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The art of coaching included a small dosage of militaristic drive, humor, empathy and expertise. Having spent most of his younger days under the discipline imposed by basketball coaches, Frank knew how teams took shape, but he had no experience working as a barber. Nonetheless, he noticed right away that while every one in the barber shop drew a coterie of clients, the need for teamwork and homogeneity eluded them. The mirrors that graced each station were different sizes. Jars of combs sat in glass mugs on each counter top, looking like a hurried allocation of weaponry scattered by war. Each station chair varied in weight, style and size, because Sidney required each new barber to bring their own chair, or buy in, as he called it. While it saved on initial costs, in the long run, the slapdash appearance undermined the operation, Frank thought, as if none of the guys had planned to stay very long, even though they had.

As with any other team, there was a need to cultivate specialists and individual stars, as well as workaday, pedestrian skills with the clippers. It was Frank’s innovation to separate out facial care from the rest of hair work, since Jimmy Prescott had an ease with a blade that few others could match.

Most of the floor traffic consisted of black men, coming in for a simple line up, trimming around the edges and a few inches cut off the top, then having only enough time to see Prescott once a month. Once their rough hewn beards had been tamed, sometimes twice monthly, the men who had observed his artistry would in time find their way to a razor shave, even the guys with longer beards.

The oils and foams available at Woolworth’s were no good on split curled ends sprouting from ebony chins. Dimpled or cleft, rounded or angular, Prescott could figure a way to clean the hair without leaving a razor’s rash. He first applied a powder-based, non-foaming cream Sidney mixed up. It had been informally tested on himself and co-workers over time. Then Prescott would gallantly pull a leather strap taut, sharpen his razor and start to work, humming an off-beat tune.

Besides Prescott, there was Brian James, a conk and chemical expert who worked like a Harlem stylist from the 1920s. James could make even the wooliest hair lay sweet if he wanted. His clientele tended to run toward the glamorous edges of the streets: musicians, motel operators and dealers of all kinds.

A permanent bachelor who had worked on road shows for Chess records, James also knew hair pieces, or rugs, as most men preferred to call them. Special clients with public profiles–the preachers, performers, politicians and morticians– came to James for a patchwork solution to thinning and balding, the bane of masculine vanity.

More routine stylings fell to Jack Harrington, Larry Meeks and Roosevelt Dawkins, who were there every day, whether the appointment book was full or not. These men cut heads of any shape or size, including the peanut, the bucket head or the diamond wedged dome. They worked cleanly and quickly, rarely exceeding 25 minutes a cut, even with drop-ins.

Frank saw them as the core of the lineup, predictable even when hung over from a Friday night out, though lacking in any fashion sense. Frank made it his business to learn from them, admiring their approach to work because it matched his own.

His initial practice with the clippers began on a girl’s doll, left over from Janet’s toys. Sidney had asked Meeks to show him the settings on hand-held electric clippers. Frank did fine on the lowest setting until he reached the doll’s ear and managed a vertical slash that produced peels of plastic onto the floor. Howls erupted from Harrington, while Dawkins deftly mimed a look of horror to match gushes of blood.

“College boy just sent a client to the emergency room,” Harrington announced, to no one in particular. Cocking his ear to pick up a piercing siren, Dawkins sprung into action with a first aid kit of gauze and medical tape, covering the doll’s ear with a flourish.

“We gonna need a new client,” Harrington bellowed to those seated in waiting chairs. “College boy just broke this one,” he added, hoisting the doll aloft like a trophy. Those seated quickly scrambled to the door like cattle avoiding the slaughterhouse gates. A few minutes later they re-entered, chuckling and smirking at Frank. “No sir, you go,” said one. “No, you were here first, and be my guest,” added another.

One of the regular customers who worked nights as a vehicle cleaner for the police department put on a “Chicago PD” cap outside, then blared through the door.

“I believe somebody reported a deadly attack on a white doll.” As his foot kicked the door, he scanned his eyes around the room until they landed on the supposed victim.

Frank quickly tossed the clippers down and walked out the back door to the roar of deep laughter.

After six successful attempts on plastic dolls, they moved Frank along to wigs on styrofoam heads, then on to children unaware of their guinea pig roles. He figured out that the kiddie cuts would be his zenith if he got anywhere as a barber. He had much respect for the crew that trained him up. Once he passed the test and got his license squared away during the two years working in the shop, he set his sights further.

What mattered most to the business was cultivating clientele for generations, he believed, so he added the touch of giving each junior a lollypop and a powder dust along the nape of the neck. During their sitting, he would let the kiddie client choose a station off the radio. His little touches with the kids brought parents in to stay.

After seeing the clientele and sampling the product line Sidney produced, Frank figured the business could use a facelift, but did not feel comfortable enough to tell Sidney so.

That discomfort led him to chatting more frequently with Janet. He could see she had her father’s heart and that Sidney listened to her now and then. In the back corner of his mind, he felt he should prove himself worthy in her eyes before making any moves.

His eyes followed her quiet movements around the shop. She had a habit of making the rounds from station to station, tightening seat covers of empty chairs, picking up stray gum wrappers off the floor and carefully wiping stains off of surfaces with a cloth that hung from her back pocket. He saw her checking her own appearance in the mirror during her tour, popping her collar up and laying it down again. At 15, she wore a soft Afro, lightly touched by a hot comb once a week, he’d supposed, with a wide ribbon-coated head band holding the wayward strands into place.

While he would glance at her only when he had direct information to share or something to hand over to her, she seemed to make a point of talking to everybody, all the time. He found this chattiness overly forward until he realized that in less than a year of his working there, she knew his order for food from nearly every shop around. Frank reveled at this attention to him, even though she shared it equally among all the barbers in the shop.

