had changed!

The two big chrome and enamel barber chairs with brown leather upholstery. The simple formica counter with a few drawers on one side and a cabinet storage area on the other. The array of clippers, lined up from big, black and menacing to small and dainty. The line of chairs in the waiting area. An "official haircut" chart that looked old-fashioned even when I was a boy. A hall tree. A small table with worn out, old magazines. And the checker board black and white linoleum floor. There was a sort of comfort mat around one of the chairs. That seemed new...

Staring transfixed at the scene, I remembered myself in the big chair with the cape covering everything but my head. Mundane man talk -- sports, weather, someone's used car for sale, a real deal.... The tickle of the electric clippers at my cape. The mysterious jars of blue liquid which seemed to make scissors float. The big cloud of powder at the end as the duster whisked away the snippets. Ice cream time was nigh!

And then, like a ghost from barbershops past, there he was shuffling out from the back. Larry Martini! Hair was white now, to match his barber jacket. He was a bit bent over. He looked around aimlessly then wandered over to the TV.

I felt myself wanting to connect with him. I put my hand on the door handle. A bell jingled. Larry looked up. He smiled and motioned for me to come in.

I would just have a quick chat with him....

"It just looks closed," Larry said apologetically. "Haven't had a client all morning. But I still open on time. Routines are good for older folk...."

He nodded at the chair, expecting me to take a seat.

My heart raced. Oh, no....

"Larry, you probably don't remember me. You used to cut my hair when I was yea high. Jeremy -- Enola Adams' grandson," I said, still not moving from my safe spot near the door.

"She was a gem, that woman!" Larry said with a sparkle in his eye. I couldn't tell if he remembered me.

"Did I ever tell you I had a crush on her in grade school? I passed her a note once that said 'Enola, I love ya!' and the teacher intercepted it and read it out for everyone to hear. Go ahead, take a seat there, Jeremiah. It looks like you could use a good haircut!"

He had always called me Jeremiah instead of Jeremy! He did remember me.... I still belonged in the community.

I knew I had to do it! I walked slowly. Would I try to talk him into 'just a trim'? By the time I eased into the comfy leather upholstery, I had decided. I was there for old times' sake. Larry would have me leaving with a very barbered look! The thought excited me.

I pawed at my locks a bit as he opened the small cabinet door beneath the counter. A city slicker look reflecting in the mirror would soon be deconstructed by Larry Martini, my childhood barber.

Ah, a freshly washed cape.

"It's been ages since I've had a decent haircut," I noted, pawing at the lush locks that dangled from my nape.

He fastened the cape around my neck and then smoothed my hair down in a sort of fatherly way.

"Any special instructions?" the barber asked.

"You never asked me that when I was a kid!" I laughed. "You just picked up those clippers there and went to work."

"Well, let's start with this today," he replied, combing my long bangs with their expensive highlights straight down.

My eyes and nose were totally covered. I heard a pair of shears being primed.

"Your father always said the same thing when he brought you and your brother in. 'Make sure there's no hair in their eyes.' How is he doing?" Larry asked.

I felt the shears exactly at midforehead. The snips were curt and determined. Snip, snip, snip. The peroxided locks fell quickly. Snip, snip, snip. The bangs were cut short, quite short.

"How's that?" Larry asked. "You can see again! Not exactly a miracle on par with the Lord's restoring sight to the blind man."

Larry laughed at his own cornball humor. I did too. So simple, so innocent.

"My father has Alzheimer's," I replied. "Most days doesn't know who I am."

"So young?" Larry asked, with a sad, puzzled voice.

"We were all shocked when he told us about the neurologist's diagnosis," I said with a huge lump in my throat. "I wish I had been there with him."

Larry gently eased my head into a bow. I heard the clippers. Were they the same once that had given me the short taper around the ears and up the back decades ago?

The surge of the teeth into my hair was a comforting sensation.

Larry hummed as he clipped. Over and over at the nape, higher and higher up the back. The ear carefully folded down and hair clipped. Then the other side. Clumps of my hair continued collecting on the cape.

I glanced up in the mirror. My little boy haircut was definitely beginning to re-emerge!

"I loved coming to your barber shop as a boy," I said. "My father made it a special outing with his sons. Ice cream cones afterwards were quite the treat."

"I heard the ice cream parlor is finally going to close. Old man Johnson says it's too much work, and his boys are all moved away. Like you two, you and your brother," Larry noted. "Exciting careers and fancy houses in the city."

I didn't want to tell him about my brother, John.

"Now on top here, leave it a bit longish? Or a shorter, tidier look?" Larry asked.

"You mean, my summer length or my school length?" I asked.

Larry beamed. "Well, it's the end of June...." he noted, his hand eager to put the shears back into action.

"Short and tidy!" I affirmed.

"You're getting your money's worth!" he replied.

FIrst, he took the shears and whacked the hair on top down to half its length. He was an old man, but his hands could really move!

The he transitioned back to the big set of Oster's. Clipper-over comb. Shorter and short and shorter he cut it. No more highlights visible. The bangs snipped even shorter. The whole cape was covered in hair!

When there was almost nothing left to cut, Larry declared the haircut finished.

"You want to see in back?" he asked, holding up the mirror.

Wow! Talk about short!

Suddenly I was lost in a puff of talcum powder. The smell triggered more memories. My mouth salivated. I could almost taste the black cherry ice cream. I enjoyed the caresses of the duster.

At the end, ever so carefully, the cape came off. I glanced down at the huge collection of hair on the black and white checked linoleum floor

"All that came off me?" I laughed. "Let me get a broom and help sweep up the mess!"

"Like an apprentice," Larry replied. "You always were a good lad. Your brother, though, a real handful...."

One pan, two pans, three pans of cut hair deposited in the trash. I felt my tidy crewcut. No more metro-sexual look for me. Period. Ever! That was decided. I'd keep my small town, barber shop look.

"Thanks for helping like that. But thanks most for stopping by. I'm so sorry about your father. He was a good man," Larry said, shaking my hand.

I thanked him for the memory.

Then, he continued, reflecting on life, "People tell me to retire. But, I think I'd die if I stopped coming into the shop and cutting hair. It's been my life."

"I'll be back," I said, slipping him two twenty-dollar bills.

"That's way too much!" Larry stammered.

"Big city jobs pay a lot....but the cost is high on a person, too," I murmured. There would be lots of whispers back at the office on Monday, for sure, about my haircut.

I felt my tight taper at the nape. "This feels great!" I said, conjuring up some enthusiasm for the length.

"I'll see you in two weeks, then?" Larry asked with a sad look in his eye. He knew that I would probably never return.

As I left the shop, he added, "Oh, in case you're wondering, those flowers on Enola's grave. They're from me....."




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