When I was growing up in Dallas, in the 1950s, my dad used to take me to get my hair cut at a barbershop next to the A & P grocery store where he worked as a butcher. The barbershop and grocery store were housed in a brick building that faced directly onto a sidewalk. In front was head-in parking with parking meters my mom complained about every time we shopped there. The modest store where my dad worked, and my mom shopped, would be considered minuscule by today’s standards. However, it was still able to serve all of our grocery needs. I don’t remember ever going hungry because the grocery store was too small and didn't have everything on mom’s list. Even the shopping carts were smaller then, and so were our waistlines.
There may have been another business or two in this building. Or it may have been separate buildings appearing as a single facade. Owing to the uniformity of the brick architecture, it could have all blended together. But since other businesses didn't concern me, my young mind ignored them. All I remember was the barbershop, the grocery store, and a barbecue joint.
When facing the A & P, the barbershop was on the left. On the right side was another brick building that housed a barbecue joint. That building, although red brick like the others, was a different design and looked like it was of a different vintage. It sat back from the front of the other buildings, and its door faced the corner on a diagonal, as if the corner had been cut off and the door was installed on that facet of the building. I know my dad ate there often (probably everyday for lunch), but I can only remember going in there one time. The experience left me with a love for barbecue that is based ninety percent nostalgia, and ten percent on actual flavor. The smell of hickory smoke still takes me back to my first olfactory encounter with it in that very store.
Walking in through the front door, I recall the inside being dimly lit, and there was a snooker table setup in the middle of the dining space. A couple of men were drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and pondering their next shot. I think there was counter seating. But the most memorable thing about the place was the aroma. The wonderful smell in that building was something akin to a spiritual experience. The building itself had become infused with the sweet smell of hickory smoke. Today, one whiff of a smoky pork sandwich and I remember the perfection in the sandwich I had that day. Thinking about it is making me hungry now. I blame that one time visit to that old barbecue shop for the fact I must own my own smoker today, so I can have barbecue on demand. I vow to fire it up at the next opportunity.
I must digress for a moment. Thinking back on the last paragraph makes me consider the barbecue joint may have actually been a beer joint. There are several queues in the description that I was too young to connect back then: the darkness and lack of windows, the counter bar, the snooker table… yes, this may have been a beer oriented establishment. A bar if you will; a bar with smoker! Back to the barbershop.
I remember the barbershop seemed like a huge, empty space inside. It was very plain, very stark, and mostly empty. However, if I were to travel back in time, I’ll bet it was not as big as I remember. I've found that to be true with a lot of places from my youth that I have gone back to visit. There were three or four barber chairs situated on the back wall. Those chairs faced the front of the building. This arrangement allowed the patrons who were getting their haircuts, and the barbers doing the cutting, to look out on the world through the front windows. Chairs for customers waiting to get their hair cut were lined up with their backs to the windows, facing the barber chairs. Having everyone face each other encouraged conversation. There were a couple of small tables with newspapers and magazines to help customers pass the time while they waited. The floor was finished with asphalt tile in a checkerboard pattern. The ceiling was high, and voices echoed with a natural reverb, adding to the feeling that this was a huge, vacant space, bounded by nothing but hard, unfriendly surfaces. Friendliness was provided by the barbers.
Like the barbecue joint, the barbershop had its own scent. It did not compare to the aroma in the barbecue shop, but it cast its own semi-mystical spell on the psyche of a small boy. The smell was a combination of bay rum, witch hazel, and 3-in-1 oil. These sweet, yet manly, smells did not assault the senses. They actually caressed them gently and projected a feeling of comfort and cleanliness. The parting gift from the barbershop was the strong sent of these concoctions emanating from one’s hair, face, and neck. The barbers were generous with it.
Of everything about this barbershop, the thing I remember most was a large painting. More likely, it was a lithograph print of a painting. Framed in rough wood, it hung on the wall to the right of the barber chairs. In the picture was a cowboy bathing in a large stock tank full of water. The lean, wiry cowhand was stripped down to his cowboy hat and a cigarette. With face and neck darkly bronzed, his shoulders were pasty white. Denim work clothes were draped over the side of the tank, and his horse was standing nearby the stock tank - or possibly taking a drink of water from it, I can’t clearly remember. I don’t recall many other details from the painting – maybe some prairie grass and sage brush – but I do remember the emotion the painting evoked on my very young heart and mind.
Cowboys and western lore were a large part of 1950’s American popular culture in television, movies, clothing, and toys. Our play often revolved around cowboys and Indians, gun-play with cap guns, and sometimes riding stick horses. Amid all this romantic imagery, the painting in the barber shop was, for me, a window to another time and place. It could almost transport me to where this unknown cowboy was taking his bath, probably somewhere in my own state of Texas. Maybe I could have struck up a conversation with the cow poke. We could have talked about steers, horses, spurs, and guns. And we may have had beans and biscuits around a campfire that night. I could almost smell the sage brush (had I actually known what sage brush smelled like) and feel the early evening breeze pick up across the range as the sun settled down for the night. That was some painting.
I never did like getting haircuts, and I still don’t. I cut my own hair at home, at least what’s left of it. What I could to do, however, is get a print of that painting and hang it up to the right of my bathroom sink. I could cut my hair and douse myself with witch hazel. I would practically be with my dad again, back in the old barbershop next to the A & P where he worked.
I’ve searched the internet for hours looking for a digital image of that nostalgic old lithograph. I’ve used and reused every combination of search terms I can think of and have come up empty handed. If anyone knows something about this picture, or is able to locate a copy, post the link here and I will use it to illustrate the story.
Thursday, May 2, 2013