Roy the Barber

Martin Bressi

Copyright 2018 by Martin Bressi


Photo of a young boy and the barber.

During childhood, every occasion seems special in spite of its insignificance in the grand scheme of things: running barefoot through sprinklers, spotting a dropped dime on the sidewalk, constructing a paper airplane that floats on the wind like a seagull. Unfortunately, adulthood has a way of squeezing the magic out of moments like these, turning once-joyous occasions into absurd whims of fancy that succeed only in drawing worrisome and troubled stares from the neighbors. A child making angels in the snow is seen as adorable; an adult making angels in the snow is seen as a reflection of some psychological abnormality that may require extensive counseling.

When I was a kid, going to the barbershop was one of these special occasions. Opening the door and walking past the red and white striped pole was like entering a secret and forbidden temple; a universe where old men gathered to talk about politics and women and complain about how things were never as good as they used to be.

I marveled at the man in the white apron as he swiped his razor across the leather belt, honing the blade to deadly sharpness before shaving off the whiskers of one of the neighborhood men in deft strokes of his wrist that belied his true age. His name was Roy, and all over town the name "Roy the Barber" was spoken with respect and a sense of reverence. I never learned his last name, and I suppose that's just as well, because his mononymity only made his reputation seem larger in my mind. It would be like finding out that Plato's last name was Thompson or that Aristotle had the surname of Rogers. It wouldn't have exactly shattered the illusion, but it would have taken away some of the shine.

When Roy called you over to his chair it was like being summoned to the altar of a high priest. You carefully hoisted yourself up onto the hulking chair, an enormous throne with enough chrome embellishments to make a '57 Cadillac green with envy. You sat upon the black leather seat and gazed out over the sea of old men, the glare from the sun shining off of their balding crowns. They would wink at you, saying something like, "You better not squirm, kid, or old Roy just might cut your ear off". You knew they were only joking, or maybe just trying to scare you, but you laughed because you knew that it was just a test, just an initiation into this great fraternity of men.

Roy fastened the paper strip around your neck and buttoned on your cape, and on your high throne of leather and chrome you felt as though you were wearing the vestments of some very powerful religion, about to take part in a timeless tradition, a ritual.

The best part of the haircut was Roy's witty remarks. "You better buy yourself a stick to keep all the girls away," he would say with a wink and a nudge. Between sonorous snips of his mythical scissors, he would proceed to ask me about my wife and kids and, being a six-year-old kid myself, I would roll my eyes at the absurdity of his remark. Then came the crowning moment, perhaps the most sacred rite of the entire barbershop ritual: Roy would lather the back of your neck with hot, white shaving cream, and then with his gleaming blade of steel he would shave your neck. It was the Holy Communion of the barbershop ritual."You look like a new man!" he would say with great aplomb. "Your wife won't even recognize you when you get home!"

Even though Roy the Barber made the same witty remarks countless times over the years, I never got tired of hearing them, and I think if a visit to his shop had passed without hearing one of his bon mots, I would have felt short-changed and cheated out of the full experience. They resonated in my mind, echoing like the catchphrases of my youth. Every month, like clockwork, I would go to the barbershop, right up until the time I graduated from high school and moved away, leaving my small town and Roy's barbershop behind.

These holy temples of manhood held an important place in our lives. They were gathering places where everyone knew your name, and the haircut you received paled in significance to the experience of being around wise old men who told tales of the olden days; barbershop philosophers who always had something wise and profound to say about the world and the state it was in. They would speak of the world going to hell in a hand basket, and even though your young mind had no idea what a hand basket actually was, you were certain that it was a rather uncomfortable means of conveyance to the underworld.

A few years ago I went back to that small town, a sentimental journey to catch a glimpse of the places of my youth. Perhaps I wanted to see if they had changed, or if they had stayed the same in light of the changing world around them, like the Pyramids or the Sphinx. The red and white pole still remained, silenced under years of grime and dust. The windows of the old barbershop were all boarded up. Grabbing a passerby by the lapel of his jacket I asked him, with no small measure of alarm in my voice, what had happened to the barbershop. What had happened to Roy the Barber? He's been dead five or six years now, the man replied.

I sat upon the cracked concrete stoop in front of the building, on the silent steps where hundreds of wizened men had once passed. In the recesses of my mind I could hear the footsteps of those men, those mystical seers and sages of yesteryear. On the breath of the wind I could hear the voice of old Roy the Barber, telling me to never get old. Was he merely joking about the inconveniences of adulthood, or was he attempting to instill a greater wisdom? Perhaps the wisdom was revealed in that very moment, as it occurred to me just how fast time flies by, and how the famous saying about how you can't go home again is entirely wrong. You can indeed go home again, but only if you're prepared for the discovery of what has become of the people and places you had loved, the gut-punch realization that nothing gold can stay. Like Robert Frost's Eden, I sank to grief.

I wiped from the corner of my eye a wayward tear, briefly mourning the demise of a great man, a personal hero. I mourned the demise of the last great bastion of free-thinking man, the hallowed and fraternal order of the barbershop. And just like those old-timers I had revered in my wide-eyed youth, I was left to tell stories of olden days, stories of how things will never be as good as they used to be.

Marlin Bressi is a writer from Pennsylvania and the author of two non-fiction books. His most recent book, "Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits", was published by Sunbury Press in 2015. Prior to becoming an author, Marlin was also an accomplished hairstylist with a professional career spanning seventeen years. His story, "Roy the Barber" is a tribute to his childhood barber who, unknowingly, inspired the author's own long and distinguished career in the salon industry. 

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