Jul 10, 2023, 06:29AM

Barber Poles and Lollipops

The sweet smell of cigar smoke still lingers from the 1970s. What year is it (#297)?

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It’s three years and counting since I’ve had a proper haircut (a “trim” is more accurate, since, as the Irish say, my hair is “tinning”), which coincides with the 2020 Maryland lockdown. I used to patronize Mt. Vernon’s Beatnik Barber, where very cool people were behind the barber’s chair, but once the Covid protocols were relaxed, I didn’t feel like wearing a mask, sit a chair apart from other customers, and all the other razzmatazz that was in place. I’d wake up one morning and see a shaggy visage in the mirror, remove the glasses, and take a pair of scissors to my head. Not elegant, as my wife invariably weighed in from the Mr. Peanut Gallery, but it’s not as if I’ll be an advertising model anytime soon. (Pardon the immodesty, but I was once a model for Paul Stuart, back in 1998 in New York, an ad that appeared in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. That was fun, if time-consuming with an assistant applying makeup and knotting my tie just so, but in truth I was chosen because it was an experimental campaign, and I was a regular customer at the store and E. 45th St. and Madison Ave.)

When our family lived in Tribeca, I’d stop by Ray’s Barber Shop (picture above) on occasional Saturdays for a quick fixer-upper. My young sons, in more frequent need of a Samson ordeal, were escorted by my wife to a local salon, the tab, hardly unsurprising for the 1990s, $100 a pop, and I thought that was just too precious when they could’ve gone to Ray’s for a fraction of the cost. But at that time, my wife took the reins of choosing the clothes and grooming of the boys—no objection here—and they did look pretty spiffy. (In fact, our son Nicky had his first haircut, at 18 months or so, at Harrods in London, an elaborate prodcution that required a week-ahead appointment—we still have a lock of his red hair from the cutting—and that was weird but fun.) Once the boys hit 10 or 11, they made their own sartorial and hair choices.

Long ago, as a tyke in Huntington, every so often my dad would take out his electric clipper, and several of us would line for our turn in the makeshift barber’s chair. This was the early-1960s, in ostensibly clean-cut suburbia, and I don’t recall any of my brothers or me objecting to the two-minute crewcut. It was the look of the Pepsi Generation, before The Beatles changed hairstyles for the masses. (I could say that while getting sheared a copy of “Howl” was in my lap, but that wasn’t true. I didn’t mind the ritual. It meant hanging out with Dad, who worked every day, although he found time to teach all five of us how to drive, and on summer nights, he’d return from his Copiague car wash, and ask, “Who wants to go for a dip,” at Brown’s Beach, knowing we’d all immediately change into our trunks and race to the station wagon.)

I don’t see barber poles often today, but as a young fellow in Baltimore I could look at the swirling colors for five minutes and get lost in a reverie. There was a place on Greenmount Ave., a few hops away from the rowhouse I rented, and I’d go there for a $7 haircut and all the usual banter that’s featured in movies and TV shows. The rack of thumbed-over magazines, some “dirty,” the smell of cigarettes and cigars, the good-natured arguments about the fortunes of the Orioles and Colts, and one of the owner’s sons fetching a bag of burgers from the Little Tavern down the street. In August of 1976, I was preparing to leave for a semester off in Denver, and, figuring I wanted a new, non-hippie look, a Southern hayseed in my imagination (and then in practice once I arrived out West) I was happy to accept my friend Jimmy Owens’ offer of a free haircut. He lived across the street, and was honing his skills as a hobbyist barber, and relished clipping my long locks, saying when he was done, “There you go, Rusty, a New Look for a New Town.”

Take a look at the clues for the year: Joseph Estrada sworn in as president of the Philippines; Maya Hawke is born and Akira Kurosawa dies; Jose Saramago wins Literature Nobel; Karla Faye Tucker is executed in Texas; once again, Billy Crystal sucks as host of Academy Awards; Pokémon debuts on American television; Elle Fanning is born and Tammy Wynette dies; two 10-year-old boys are tried in London for rape, they’re later acquitted; Elton John is knighted by Queen Elizabeth, the 987th such honor awarded this year; a gallon of gas in the U.S. cost an average of $1.15; and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam is published.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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