Yesterday, slavery; today haircuts. It’s a blog of surprises.
In Toronto, when I was growing up, every barber I ever went to was named Tony. (And every popcorn man was named Georgie.) This wasn’t some prejudice thing, like on the Pullman “sleeper” trains, where passengers were in the habit of calling all the porters George, even though that wasn’t their name.
The barbers told us their name was Tony. All of them.
When I was thirteen, the closest barbershop to my house was located in an outdoor shopping center called Lawrence Plaza. Eight barber chairs spanned the length of the facility, the chairs manned by eight different Tonys. The Tonys, however, were not equal. The Tony closest to the door was an older Tony. Gray hair. Gray mustache. This Tony appeared to be the head Tony. He acted like it, telling the other Tonys what to do.
“Sweep up-a da hair!” “Not so much-a-da powder!” “Hey! Watch-a dat guy’s ear!”
As you moved down the line of Tonys, you could detect an unmistakable pecking order. Proceeding towards the back, the Tonys got increasingly younger, which inevitably meant less experienced, till you got to the last, and youngest, Tony – Tony Number Eight – who, I imagine, was a Training Tony. He may not have been a barber at all. It’s possible he was there to give one of the other Tonys a ride home.
I was a kid. Never worthy of the attention of the First Tony. Or Tony Number 2, Number 3, Number 4, Number 5, Number 6 or Number 7. Like a condemned prisoner headed for “the Chair”, I’d proceed fatalistically down the line. It was always the same. No words from the increasingly less skillful Tonys. Simply a head gesture. The head gesture saying, “Keep going.”
And so I continued, down the line, from Tony to Tony. Till I finally reached Tony Number Eight. As I reluctantly climbed into the chair, I detected muffled chuckles from the more senior Tonys who had passed me along.
“Wait’ll you see what you get-a from him!”
They were usually right. Tony Number Eight was unquestionably the eighth best Tony in the place.
I was thirteen. It wasn’t going well. Socially, I was losing ground, and I wasn’t holding much ground to begin with. I needed to make a statement to my maturing schoolmates, an attention-grabbing gesture, to remind them I was there. (I write cryptically about this period, because it still brings me discomfort.)
At the time, there was this detective show on TV called Peter Gunn. Stupid name, now that I’m noticing, but a breakthrough in its genre. Clever. Sophisticated. A driving theme song by Henry Mancini. It was the first ’45 I ever bought.
The star of Peter Gunn was an actor named Craig Stevens. Stevens’ "Peter Gunn" represented an updated kind of hero, an icon of “cool” and unruffled confidence, from his wardrobe to his haircut.
I couldn’t pull off the “cool” or the unruffled confidence. And I could never afford the wardrobe, which would have looked silly on my anyway, I was thirteen. But there was one thing I could get, and I was determined to get it.
I march into the Lawrence Plaza barbershop, a picture of "Peter Gunn" cut from a recent TV Guide clutched tightly in my hand. Today, I would demand an experienced Tony. This was important to me. This was my head.
And that head would be accompanying me to school the following day.
The First Tony tries to give me the brush-off, but I stubbornly persist. With a dramatic sigh, he snatches the Peter Gunn picture from my hand, “honoring” it with an impatient glance. Then, something happens. He continues studying the picture. And then, he speaks, calling to the other Tonys:
“Hey, look! It’s-a Perry Como!”
Seven Tonys scurry to the front. They examine the picture, all agreeing that Perry Como had never looked so good.
“It’s not Perry Como,” I correct them. “It’s Craig Stevens. He plays Peter Gunn on a detective show.”
“No,” insists the First Tony, the other Tonys rapidly concurring, “It’s-a Perry Como.”
Okay, I need to explain a few things. First, Craig Stevens looks nothing like Perry Como, a famous Italian-American singer who had a long-running variety show on TV. The two, however, did have one thing in common. They had the same haircut. Which, apparently, was the only thing the eight Tonys were paying attention to.
Both Perry Como and Craig Stevens as "Peter Gunn" wore what I think they called crew cuts – short hair, combed straight across. This was hardly the prevailing fashion in men’s hairstyling at the time. Teenaged trendsetters’ hair was generally worn longish and greased up, and featuring a mountainous “flip” in the front. It went straight up and then flipped back.
Some people called it a pompadour; others, a “waterfall.” Elvis had one. Ditto Ricky Nelson. The Everly Brothers had one each. Like others my age, I struggled tirelessly to emulate that look, but there’s a natural curliness to my hair, and no matter how hard I worked, and how much Vitalis I applied, my “flip” had an infuriating dent in it. Instead of going straight up, it collapsed in the middle.
I had two problems. I wanted to be rid of my defective dent. And I wanted to look cool in school. The "Peter Gunn" would take care of them both.
Only at the barbershop, it wasn’t a "Peter Gunn". It was a “Perry Como.”
A memorable moment was about to take place. For the first time ever, I was invited onto the barber chair of the First Tony.
The seven other Tonys abandoned the haircuts they’d been working on to concentrate on mine. Not mine specifically, but the way the First Tony cut mine. There was dead silence in the barbershop. It was an historic moment. Someday, a hundred Tonys would insist they were there.
The First Tony snipped. He stood back. He snipped some more. His only words, the instruction: “Don’t-a move.” You could sense his confidence, a master rising to the occasion. The First Tony was an artist. His medium was hair.
Sitting quietly in the chair, my mind filled with a frenzying panic. Was I making a huge mistake? Was I deliberately turning myself grotesque? Would my impulsive gesture catapult me from anonymity to laughingstock? These thoughts came far too late. Clumps of my hair were dropping to the floor.
And then he was done.
With a finishing flourish, the First Tony whirled the chair around, and with the help of a hand-held mirror, allowed me to examine his handiwork.
It was the perfect “Perry Como.”
The next day, I was a sensation at school. Kids – even girls – gathered to check out my new “do.” Some asked if they could touch it. I magnanimously said, “Sure.”
I’d been brave. I had taken a chance. And it had paid off beautifully. The attention didn’t last, of course. But there’s this great line in the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show:
“When an elephant flies, you don’t complain ‘cause it didn’t stay up that long.”
A few weeks later, I swaggered into the barbershop, my “Perry Como” in need of a trim.
I was ushered down to Tony Number Eight.