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March 26, 2012

I Was Just Thinking: Barbershops are where memories are made


— One of the defining differences between men and women is the way they treat their hair. Women change beauty shops on a whim.

They spend fortunes on hair care products (“lime rind follicle pumice” guys?). They obsess over the latest “do.” What’s the latest? Is it a Jennifer? A Beyonce? A Lady Gaga? Open up a woman’s closet and behold the round hard-bristle hairbrushes, the plastic rollers, the foil sleeves and the two-pronged heating irons. Torquemada would blush at the sight of these modern-day hair care rituals.

Guys on the other hand could not care less. In the 1960s, maybe a “little dab of Brylcreem” on a Saturday night for that little extra edge with the ladies. Maybe. Other than that you’d never catch a male with a shelf loaded with hair care products.

A guy went to a barbershop when he was a kid and was loyal to that barber until he had no more hair. My dad first took me to a barbershop more than a half century ago. It was Hope’s Barber Shop on Cartwright Avenue in Sidney. The owner, Les, reminded me of Bill Murray. His world was the center of the universe for many of the males growing up in my hometown. My dad would swing open the door and shout, “Hi’ya, Hopeless,” and the Saturday morning pageant would begin.

Gossip and wise cracks ricocheted off the walls. The shiny red leatherette chairs were slippery and hard. The old Zenith had a persnickety horizontal problem that always kept the TV show unidentified. A bottle of blue fluid held the combs. Men’s magazines were strewn about begging me to take a peek. Vintage magazines with names like Ace, Topper and Nugget. I always got my hand slapped when I reached for one of them. I was 10 years old.

When I left the barbershop with Dad after getting those earliest haircuts of my life I always felt like I’d been to a party in the company of men. And Les, the affable host of the party, would always ask us to “come around again sometime.” And we always did. I remember that my greatest wish was that if I ever had a son I would want to take him for his first haircuts to a place like Les Hope’s.

I have been surrounded by women ever since.

After stoically enduring the hair care trials and tribulations of a Trish and a Frances and then a Katie and then an Abby, it was time for a Joey. Nine years ago I took Joey with me for the first time to Mac’s Barber Shop on Oneida Street in Oneonta. He crawled up into the chair, plopped down on the booster seat and proceeded to be swaddled in black drop cloths.

His little blond towhead popped out of the opening like a cue ball on a black felt table. He looked around wide-eyed at the hundreds of shot glasses on the walls, the mounted fish, the mature titled magazines, the jar of blue fluid holding the combs, the sports-themed calendars and the rotating red, white and blue pole in the window. He loved it.

Mary was his “snipper.” Mac would lower my ears. Shelley was the conversation buffer between us all. Laughter and gossip ensued in the busy shop. Horseradish was sold. TV channels were changed. Elvis blared out of the speakers.

My wish had come true.

Joey is now 15. No need for a booster seat anymore. We still go to Mac’s every couple of weeks. Frank still takes care of my ever-receding hairline. Shelley is still in the middle. And Mary still snips away at Joe’s towhead. Like Hopeless in my youth, Mac’s is the only barbershop that Joey has ever known. And that makes me feel good. I knew all the old barbers in Sidney in my youth. But Les Hope’s shop was a real slice of 1960s Americana that I will never forget.

I know most of the barbers in the area today too _ all great folks with long careers and great stories. My shop just happens to be Mac’s.

Like I said, Joey and I are guys. And we’ll stick with our same barber until all our hair is gone.

I’ve heard a lot, laughed a lot and learned a lot at the barbershops in my life.

But there is one thing that I’ve never found the answer to. Just what is that blue fluid in those jars holding the combs? I’ll catch you in two……

“Big Chuck” D’Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@ aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.