Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Barbershop Memories and the Comforts of Home [CCR]

I’ve had the fortunate experience of meeting people all over this wonderful country in my career. And everywhere I have been there are signs left of a dying profession that was once one of the centers of society. At one point in time you could find a barbershop in almost any town. Now you are lucky if you find one in any county. It seems the barbershop has blended in with the beauty shop and most of our society has gone to the big box store equivalent with quick-witted names. But we still pay homage to that once great center of male society.

Even back home in Cherokee we had our line of barbers. During my childhood there were at one time two local barbers and later only one. But even with two barbers there was enough business to keep the waiting chairs full on a Saturday. Waiting your turn you would hear how the latest deer hunts went, the latest county politics, or even what the preacher was planning on Sunday. But one thing was sure; you would always enjoy a good conversation and even a few laughs. Seldom did one visit and leave without being uplifted for the week. Maybe that was part of the package.

My first barber had been cutting hair for quite some time by the time I wondered into the world, and he had cut quite a bit of hair before me. Slick Bolton ran a shop downtown. I am sure he had more than one shop and I probably visited some others, but the last one I remember was in the old bus stop building where a café is now located. I can still remember the little bench he put up on the chair so I would sit high enough. One other memory that had to occur around this time was my dad picking me up from school in the middle of the day to take me for a haircut. That memory for some reason has stuck out after all these years as something special.

Some time towards the end of Mr. Bolton’s years a second barber came to town by the name of Bob Kitchens. Mr. Kitchens was our barber for most of my years back home. Mr. Kitchens had his shop in several locations but the one I remember the most was located in an old gas station on the old highway, meaning the highway before the four-lane was built.

One of the great things about Mr. Kitchens was his knack for carrying on a great conversation while cutting your hair. You see, it seems as he was the only barber in western Colbert County he had the opportunity to interact with just about every fellow in that end of the county. As such he not only cut my hair and my daddy’s hair, he also cut both of my granddaddy’s hair. And we always had this running conversation between my granddaddies and Mr. Kitchens, usually involving some joke about cost of the haircut and such. You see, Granddaddy Smith was bald and we always kidded how he negotiated the cost of a haircut.

It was a regular visit, so I could keep up with what the whole family was doing at the barber shop, usually on Saturday. You see, in my younger days it wasn’t exactly popular to wear your hair long around those parts, regardless of what they were doing elsewhere. That would change somewhat when my high school days came, but you still needed it cut since Mom would only let it grow slightly below the ears.

The big thing I remember about that barber shop was the razor strap and how after every haircut Mr. Kitchens would shave the hair around your ears and on the back of your neck. You see, in those days it wasn’t how fast you could get done for the next customer. Cutting hair was a work of art. And as such, the cut wasn’t complete without the hot lather and that sharp knife trimming the loose ends. I guess those days have ended with the rush of the big box salon. The last barber I remember using a razor was an old shop run by an elderly gentleman when I lived in Fayetteville, Georgia in the early 1990’s. But nothing will erase the memory of that clean cut and then the hot towel that came just before the talc. The talc always marked the end of the cut.

Mr. Kitchens had another innovation that I must say was ahead of its time compared to today’s big box hair cutting joints. Ever notice after the hair cut how the “beautician” has to sweep up all the cuttings before accepting the next client? Mr. Kitchens had some sort of vacuum hooked to his clippers. It not only kept the floor clean, but it also sucked all the loose clippings out of your hair so you didn’t feel all itchy when you left the shop. Last time I visited one of those big box shops they asked if I wanted them to use clippers or scissors. Are you kidding? She put on a number 4 shield and was done in 60 seconds. A minute amount of trimming and your out of there in 4 minutes flat, and you’re out a good fifteen dollars too. Did she remember to trim up my eyebrows? Mr. Kitchens wouldn’t forget. Today you would be lucky if they even offer anything extra other than an extra charge.

The old shop always had a line of chairs sitting around it and it didn’t matter which order you entered the shop, everyone always knew who was next. Everyone would sit and join in the conversation which I think led to a level of social interaction missing to this day. But there was always something to discuss and it was on a regular basis. Ever notice how all those big box hair cutting shops have magazines? Everyone comes in, signs a paper, and then either sits to read or grumbles about the wait and says they will come back closer to their allotted time.

After traveling around this great country I have noticed that the barbershop tradition wasn’t just limited to us Alabama boys. Why they even have memorialized it in a movie that shows the sacredness of this dying institution. There are a few left. How many have the hot lather? How about the hot towels? Or even the good home spun conversation to keep you uplifted from the trials of making a living. Yep, I do believe we have let something start to slip away that brought people a little closer together.

I remember seeing in the news where Mr. Kitchens left us a few years back. Well I know Mr. Kitchens is looking down from heaven shaking his head now. If only he could show these folks how a real cut is done. You know, once I get to heaven I’m going to look Mr. Kitchens up and get one of those top notch Alabama style premium haircuts. And I bet I won’t pay more than five dollars (seems like two dollars was the magic number). Save a seat for me Mr. Kitchens, and thanks for all the memories.