Living Out Loud: : A Place Among Friends

Allen's Barbershop

Oct 31, 2007 at 2:06 pm

When my hair begins to resemble the mane of a deranged circus clown, my wife has to use a special machete to keep it under control.

Her special machete is effective against high grass, jungle vines and my wiry hair. She's a hairstylist and has worn out many of these things on my hair over the past few years.

I recently stopped in my wife's shop for my monthly bushwhack. I took my usual seat in her barber chair — next to the NFL cup and the purple girly purse.

"You know, this salon reminds me of Oscar Allen's barbershop," I say.

"Yeah, I know," she says. "You've told me about that place a million times. He's the guy that smoked cigarettes and butchered your hair."

"No he didn't," I say.

"He just had his own style."

And he did. Back in the early '80s, Allen was my barber. My brothers and I spent many Saturday mornings at his barbershop. My father said he wasn't raising no hippies in his house. His anti-hippie movement got the Butler boys sent to Allen's on a regular basis.

As a child, I had a lot of respect for Allen. He always seemed larger than life. He worked hard and devoted his career to his clientele. I remember Allen's usual greeting in that crusty voice of his: "Hello young man, how are you today?"

I'll never forget his wavy brown hair and zombie-like, bloodshot eyes. He also smoked cigarettes while cutting my hair. Back in those days, barbers could cut hair and smoke; no one ever complained.

Allen's barbershop had its own unique personality. It had a tanning bed, four barber chairs and the scent of pine tree aftershave. The wooden shelves above the cash register held an assortment of shampoos, conditioners and tanning lotion. Allen's barbershop was a staple in my neighborhood for many years.

The sound of conversations usually filled the smoky air with politics, sports and current events. "Pete Rose or Hank Aaron?" asked a regular. Many great debates revolved around these kinds of topics. For those who preferred reading to conversation, the wooden magazine rack held a wide assortment of hunting and sports magazines.

Allen built his clientele from nothing. Customers came from all walks of life. They came for one reason — the buzzing sound of Allen's hair clippers.

He also spent time as an unofficial therapist. Most of Allen's customers shared the assorted details of their private lives with him. I never did. I always kept our conversations to sports and the weather, because I wasn't old enough to have any real adult problems.

A man visited Allen's if he wanted to be among friends. It seemed as if everyone visited there on Saturday morning. If he wasn't working, customers left. He cut my hair for many years until my wife took over the job.

When I was young, there weren't many corporate hair chains in existence. If a man needed a haircut, he visited a small barbershop. Before the corporate hair takeover, independent operators owned most of the barbershops.

My wife used to toil away at a corporate hair salon. She's now employed at a local independent one. She tells me there are many differences between corporate hair shops and their smaller competitors. According to my wife, most of the differences can be found in the interaction between the barber/stylist and their clients.

She says the corporate mission is to get the customers in and out; idle chit-chat has no place in a corporate chop shop.

"I can't believe this is what has become of the hair profession," I say. "What about all of the older gentlemen who sit around and talk about sports and politics?"

"They would be removed for loitering," my wife says.

Her clients are mostly female and are comfortable enough to share their troubles with her. At her current shop, she has received gifts and thank you notes from her clients for being so caring. When she worked for the corporate shop, she never received anything other than a paycheck.

There are still some old fashioned barbershops in existence. On rare occasions, I still see the white barber poles with the red stripes. I saw one today on Main Street. I think the place is called Frank's.

Whenever I see the old fashioned barber pole, I remember Allen's, and I'm reminded that there are still places where a man can still be among friends.