Writer’s comment: The first assignment in my English 101 class was to write an essay in which the writer observes a person, place or process. The emphasis is on showing rather than telling. Like many undergraduate writers, I had trouble deciding on a topic. Like many more writers, I would procrastinate and start the paper later, perhaps after getting a hair cut. In one of those comfortable barber chairs at Leo’s, the idea to write about the Second Street Barber Shop was conceived. In “Shear Communication” I endeavored to expand the scope of my observations. I concentrated on language, working to make dialogue between barber and patron as real and concrete as combs and clipping shears.
Much of what made this paper possible is owed to the barbers themselves who were an invaluable source of information. My editor, Raquel Scherr provided me with suggestions which made this piece clearer and more reader-friendly. Additionally, I would like to express special thanks to Dr. Pamela Demory, “the better craftsman,” whose patience, encouragement and attention to detail are greatly appreciated. I hope that “Shear Communication” is as enjoyable to read as it was for me to write.
Instructor’s comment: From the almost onomatopoeic alliteration of the opening (“clean crisp cut”—can’t you just hear those scissors clicking?), I was sold on this essay. Joseph went on to write consistently wonderful essays for my English 101 (Advanced Composition) class, but this one, the first essay of the quarter, remains my favorite. The assignment was to write an essay, based mostly on observation, about an intriguing event or place. The idea was to introduce readers to an unfamiliar place or to reveal unsuspected insights into familiar places. Joseph seems to succeed on both counts here. In a class workshop (he volunteered to have his essay “workshopped” by the entire class—a rather grueling, but productive, process wherein everyone in the class reads and critiques the volunteers’ writing), we all felt we were reading about a place we knew (after all, Leo’s barber shop is just down the street, next to the Cantina), and yet the characters, the conversations, the history, the detail of the place were all new to us. The first lesson of the quarter was “Show, Don’t Tell.” Joseph obviously took this to heart: in an essay about verbal communication, it’s the images that really tell.
—Pamela Demory, English Department
As the glass door opens, the din from Second Street fades from your ears. The clean crisp cut of scissors, the flick of combs through wet hair, the buzz of electric clipping shears, and the occasional blast of air from a blow dryer captivate your sense of sound. Joe, a large, bald man, wearing an aqua T-shirt and blue jeans tied up with an old brown leather belt, gives his customary greeting, “Howdy there,” to a man who has just entered. The sign above Joe’s mirror reads: “Hair cuts—ten dollars, Seniors—eight dollars.” It is Saturday morning, and at Leo’s Barber Shop business is brisk. Joe and two other barbers are working at a fast clip, keeping their eyes on the scalps of the customers and periodically throwing quick glances to the line that is forming in the waiting area. Hector, wearing a maroon wind-breaker and baseball cap, is putting an apron on a kid to the right of Joe. Chris is trimming a man’s sideburns, leveling her green, contact-lens covered eye to the shears. Four chairs near the entrance are occupied by men of various sorts. Some are reading newspapers or magazines, while others sit looking out the front window. One man clad in denim is standing outside the shop with a cigarette held to his mouth. The barbers at Leo’s have their work cut out for them today.
Inside, Joe puts the clipping shears to the locks of a slumbering child, whose head is being propped up by his mother’s hands. The child awakens to find his lamb-like curls falling to the checkered floor; his large chocolate brown eyes begin to swell with tears. Fortunately for Joe, the boy’s mother is able to shut off the water works with a few words of reassurance in Spanish. The youngster stoically endures the procedure. Just to the right, Hector is giving a teenage kid his money’s worth: “Man, my mother’s gahna flip! . . . She’s never gahna believe this!” says the youth. Hector, a grin under his thick mustache, gracefully brings the clipping shears through the teenager’s hair. The kid’s friend is standing nearby watching the event. He laughs and shakes his head in disbelief, congratulating the (now hairless) boy for deciding to have his head shaved. Both boys comment on the amount of hair that has dropped to the floor. In another corner of the shop Chris can be heard over a half wall pleasantly conversing with her customer; only tantalizing fragments of their conversation are intelligible through the buzz of the shears.
