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No Black Haircut


Harry Buschman

From The Westlake Village Collection.

For more years than I can remember Angelo LaRocca has been the only barber in Westlake Village. His brother Frank is our cobbler. Cutting hair and mending soles was not their only source of income. The lion's share of it came from taking bets on horses and numbers by special phone. Their shops were side by side on Westwood Avenue with a glass beaded opening between them. Frank covered the numbers, and Angelo the horses. They used two-tiered cash registers, with a drawer for bets and another for the business. The gamblers of the town while waiting for the results from Pimlico or the noon-day lucky dream drawing would use the time to get a haircut or a shine.

That was the past.

The present brought OTB and the State Lottery. Frank, the cobbler threw up his hands and quickly folded. He was smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and it spelled nothing but a future of mending umbrellas and broken briefcases. The soles of today's shoes will not wear out -- they will outlive the shoe. He sold his half of the store to Angelo and his creaky cobbling machinery to the National Historical Society, which considered cobbling and its quaint mechanical equipment a part of vanishing Americana. He used the proceeds to purchase a small condo in Orlando, Florida.

But Angelo, a non-stop talker, who inherited his mother and father's fiery southern Italian combativeness decided to fight back. The numbers racket and the horses had gone legitimate and were in the hands of the government. Fascists, all of them! pulling the rug of the entrepreneur out from under him! So be it! Hair still grew on the heads of the men of Westlake Village. Maybe the soles of their shoes would last forever but old men still needed a weekly haircut and a frank education in the political affairs of the day.

It is wise to treat your barber as you do your dentist. Their chairs are designed to immobilize you until they are finished with you. If they have a political ax to grind or a pet cause to cultivate it is foolhardy to disagree with them. I have been tempted on more than one occasion to contradict Angelo on some of his bizarre political viewpoints, but when I see him stropping his razor or reaching into the steamer for a scalding towel, I hold my tongue.

Angelo's clientele grows smaller as the population of Westlake Village grows older. Few of my male friends have hair worth the cutting. Some have none at all. Our weekly visit to Angelo's is more of a rite of passage than a necessity. I can remember when the floor of his shop was ankle deep in hair of vibrant colors. Every hour Angelo would have to sweep it into plastic bags with a push broom. Now, when day is done, only a few gray wisps are left behind.

Angelo was never a complete barber. His clients were male, white, and content to accept his results without question. When he finished a customer he would hold a mirror to the back of his head and wait for approval as the customer looked critically in the reflection in the large mirror in front of him. Everyone approved .... it was pointless to argue.

He never mastered the art of cutting the hair of a black person, and a hand lettered sign in his window states "No Black Hair Cut." It is a sign penned without prejudice. Instead, it is an admission of Angelo's inadequacy as a barber. Under this sign hangs another .... "No Woman's Hair Also." Working within these parameters, his source of income is cut to the bone, for if you sit in his shop and watch the passing parade of Westlakers outside, you can't help noticing that women and blacks are the only people with hair to cut. He will grudgingly accept young boys if they are brought in by a parent, but no caring parent would expose his offspring to Angelo's huge stock of well worn porno magazines. They take their children to the tonsorial parlor in the Mall to be styled. Angelo is an old white man's barber who needs old white men as much as they need him.

We sit patiently on the uncomfortable twisted wire chairs that once graced Lieberman's ice cream parlor. There are four of them, and with one old man in the barber chair the last old man in the shop may wait an hour or more for a haircut. We are not in a hurry and Angelo does not rush things. He snips a hair here and one there, all the while lecturing the five of us on political intrigue, the Italian giants of baseball, and how much this haircut would cost you at the Mall.

His fly-specked plate glass window, half covered with a ratty cafe curtain faces south, and it is pleasant in the light of the pale winter sun to sit there and check out the centerfolds. The heat builds up -- our joints seem to thaw a bit, and the smell of bay rum brings back the days of wine and roses. Somebody will say, "Have you seen Harvey Lately?" Somebody else will answer, "Harvey who?" Nobody can remember Harvey's last name .... therefore nobody can remember having seen him. But there is an unspoken understanding, tacitly implied, that Harvey will not be having his hair cut again.

