Lesson From a Black Master

In 1962, as a nine year-old, I was firmly convinced that dire consequences awaited any male of the human species sporting unshorn locks three Mondays in a row. Why else would I and every male I knew, man and boy, have to traipse down to the local barber shop every two weeks for a haircut.

Fortunately, barbershops held some strange allure for me. Here was a man’s place, completely devoid of any female influence. I loved my mother, tolerated my sisters and I even had friends who were girls. However, it was somewhat of a strain maintaining what was considered acceptable behavior in the eyes of the fairer sex. Judging from the conversations of the other patrons,they were not very successful at it either.

Home away from home
The shop I frequented was big-really big. Eight leather chairs with mirrors in front and behind, so that all images were repeated into infinity. Master of each chair’s name was either Al, Frank or Ed with an occasional Bob thrown in. I assumed you had to change your name in order to join the brotherhood of barbers. There was a profusion of magazines, mostly about hunting and fishing, to keep customers entertained while they waited for the next available barber. Somewhere in the stack was a well-thumbed girlie magazine. I would linger as long as decorum would allow over the cover of this enticing publication, never summoning the courage to look inside.

The air was full of aftershave, cigarette smoke and lies. Stories about the one that got away or the mythical buck everyone had seen and shot at, but never killed. And sometimes the talk turned to women. I followed these conversations quite closely, for even at that young age I had noticed that some of the older girls looked better in their clothes than others. However, sometimes during these confusing conversations everyone laughed for no apparent reason.

Deadly Edges
I was fascinated by the barber’s straight razor. As he stropped the edge on the wide leather hanging from the chair, I would feel a tingling at the base of my neck it felt like I could “taste” the edge on the tip of my tongue. It was an exhilarating and uncomfortable feeling. I would hold my breath each time a barber placed razor to neck, afraid/hoping to see bright blood spurt out on the patron’s apron.

One day as I started to climb down from the chair the barber put his hand on my shoulder and told me to stay. He wrapped the apron back around my neck and walked over to where the hot towels were kept. Steam rose from the hot, wet towels. Quickly he laid the towel around my neck over my ears and began to strop his razor. The towel was uncomfortably hot but I sat frozen in what I considered to be the last chair of my life. I had watched, entranced, as the barbers shaved grown men, but I had never had it done to me, a mere slip of a lad with his whole life in front of him. The towel was cooling quickly and the razor made an ominous sound as it swished back and forth on the big leather strop. Apparently satisfied that he had obtained a deadly edge, the barber removed the towel and placed hot lather were it had been.

Eminent Death
I dared not even breathe, for I had a vision of my life’s blood pumping onto the black and white tile floor and of my mother’s stricken face as the barber explained “ We tried to save him but he moved and there was nothing we could do for him”. A razor makes a peculiar sound when it is cutting hair. It is even more peculiar when it is nanometers from ones ear. Quickly the barber trimmed around my ears and then made long strokes down the back of my neck, sending goose bumps to every part of my body. Nothing existed for me except the edge of that fatally sharp blade. And then, it was over and I was still alive.

As if to reward me for my courage, the barber placed a vibrator on the back of his hand and massaged my head, neck and shoulders. When it was all over I somehow I climbed down on shaky legs, paid the man and walked out the door to meet my mother at the grocery store. Who says modern man has no rights of passage.

In this same barber shop there worked a gray haired black gentleman named James. James was the shoe shine “boy”. A term little tolerated in these modern times and rightly so. But in those times James was “boy”. Mostly, customers paid little heed to James, and when they did speak to him I could tell they were not really talking to him more like at him. They were not really interested in him or his life. They were not unkind to him nor did they express anything but goodwill towards James. However, their attitude towards him was different. This in turn influenced how I saw James, and to some extent, all black people. We learn our prejudices in subtle ways.

One day the wait was exceedingly long. I had looked through all the magazines, listened to all the stories and I was growing restless. After all it was Saturday, there was no school and there were untold amounts of baseball games to be played in the field down the street. A customer sat down in James’s chair. Having nothing better to do, I watched. Quickly James sized up the man’s shoes and picked a can of polish from his rack. I had never noticed how everything had its special place and everything went back in its special placed when not being used. I also noticed that James dressed well. Not fancy clothes but a very clean shirt and pants with a sharp crease in the legs and arms. He was extremely clean shaven. His salt and pepper hair was short, with sharp edges as if it had just been trimmed 5 minutes ago.

Dipping the tips of his incredibly long fingers of both his hands into the polish, he proceeded to cover both shoes in what appeared to be one smooth continuous motion. He then lit a cigarette with stained fingers as he waited for the polish to dry. Having already placed the polish back in the rack, James snuffed out his cigarette and chose two of the many brushes he had on hand.

Magic Master
There are not words to describe what next ensued. Taking a brush in each hand, James became something else. Brushes appeared to be on every part of the shoe at once, yet when I tried to look at each individual brush, there was nothing to be seen. As I watched him “work”, a peculiar warmth traveled up my spine and into my head making my nose feel odd. Soon my whole body was vibrating and it was as if I could “feel” the friction between the brush and shoe. Orgasmic was not a word in a 9 year old good, Catholic boy’s lexicon in those days, but there is no better word for what was happening- in a non-sexual way.

I felt the floor shift beneath my chair, the words everyone spoke lost their meaning and I became confused as to what I was doing in this place. I wanted to jump up and shout, “ Look what is happening here, somebody, anybody please explain to me what is happening here”. But I didn’t and nobody has-EVER.

As he was putting the final buff on the shoes with a stretched cloth, James looked up and saw me watching. Without missing a beat or breaking his rhythm  he stared at me for a long moment. His eyes narrowed slightly and I saw a small grin barely touch his lips. Then with a rueful shake of his head he gave me a slow wink and a nod, then bent back to his task. Many times I have wondered what James did to those shoes. Did he do it for his own amusement or was there some reason he picked those shoes at that time.  I never saw him do it again and I might as well have been invisible when ever I came back in the shop. I also cannot help wondering if James knew he was a master, or what he had given me? I certainly didn’t at the time. Even now I am not at all certain as to what he did to those shoes, or to me, for that matter.

One thing I do know is, it’s not what you do, but how you do it. There is a line from song that says, “You gotta dance like nobody’s watchin’”. James danced his dance and nobody paid any attention. Once, a young boy saw him open a road for a brief moment. The jury is still out on whether it has been a path well taken.

Dan O’Connor 2010

Shoeshine polish photo by David Dennis


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