Monday, January 19, 2009

Requiem for a Barbershop

Reprinted without permission from the May 23, 1958 Police Gazette

e were piddling over the weekend, searching for a place we could score a quick haircut so we’d be spruce for the inaugural festivities on TV, when we discovered that the David Lynch Barbershop had closed its doors, apparently for all of eternity. That wasn’t its real name, of course---we just called it that in a Bush-ian burst of casual nicknamery because every time we crossed its threshold it seemed as if we’d dropped into some eerie, time-impacted twilight zone of Houston Past. Its real name was strange enough: the South Hill Barber Shop, apparently because it was located in the South Hill Shopping Center, an L-shaped strip center with a Blockbuster and Russian general store (called “The Russian General Store”) at the corner of South Braeswood and Hillcroft. But as far as we can tell there’s no “hill” in sight and the shopping center is as low as the surrounding terrain. Across Brays Bayou, on North Braeswood, sits the “Braes Hill Shopping Center,” so we’ve wondered whether at a point in the distant past, before the bayou was covered in concrete, there wasn’t some slight rise in the land coming up from the bayou (thus “Hillcroft”?) that fell victim to the bulldozer of progress.

The barbershop was notable for its lack of frills and finery---there usually was nothing to read while you waited, except for yesterday’s Chronicle, and the yellowed and frayed poster on the wall illustrating recommended hair styles must have been tacked up and forgotten back in the mid-’70s (the mustachioed model suggested early-model porn star). The place was always strangely quiet, as there was no radio playing and not much in the way of barber-customer repartee that was louder than an audible mumble. It was the only place where we’ve seen anyone publicly wearing a pair of those Cra-Z-Coil shoes, the kind with the springs on the heels. On one visit we actually saw two people wearing them there---one elderly customer and a barber who seemed to be on temporary assignment and was not around for our return trip. It was, in other words, an old people’s place. Other than the blessed quiet, perhaps its greatest virtue was that it was never crowded, thus we rarely found our self killing time with a day-old newspaper or staring blankly at pictures of outmoded male hair styles.

It was the place we took our son for
that traditional rite of male initiation, the first store-bought haircut, when he was three. The barber’s name was “Paul,” a short, thin, downbeat old white dude with ropey arms covered in smeary blue tattoos---the sailor-man kind. He looked to have been a bad customer in his day, and he was not good with kids. The only thing he said to our son, who was not yet conversant in adult irony, was, “I’ll try not to cut your ear off.” (It was not a happy experience for the lad, and since then he’s had his locks trimmed at Super Cuts or other featureless chain outlets.)

After that we did not return to the barbershop for another 10 years or more, until one day, when one of the succession of Vietnamese ladies who cut our hair was unavailable, we dropped back in as a matter of convenience and struck up a commercial relationships of sorts with a nice older Hispanic woman who rented one of the chairs. When she was absent or busy we turned to the proprietress, an elderly Jewish gal who appeared to have been a looker in her day, or even to Paul, who was still manning the chair from which he’d administered our son’s first shearing. What they all in common was that each gave a damn good $12 haircut, and while they were nice and talkative if engaged they were not overbearing in that phony-friendly modern way. They did not besiege us with their considered opinions about politics, or sports.

The owner had an interesting story that she related to us on a couple of occasions, but of course we have forgotten most of the particulars. She grew up somewhere in Eastern Europe---not Poland, as we guessed, but maybe Hungary or Romania (?)---and when she was 16 she and maybe some family members made a beeline for Russia in advance of the Nazis. They ended up in a camp there, for the duration of the war. While she was interned, or maybe afterward, she met up with her husband, and somehow they made their way to Houston, where they set to cutting the heads of its citizens in 1948 (we think). If we’re not mistaken, she told us that they had moved the shop’s location, following the incremental exodus of the city’s Jewish population from near-downtown to the Promised Land of the suburban southwest, although we could be confusing hers with another long-standing commercial establishment we know about. We can’t remember what happened to her husband---maybe he had passed on---but in any case the shop had been at its current location since the center opened in the late ’60s.

Paul had interesting stories, too: He had grown up or lived as a young man in the area, long before it was developed. He remembered when Fondren Road
dead-ended at the bayou and told us of the days when he and friends would hunt rabbit on its south bank. Paul did not appear to be a person given to much pretense, although we noticed he always sported an expensive, shined-up pair of gator- or ostrich-skinned boots. Once we saw him leaving the parking lot in a big pick-up, maybe an F-250, with his window rolled down and twangy country music blaring, the kind you never hear on the radio anymore and must have come from a tape or CD.

We remained a semi-regular customer at South Hill for a couple of years until, for some reason we cannot recall, we decided (in a way) to let our hair grow long and shaggy for many months. When we were ready to return to regular follicle maintenance a friend recommended yet another Vietnamese barber who gave a mean trim. She does, and tells us sweet lies (“You hair nice up here!”). When she’s done with the clippers she gives our neck and temples a brief, brisk massaging---something, thankfully, that Paul never did.

We never returned to the South Hill, until last weekend, when we drove up and found it shuttered and dark, the barber chairs unbolted from the floor and gone. No written explanation was found on the window, but a city inspector’s tag cited sign damage from Ike. The "damage" wasn't much: the “e” from “Barber” had fallen and a couple of other letters were out of whack. We shrugged and left but felt a twinge of guilt and remorse as we returned home to call our Vietnamese lady barber for an appointment.


Anonymous said...

There's a good barber in the same center as Foodarama at Beechnut and Hillcroft.

Slampo said...

Yeah, I've been to that one, too, way back, and will probably go again. I'm kind of promiscuous with the hair cutting.