“How about a pastrami on rye today?” Janet asked him one Saturday.

“That’s just what I had a taste for,” Frank smiled.

“I knew it,” Janet looked up at him with a broad smile. “You never get a cheeseburger two Saturdays in a row.”

“You think you can read me like one of those silly romance novels you keep your nose stuck in?” Frank said, drawing the smirk off her face. “So what am I thinking of having after work?”

“I really have no clue,” she said quietly, while making a mental note that he knew that she liked reading.

“I am taking you for ice cream,” Frank said, putting a hand on her shoulder.”I see how hard you work around here. Your dad asked me to lock up, so I’ll drive you home.”

They were roughly ten minutes on the road when Janet realized he did not plan on stopping at the small German deli around the corner from Sidney’s barbershop for a soft serve cone. Instead, he headed out further south. She quickly demanded, “Where are we going?”
“Oh, I feel like checking the scene at Evergreen Plaza. Have you ever been to Demler’s?” Frank asked, waiting for her giddy response: “I have; I loved it there.”

In fact, she had been only once before, when her great aunt visited from New Orleans. It was an impressive indoor mall with a JC Penney’s, Sears, Carson Pirie Scott’s and Montgomery Wards, plus a range of smaller shoe stores and novelty shops easily found downtown along State Street, but a rarity on the South Side. The mall was arrayed on two levels, linked by staircases and escalators, which allowed for a full hour’s promenade, without ever buying a thing.

They had come during a crowded Saturday afternoon, wearing Sunday clothes. Aunt Viola and her mother ordered club sandwiches on toast and an extra plate for her. When it came time to order dessert, they shared a banana split, laughing and talking all the while. Her mother had ordered her a scoop of chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce. She never got to order for herself.

This time, with Frank waiting casually for the waiter to drop off two copies of the menu, she took her time gazing around the shop and decided it would become her kind of restaurant. It had solid booths, with large mirrors brimming around the room do that you felt inclined to whisper since it seemed all eyes may fall on you. The tables and chairs all matched the booths.

Although they specialized in the kind of desserts that were easiest to take in after a movie showing, they also carried sandwiches, omelets, soups and salads. It was typically busy when they arrived and it sparkled with a mixed of well-groomed people. Even though it wasn’t mainly black, like the Tropical Hut, a restaurant she had gone once on a special occasion, it still had that same feeling of a party waiting to happen.

She asked him about what he was doing in college, thinking this would make him more interested in her. He shrugged her off, saying only, “It’s a lot of work, but you not afraid of going, are you? I bet you already plan to go to college.”

Janet rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding? Of course I am going to college. The only problem is my parents. They say I can’t go away to school and I want to get out of Chicago. They say if it’s not in Chicago, they won’t help me pay for it.”

“Where would you go?” Frank grew interested.

“I don’t know. Maybe Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C. My girlfriend says Howard University has some of the smartest black folks in the world.”

“We got that right here,” Frank countered.

She changed the topic. “What are you going to order?” She had read in a magazine that it was best to order after the man, so as to judge his budget.

Frank said he planned to order a chocolate milkshake. ” and what about you?” Janet pretended to study the menu, before saying, “I like a strawberry shake.”
Frank quickly signaled the waiter to place their order.

Returning her eyes to him, Janet asked “What’s your major?” She had heard from her counselor that by college people had a major subject and sometimes a minor one, but she did not know what all the subjects were.

“I’m into economics, finances–you know, the science of making wealth.” Janet nodded her head as though she did know, and asked “What made you think of that?”

Just then, their shakes came in tall, beveled glasses, rimmed with whipped cream, a cherry resting like a button on a white cloud. They paused to sip their drinks.

Both of them looked up and smiled. For a moment, Frank forgot what he had planned to talk to her about. His ideas about improving the barbershop and marketing slipped off his brow as he saw Janet’s milk mustache encircling her full lips. He picked up his napkin and gently wiped her mouth. “Use your straw,” he said, laughing. “It might go better for you.”

She chuckled, “There is more than one way to drink a milkshake.”

He laughed again. “For most folks, that usually means a straw.” He went on to say that part of what he had learned in his college marketing class was that good businesses added on items to anticipate the clients’ expectations.

“Like when someone walks into the shop for a hair cut, they expect a towel around the neck if they are getting hair washed, or an apron over their street clothes when they come for a cut. Those are like the straw that goes with a milkshake.”

Janet suddenly looked at him curiously. “You mean part of what makes a client happy to come to the shop is knowing already what to expect and having that proven each time?”

“Yes. That’s right. It’s one of the keys to business.”

“Isn’t it kind of like convincing someone in advance that the thing you have is also what they want? I did that with my mom’s pies but she said I should mind my own business,” Janet said. For the first time, she found herself talking freely about why she had ended up working with her father after getting push out by her mother.

“Which work do you like more?” Frank asked, eyebrows raised.
“Well, the barber shop, of course,” Janet said. “Men are much easier to please than women.”
“You sure are right about that.”

Neither one of them looked back on that outing as him asking her out on a date, but that was about what it was. He was almost 21, while if anyone asked, she’d have said she was sixteen, even though her birthday was a few months off. He drove her as a back seat passenger, dropping her home by 7:30. When she asked why she couldn’t just sit up front, he said, “My daddy didn’t raise no fool.” After all, she was the boss’ daughter.

 

©Carla Williams-Namboodiri

Carla Williams-Namboodiri, BAWP Summer Institute 2010, works for Oakland schools as a humanities educator. As part of the BAWP manuscript group, she has produced fiction set in her hometown, Chicago. This short story follows characters from “Dreamers” and “Baking from Scratch,” which also appeared in Digital Paper.

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