Leo’s starts doing business at nine in the morning, when either Joe or Hector opens the shop. Chris commutes to work, arriving an hour later. When opening, Joe turns the heat and lights on first, then he “straightens things up” to prepare for the day. If there are no customers to be served, Joe gathers up his massive body, and climbs into his barber’s chair with the morning paper, stretching himself out nice and comfortable. “I like to pretend that I’m the Philosopher King,” remarks Joe, with a smile that turns his ruddy face a deeper shade of red. “In other words a bullshit artist,” he adds. Reposing in his barber chair, Joe bears a strong resemblance to King Louis of France. One would suppose that Joe is the owner of the shop, but this is not the case. Once a month, Herman Vlaylock, the owner of Leo’s, comes into the shop to collect the rent and the telephone bills. “Everyone just calls him Leo, that’s what he likes to be called,” explains Joe, “As for myself, I just cut hair here, that’s all.”
The atmosphere at Leo’s is unique. Just below the Genco pocket hair brush stand, which nobody seems to restock, are three framed black and white photographs. One of the three shows the front of Leo’s Barber Shop as it appeared in the mid-to-late forties, the second is an aerial view of Leo’s and the surrounding businesses of the area, and the last is a peculiar photo displaying the inside of an empty bar that seems to have been taken in the fifties. At the far end of the barber shop, to the left of Joe’s work area, is a fourth barber chair with a black felt children’s high chair laid across its taped-up arms. Some magazines and other scraps of paper are piled on the seat of the chair. Joe looks up from his work and says, “No one has used that chair for a long time,” then his eyes fall back to his customer’s curls.
On the wall across from the vacant barber chair a poster of the “St. Pauli Girl” hangs. It displays a blond buxom beauty, attired in rustic dress. Arms outstretched, she carries three, tall frosty mugs of amber-colored beer in each hand. The expression she wears is inviting. With a crimson glow in her cheeks and slightly parted lips, her eyes transmit a feeling of comfort and warm hospitality. One would think Samuel Adams to be a good match for this young maiden. The phrase under the poster reads, “You’ll never forget your first girl.” It would be sheer folly to imagine this robust woman hanging on the anemic walls of Supercuts.
Joe’s personality dominates the wood-paneled shop walls at Leo’s. A bright red Chinese calendar with a herd of running oxen is tacked to the wall across from his chair. “Is this the year of the ox?” a customer asks, pointing to the calendar in front of him.
“Yes it is,” replies Joe, “I got that calendar from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco. . . . I do some business in the Pacific Rim and I have spent four years in Korea,” he adds, with an air of accomplishment.
Joe is a proud man, tracing his family roots back to England. Talking to Bill, a gray-haired gentleman now under the clipping shears, Joe discusses his belief that his forefathers might have taken part in the Gunpowder Plot to bomb Parliament in 1605 along with Guy Fawkes. On his barber stand next to the container of ozone blue barbicide, are two books pertaining to the subject: The Steel Bonnets and Faith and Treason. Joe shows both books to Bill.
“Well, I guess everyone has horse thieves in their background,” says Bill, pressing his chin to his chest so Joe can trim the back of his head.
“That’s right, wouldn’t be Americans if they didn’t!” responds Joe as he looks out the shop window.
Taped to the top of Joe’s mirror are four one dollar bills that have been signed by celebrities who have passed through town over the years. The dollar bill that Joe shows particular interest in talking about was signed by members of the “Black Watch,” a Scottish bagpipe brigade that belongs to Queen Elizabeth’s own regiment. While visiting at Leo’s, the band also got into a fight next door at the Paragon Bar and Grill. But the crown jewel of Joe’s collection is an old yellowing piece of paper taped above the left hand corner of his mirror. On the paper is a poem composed by Joe (in his spare time Joe writes prose and poetry); below, in blue ink, is a letter grade of “A+,” signed by Kurt Vonnegut. “He walked by the shop window one day, and I recognized his face . . . he was here lecturing at the University!” Joe said, pointing to the yellow paper, with his heavy, thick index finger circling the “A+.”
Looking out the window, Hector checks out a car that is parked in front of the shop.
“Hey, is that a ‘68 Firebird?” Hector inquires, directing his question to a young man whose hair he is cutting.
“It sure is,” replied the man, with a beaming smile.
“You’re selling it for five hundred, right?” asks Hector, in a half laughing way, letting his slight Mexican accent sneak out.
“Five thousand maybe.” the man responds, correcting the barber. Both Hector and the owner of the ‘68 Firebird have a good chuckle, and the barber compliments his customer for restoring and keeping the car in such good shape. Hector continues the conversation, “Yeah, I finally found a reason for having a computer . . . it’s great for going on line and finding spare parts to restore old cars.” The Kragen auto parts calendar beside Hector’s mirror corroborates the barber’s interest in the subject.
“It’s a true art to restore cars,” returns the man. Adjusting the chair, Hector nods his head in agreement.
