Barber Shops

by Harry T. Roman


As I shake out some Clubman talc into my hands and rub it around my neck and chest, the characteristic smell of that powder starts swirling my memories around…..


Next thing I know, I am in Mario’s Newark barbershop on Third Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets. Looking in the mirror, I am amazed to see a full head of hair, all my teeth, and myself about 14 years old. I never remember being that slim, but there I be.

The “old bulls” in the shop are talking in a mixture of English, Italian, and broken English, everything from politics and sports to women. There are lots of jokes and comments that I cannot yet fully understand, but I am decoding the signals as fast as I can.

Once in a while the “old bulls” give me a wink and a sly smile. They know I am there, and tolerate this young pup’s bewildered look.

“Hey Mario! Where’s the books, once of the men jokes.”

“Ina da back, sama place for you (Mario’s broken English)”

“Did the new ones come in yet?”

“Ma sure (Mario)”

Glancing quickly at the middle of the magazine, the old bull’s eyes open wide, he whistles, and shakes his hand sideways. He holds the magazine up to one of the other bulls and says…..”How come I never meet any girls like this?”

The other fellow retorts, “Because you have a face brute (ugly face)”

Yet another bull over in the corner, silent until now, joins in, “Yeah, but he is faithful and honest!” Laughter erupts all around. Mario smiles as though he has heard it all before and continues cutting hair with a suppressed chuckle.

The fellow in the chair asks to see the magazine whereupon he intones that this must be a medical journal. All the girls seem to have glandular conditions. Once again the barbershop erupts in laughter.

Mario gavels the group back to order, says something in Italian and points smiling at me. I pick up the dialect as similar to my own and decode it to mean something like, “Watch what you are saying the young man is here!”

With that, the old bull who started the whole episode, a man of powerful build with hard working hands, smiles at me through several gold teeth and says soon I will be meeting girls who look like the ones in the magazine. Whereupon I turn as red as a pomodoro tomato. Mario just buries his head in his hands and laughs. The old bull pinches my check and wishes me the best of luck.

That was a typical Saturday at the neighborhood barbershop-a rite of passage for the young men. Catching up on neighborhood news, getting a few cheap thrills with the girly magazines, and learning the age-old custom of schmoozing.

Mario would flitter around his customers, hair flying, and firing questions at you. His ever-present, long, tapered, and very sharp scissors clicking away in your ear—

“Howsa your moder?”

“Howsa your fader?”

“Your fader no lika me no mo’? Hisa ‘air must be in a pona taila by now?”

On and on it went as the smells of various lotions and powders mixed in the air.

Watching a straight razor shave was always exciting. Mario would work himself into a frenzy sharpening that razor on the strap hanging from the chair. With a couple of quick wrist flourishes the hot lather would be mixed and spread upon the customer’s face. Down went the chair and zip-zip-zip, that man’s face was as clean and pink as a baby’s bottom.

Mario finishes him off with a “poof” of talc and splash of after-shave….much to the oohs and ahhs of the old bulls chorus.

“That’s a nice!”, exclaims Mario.

“I think I am going to kiss him he smells so good”, one of the chorus members utters as another rushes to the door to hold it open for his exit. As he bows to the cleanly shaven man he says, “Have a beautiful day your lordship.”

The man exits amid an outburst of laughter, and flips the universally recognized one-armed Italian salute. Several customers coming in, immediately join in the revelry.

Mario motions to me…..I’m next… the old bulls chorus hushes, sizing up their next victim.


“Don’t you ever complain that I dawdle”, my wife yells up the stairs. “We are going to be late for Kathy and Joe’s party”.

I come down the stairs with the laughter of Mario’s barbershop still ringing in my ears. Momma smells the Clubman talc and cannot resist a comment…….”Going someplace sailor?”

“Already been there and back I say somewhat aloof. This here is magic powder. Took me all the way to Newark and back.”


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