A Barber’s Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm
Where: York Avenue , 10028 New York (United States). When: on 16-06-1964.
Written at 02-08-2011 by Thomas Pryor
Labels - York Avenue Thomas R. Pryor Yorkville Butch Stick Barber of Yorkville 1964 Roger Maris Blue water combs Steubens Day Parade
Hanging onto the barbershop’s doorframe, he leaned out toward the street. Twisted his smooth, shaved face and stretched his upper body.
At five after three, Michael, Steven and Gerard turned the corner, marching up the avenue toward the barbershop in formation, sledge hammering their cardboard school bags against the sidewalk.
Herman’s heart leapt. The Murphy kinder, 12, 10 and 8 were getting haircuts. They faced their sentence defiantly – dragging their bags into the store and dropping their asses hard into the three barber chairs.
Every eight weeks, Mr. Murphy stopped at the barbershop on his way home from his Coney Island Transit Authority job. He prepaid three haircuts - 75 cents a piece with a quarter tip and gave orders, “Herman, each boy’s head should resemble the village green – short, trim, tight.”
Mr. Murphy had two intractable haircut rules: First, no hair makes contact with the boy’s shirt in the sitting position - Second, the boy’s hair must be too short to pull.”
Rule Two, led the middle son, Steven, to grief based on my spy’s report. During Geography class, Steven entertained two girls in the fourth grade’s back row. Sister Maria caught the usually sharp boy off guard. She crept down the aisle till her shadow covered his head. With the girls entranced, under his power, Steven – Paul McCartney cute – had no warning when the nun went to her classic move, the hair pull with a neat neck snap. She mastered this maneuver early in her career on countless knuckleheads.
Sister Maria pounced – trying to pull the hair out of Steven’s head – she came up with nothing. Too short. She tried again. Only air. She had a better chance of going away with Father Ryan for the weekend – her deepest secret desire.
Furious, the nun slugged Steven in the forehead with her two-pounder Daughter of Christ ring. Barely conscious, Steven’s head swung back hitting the blackboard with a beautiful thud. Punching boys into submission was a respected tradition at St. Joseph’s. They called it cleaning a kid’s clock. Sister Maria, recovering from her dark moment, realized there might be an injury.
“How are you?”
“How many fingers do you see?”
Later, Steven collected compliments on the tattoo left by the nun’s ring. For two days, if you wiped the sweat and dirt away from his forehead, you could read most of the ring’s inscription, The Charity of Christ Urges Us.
The first time Mr. Murphy arranged the triple haircut; he came home and found the boys sitting at the dinner table. From the apartment’s entrance door, he saw something amiss.
“Do I see unacceptable hair lengths? Are you mocking me? There will be no mocking! Anita, hold dinner.”
Mr. Murphy dropped his shopping bag full of irregular tube socks and ordered the boys back to Herman’s. They arrived just as Herr Barber was locking his door.
“Herman, these aren’t the haircuts I asked for… I demand you fix them right now, or I want my money back including the tip.”
Herman looked the boys up and down, in that “sign zee papers” kind of way.
“Ach du lieber, Mister Murphy, these boys look wunderbar!”
“Your ass’ll look wunderbar, if you don’t open the door and cut their hair.
Deflated, Herman flipped the lock, hit the light and reached for his barber coat off the hook under the Kaiser Wilhelm portrait.
After the deed was done, Mr. Murphy nodded his approval, the boys pouted, and Herman dreamed of a Fourth Reich… a better Reich… where haircuts were done once!
Herman missed the Village Square in Leipzig where the frauleins flung admiring looks his way after the war. He earned his Iron Cross in France in 1943. Drafted out of Barber College, Herman performed a thousand haircuts on German soldiers during a two-month campaign.
Every Steuben’s Day, Herman closed his store to celebrate the annual parade that ended in the center of Yorkville’s German town. An early riser, Herman put on his Lederhosen, yodeling socks, short Von Trapp jacket, and an Alpine hat with a single feather. He ran up 86th Street to secure a good position in front of the RKO movie house. There he stood on a milk box with a blue cornflower pinned to his lapel, madly waving two German flags until the street sweepers followed the last band with their brooms.
He knew the words to every song. For weeks after the parade if you needed a haircut, Herman would sing softly in your ear:
I love to go a wandering, Along the mountain track.
And as I go, I love to sing, My knapsack on my back.