When Bill has given Joe the seal of approval, he rises from the chair and pays Joe.
“Say Joe, when did you guys raise your prices to ten?” asks Bill.
“Oh, it’s been that price for the past five years,” answers Joe.
“Well, here you go then,” he says, carefully pulling a ten dollar bill, plus a dollar tip, out of his thin black wallet.
“Thank you Bill, we’ll see yah soon!” Thinking a moment to himself, Joe suddenly asks, “Hey Bill, when are we going to do business with Russia?” Walking out the door, Bill waves off the idea with his right hand and utters, “When things calm down over there.” He walks out of the shop into the noon day sunlight.
After a brief clean-down of the chair and shake out of the apron, Joe looks towards the waiting area and asks, “Who’s next?”
“I think I am,” announces a man in his mid thirties with dark brown hair. Setting down a Time magazine, he stands up and approaches the barber’s chair. As the gentleman takes his seat in the black leather and chrome swivel chair, Joe puts a white paper collar around his neck followed by the red and white striped apron. Finished prepping his customer, Joe gives the leverage peddle on the chair three successive quick pumps with his left foot. In a polite and confident tone of voice, Joe asks, “What can I do for you today, Sir?”
“Just shorten things up,” replies the man.
“Yes Sir, no problem,” answers Joe. The scissors and comb are set into motion.
A college student is seated in Chris’ chair. She and the student are trying to remember what gauge she used on the clipping shears the last time he was in the shop. She comes to the conclusion that it must have been ‘a four.’ “That sounds right,” he responds in a convinced voice, but he looks like he has absolutely no idea what ‘a four’ means. Fastening the apron, she begins to cut his hair.
Chris is the only woman barber who works at Leo’s, but that does not seem to bother her. In the past she worked at a salon, but grew tired of it. “Cutting women’s hair is more demanding,” Chris says, “. . . especially when dyeing hair. You have to be aware of what chemicals in the dye will react with others. Women also tend to be more particular about the way their hair is styled.” However, Chris does know men who are more particular then some women. The barbers at Leo’s do not dye hair, nor do they give wet shaves.
“Can you slouch down more?” asks Chris.
“Yeah, no problem,” the student returns.
“I’m sorry, I forgot your name, what is it again?” asks Chris.
“Joseph,” answers the student.
All types of people come into Leo’s, “Everyone from babies to super seniors and everything in between,” brags Joe. In fact, one of the shop’s oldest customers is a gentlemen ninety-six years old. Indeed, Leo’s does attract the extreme segments of the community and “everything in-between,” as Joe puts it. One morning a man with dark tanned skin, wearing a white and black flannel shirt and gray pants, black around the cuffs with crusted dirt, walked into the shop. Carrying a large cup of black coffee and the daily paper, he exclaimed that “More scientists today believe in God than ever before.” His enunciation was poor, his words were slurred, and his voice sounded as if the vocal cords had been rubbed raw with steel wool.
“How are you today Jim?” inquires Joe. Without responding to the barber’s greeting, Jim continues:
“Can you believe that?” He takes a seat in the corner of the shop, by the “St. Pauli Girl” poster.
“That is something Jim, but what do you believe in?” Joe asks.
“I haven’t settled that one yet . . . but I know He believes in me!” Jim shouts.
“What are you going to do with the day, Jim?”
“I’m going to get ripped!” replies Jim. Both Joe and Hector shake their heads and give a light laugh.
Jim was once a professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco and later he became a Presbyterian minister at San Quentin. “He could never beat the bottle,” reflects Chris, “Jim has become what you would call the town drunk now.” Though he is homeless, and currently unemployed, Joe allows Jim to hang out at Leo’s and he even lends him money. However, Jim is the only one of his “kind” that Joe allows inside the shop. “Too many would drive away business,” says Joe.
“There, how’s that?” Chris asks.
“That looks good,” the student replies, looking into the mirror.
“Here,” she gives him the comb, “brush it the way you like to.” Finding the part, he combs it down. Afterwards he compliments her on a job well done.
After paying, the student tells Chris that he will see her in another six weeks, and to take care. Before opening the glass door Joe throws the student a wave. “Hey, when you’re done with that English paper bring us a copy, I’ll put it up on my wall and make yah famous!” he says. Returning his wave, the student walks into the light of the setting sun; the sounds of the barber shop diminish. Looking through the shop window, he sees Hector sweeping up the hair of his last customer. Shouts from the nearby Cantina, interrupted by a blast from a car horn, take the place of the low, metallic murmur of the clipping shears.