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Barber Shops Of Yesterday Post by :mare2 Category :Essays Author :Walter Prichard Eaton Date :April 2011 Read :2890

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Barber Shops Of Yesterday

I have just been to a barber shop,--not a city barber shop, where you expect tiled floors and polished mirrors and a haughty Venus by a table in the corner, who glances scornfully at your hands as you give your hat, coat, and collar to a boy, as much as to say, "Manicures himself!"--but a country barber shop, in a New England small town. I rather expected that the experience would repay me, in awakened pleasant memories, for a very poor hair-cut. Instead, I got a very good hair-cut, and no pleasant memories were awakened at all; not, that is, by the direct process of suggestion. I was only led to muse on barber shops of my boyhood because this one was so different. Even the barber was different. He chewed gum, he worked quickly, he used shaving powder and took his cloths from a sterilizer, and finally he held a hand-glass behind my head for me to see the result, quite like his city cousins. (By the way, was ever a man so brave as to say the cut _wasn't_ all right, when the barber held that hand-glass behind his head? And what would the barber say if he did?) No, this shop was antiseptic, and uninteresting. There was not even a picture on the walls!

But, to the barber's soothing snip, snip, snip, and the gentle tug of the comb, I dreamed of the barber shops of my boyhood, and of Clarkie Parker's in particular. Clarkie's shop was in Lyceum Hall block, one flight up--a huge room, with a single green upholstered barber's chair between the windows, where one could sit and watch the town go by below you. The room smelled pungently of bay rum. Barber shops don't smell of bay rum any more. Around two sides were ranged many chairs and an old leather couch. The chair-arms were smooth and black with the rubbing of innumerable hands and elbows, and behind them, making a dark line along the wall, were the marks where the heads of the sitters rubbed as they tilted back. Nor can I forget the spittoons,--large shallow boxes, two feet square,--four of them, full of sand. On a third side of the room stood the basin and water-taps, and beside them a large black-walnut cabinet, full of shelves. The shelves were full of mugs, and on every mug was a name, in gilt letters, generally Old English. Those mugs were a town directory of our leading citizens. My father's mug was on the next to the top shelf, third from the end on the right. The sight of it used to thrill me, and at twelve I began surreptitiously to feel my chin, to see if there were any hope of my achieving a mug in the not-too-distant future.

Above the chairs, the basin, the cabinet, hung pictures. Several of those pictures I have never seen since, but the other day in New York I came upon one of them in a print-shop on Fourth Avenue, and was restrained from buying it only by the, to me, prohibitive price. I've been ashamed ever since, too, that I allowed it to be prohibitive. I feel traitorous to a memory. It was a lurid lithograph of a burning building upon which brave firemen in red shirts were pouring copious streams of water, while other brave firemen worked the pump-handles of the engine. The flames were leaping out in orange tongues from every window of the doomed structure (which was a fine business block three stories high), but you felt sure that the heroes would save all adjoining property, in spite of the evident high wind. Another picture in Clarkie's shop showed these same firemen (at least, they, too, wore red shirts) hauling their engine out of its abode; and still another displayed them hauling it back again. On this latter occasion it was coated with ice, and I used to wonder if all these pictures depicted the same fire, because the trees were in full leaf in the others. There also hung on the walls a truly superb engraving of the loss of the Arctic. Her bow (or was it her stern?) was high in air, and figures were dropping off it into the sea, like nuts from a shaken hickory. This was a very terrible picture, and one turned with relief to Maude S. standing before a bright green hedge and looking every inch a gentle champion, or the stuffed pickerel, twenty-four inches long, framed under glass, with his weight--a ponderous figure--printed on the frame.

Clarkie Parker was in reality a barber by avocation. The art he loved was angling. Patience with a rod and line, the slow contemplation of rivers, was in his blood, and in his fingers. It took him a long time to cut your hair, even when, on the first hot day of June, you bade him, "take it all off with the lawn-mower." (Do any boys have their heads clean-clipped in summer any more?) But while he cut, he talked of fishing. You listened as to one having authority. He knew every brook, every pool, every pond, for miles around. You went next day where Clarkie advised. And there was no use expecting a hair-cut or a shave on the first of April, when "the law went off on trout." Clarkie's shop was shut. If the day happened to be Saturday, many a pious man in our village had to go to church upon the morrow unshaven or untrimmed.

I know not what has become now of Clarkie or his shop. Doubtless they have gone the way of so many pleasantly flavored things of our vanished New England. I only know that I still possess a razor he sold me when my downy face had begun to arouse public derision. I shall always cherish that razor, though I never shave with it. I never could shave with it! But I love Clarkie just the same. He only proved himself thereby the ultimate Yankee.


(The end)
Walter Prichard Eaton's essay: Barber Shops Of Yesterday

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