Valderi, Valdera, Valderi, Valdera, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha
Herman’s narrow shop was crammed between a bar and a beauty salon. He had no room near the entrance to plant a barber pole, so he hung a photo of a barber pole in his window. It looked stupid, but it helped block the view in or out.
This was important to me, because if the jerks saw you in the death chair, they’d storm the store and spread out watching you get scalped - all angles covered to enhance the commentary. After a crew cut, you always looked weird. The hyenas followed you home taunting all the way. Kids wore baseball caps year round to cover the damage. The barber pole photo was my friend.
Despite the dread of getting a haircut, it was fun sitting in the chair. I was truck-driver high and surveyed the store. If Herman turned the chair to the left, I might see a man thumbing through a Playboy in the “off limits to kids” waiting area. Even from that distance, the photos were delivered tout suite to the room in my brain where my art collection hung on its walls. This was my favorite stop on my way to dreamland.
Up in the chair, two things bugged me on Herman’s counter: the Butch-Stick display and the long combs in the glass jars with the blue water.
Butch-Stick was a waxy hair product that made your crew-cut stand up in front like a lawn. First of all, I hated getting a crew-cut. Girls wouldn’t look at you. That there was this unique product to make a crew-cut look better, made no sense to me since I thought all crew-cuts were bad ideas. Adding insult, the display included Yankee star, Roger Maris, with a bubble over his head saying, “I love Butch-Stick!” Well, Roger, that’s great, just what I needed. Every two months, I give my Father 50 reasons why it’s not a good idea for me to get a crew cut, and you go and hit 61 home runs – 61 smacks to my head. Dad’s speech:
“If a crew cut is good enough for Roger Maris, well then it’s certainly good enough for my son.”
With all due respect – up yours, Maris.
Then there were the combs in the blue water in the glass jars. If for any reason, I was glad, I was getting a crew-cut, it was because under no circumstance, did I want my Teutonic trimmer pulling one of those frigging combs as long as my arm out of the blue water and putting it on my head. It was common knowledge, that no one ever saw Herman leave the store to go the bathroom, from the time he opened in the morning, till the time he closed at night. Herman’s store had no plumbing besides the lone sink in front of the barber chairs where he washed his hands. There was no bathroom. In the building next store, there was a water closet in the back of the first floor hallway.
He never used it.
Herman’s store fell between my apartment and Dad’s favorite tavern. I loitered in front of the barbershop all week. Herman’s head, always there in the window, with the monocle and the shiny bald top with the buzz cut on the sides – at least he had a crappy haircut too.
His cigarette dangled from his mouth, constantly coming this close to my ear when he leaned in to work on my sides. I felt the heat of the ash. Herman wasn’t visible during most of the haircut. A swirl of smoke enveloped my head. You only knew he was there by his smell. A cocktail of tobacco and talc. Sometimes, the first thing coming out of the cloud was his monocle and his eye behind it magnified like a horror movie.
How did Herman get through his day?
I knew he kept a liverwurst sandwich and an apple in a brown bag under a copy of the Staats-Zeitung newspaper in the drawer under his Grundig short wave radio. Herman was fit. He practiced the gymnastic rings at the Turn Verein, three times a week, and limited his Schaller & Weber shopping. Food was covered, that left peeing.
How could Herman muscle through the day without relief? This mystery led me to the blue water. My theory: At the start of the week, Herman placed a Tidy Bowl toilet cleaner in the long comb jar in front of the first barber chair. If you looked in the window on Monday, the second and third jars were dry. Start watching the second jar on Tuesday afternoon. The blue water table rose, till Thursday when it peaked, and then the third jar started filling up. Sometime on Saturday, all comb retainers were filled to the brim. I believe, when Herman’s leak was unstoppable he stood at the window and pulled the shoulder high curtains shut. His eyes darted from side to side while he centered himself strategically behind the barber pole photo. Once hidden, totally backed up, he took his bird out and peed in the comb jar.
Saturdays being haircut day, I bet Herman only had one opportunity. I pictured the home movie looking something like this: Did you ever see a male horse start to go? It takes off like a fire hose, flying in all directions; the pee soars in chaotic circles.
Late one Saturday, I was playing catch in front of the store. Herman’s head was resting on the curtain rod to the side of the barber pole photo. I noticed his eye spinning aimlessly through his monocle. He looked like he was moaning. Then he had a weak smile on his face. I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back.
“Heads up!” Steve yelled.
Puzzled, I turned and chased the ball down the sidewalk, leaving Herman to his private moment.
(Previously published in Mr.Beller’s Neighborhood)