Occasionally there is excitement. On a Friday morning not too long ago Ardsley and Lotte appeared in the window. There is a bond between these two -- a bond born of the mutual need and the blending of their physical and mental shortcomings. Lotte's difficulty in walking has resonated with the gallant Ardsley and his STOP sign. He halts the traffic for her when she decides to cross the street. Her decision to cross the street will come swiftly and with no apparent reason, much like that of a dog that has suddenly found itself free of its chain. When she is out and about Ardsley trails her, STOP sign at the ready, and traffic comes to a halt until Lotte makes it to the other side. Then, if the spirit moves her, she is just as likely to lurch back again. On this particular Friday morning the sign in Angelo's window caught her eye. "No Woman's Hair Also." It's been there for years but suddenly, today, it got her wind up. Laboriously Ardsley read the other one .... "No Black Hair Cut," and he, too, found reason for resentment. Together, they cupped their eyes with their hands and peered at the customers inside.

"Look at them two," Angelo remarked, "Odd'a coupla." It was plain that he was unaware of the fire he had kindled under the Equal Rights Amendment. Lotte rapped on the window with her black handled cane and pointed to the sign. Angelo shrugged and turned his palms upward in a Latin body expression an ice man once used years ago when my mother accused him of cutting the blocks smaller. Angelo walked to the door, opened it and firmly announced "No black hair, no woman's neither." The gauntlet had been thrown.

They both marched in and Lotte demanded that I move over, "My back is killin me." I was sure it was and probably would in the end. I hastily closed my magazine with the wrinkled centerfold and moved over. It seemed highly unlikely that Lotte had come in for a haircut. I have mentioned before that her hair was lank, long, and black, like that of a horse who has been out in the rain all day. Her dentition had also been reduced over time to two upper canines and a lower incisor. If Angelo had been able to cut women's hair it wouldn't have done a thing for Lotte. Ardsley was making a slow circuit of the shop. He carried his STOP sign at "port arms" and checked out the autographed baseball photos on the wall. There was Phil Rizzuto, Frankie Crossetti, and of course Joe DiMaggio.

"How come you don't have no Jackie Robinson .... where's yer Willie Mays?"

It seemed to me we were headed for a show down, and I fingered the nape of my neck and made the decision to wait a week for a haircut.

"I'm a Korean War vet," Ardsley stated to no one in particular. He pointed to his overseas cap and said, "Me and the endubble aceypee wanna know why you won't cut my hair."

"Mine too," piped up Lotte from the seat next to me.

Had Angelo been honest enough to admit his shortcomings, Lotte and Ardsley would have understood. Instead, he brazened it out. "I don't have to cut nobody's hair I don't wanna cut .... an I don't have ta hang Willy May's pitcher on my wall neither!"

What kept me there? I'd already decided I could wait a week. The situation was rapidly approaching critical mass. My friend Seymour had quietly retrieved his hat and coat and was edging his way to the door. Seymour is from the tribe of Abraham and has his own problems, ERA and NAACP are not among them. Something told me to stay. I'm glad I did, for what might have erupted into an ugly scene shortly resulted in an episode of rarest humor.

Ardsley, mouth set and eyes blazing, ripped the overseas cap from his head. His purpose was to demand his rights to a haircut. But there was nothing there, nothing to cut, Ardsley was as bald as any man, black or white, can possibly be -- fuzz-less as a billiard ball. Tensions relaxed, and laughter, that God-given laughter that struggles to bring mankind to its senses stepped in and brought the old folks of Westlake Village together again. It spread across the room to Lotte, who doubled over and in her own special kind of wheezy, witch-like laughter, her long lank and raven locks were shaken loose and fell to the floor of Angelo's barber shop with an audible plop.

Walking home I wondered if it would have been the same if we'd been younger, full of hair, and full of the fire that separates man from woman and black from white. But it was age! Blessed age, and the common aging of men and women of all colors brought us back together again.

©Harry Buschman 1997

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