"Barber Shop" by Robert Cottingham / www.seavestcollection.org

"Barber Shop" by Robert Cottingham / http://www.seavestcollection.org

I conducted a wake service this week for a man who had operated a barber shop for more than 45 years less than a mile from here. His father operated the shop before that. I hadn’t known either of them, but I appreciated their story as soon as I heard it. Places like that barber shop have always interested me because of the role they play in a community that transcends the immediate purpose of their existence. When I go to the barber, even now, I listen in on the proprietor’s conversations with the Man in the Chair — not because I’m nosy, but because I enjoy being plugged in to this conversation — or, rather, these few links in a conversation that has been going on since, perhaps, 3500 BC — the Bronze Age — to which the oldest known razors have been dated.

I grew up listening to that conversation. There was a barber shop in the building my family owned and lived in, and I hung out in there perhaps a little more than the barbers would have liked. But the Mariano Brothers, Louie and Joe, had been cutting hair there since before I was born — they cut hair there for 62 years all told — and they no doubt thought of me as a small inconvenience within such a broad context. Perhaps, too, they thought exposure to the shop would improve my grooming — something that didn’t happen until I was in my 20s.

barber-shop_14277_smBy my estimate, the customers who contributed to the conversation at the Marianos’ shop were drawn from five generations. If it’s true that all spoken words are still floating around somewhere in the ether, and if it were possible to capture some of the links in the chain forged in the Marianos’ chairs, there no doubt would be observations about what Roosevelt promised Stalin at Yalta, whether the Cardinals would ever win another pennant, what was really going on between Jane Russell and Howard Hughes, why everyone didn’t just get off Nixon’s case, and whether ground beef at 90 cents a pound didn’t mean that the Whole Works was going to the dogs.

I was in the shop one day when a 10-year-old boy “getting his ears lowered” got into a heated argument with a customer-in-waiting, who was old enough to be the lad’s grandfather, over whether Rocky Marciano or Joe Louis had been the Bigger Deal. Anywhere else, the boy would have been thought precocious. But, you see, they were Two Guys Talking in a Barber Shop, so it was OK.

"The Barber" by Nikolaus Gysis (1880)

"The Barber" by Nikolaus Gysis (1880)