I love my local coffee shop, where I sit and read as two guys on my right argue passionately in Russian, a little old lady sips tea on her own and glances sharply over the top of her newspaper at the two guys arguing, and an ochre-robed Buddhist monk serenley sips an espresso as he ponders Nirvana.
“Hi, my name’s Neil!” says the guy, loudly, as he turns the corner right in front of me and moves into my way.
I’m walking home from work, it’s just after 5 p.m. and starting to get dark, and I have to stop because Neil is now blocking my path as I walk west along Adelaide at Church Street. He’s an older guy, maybe 60 or so, with wild grey hair peeping out from beneath a black toque. His clothes are in disarray, a bit too big for his medium frame, but they look fairly clean. His nose is running. A lot. And he has some sort of speech impediment which makes him slur some words slightly.
“Can I ask you something?” he says.
“Yes, of course,” I reply. He has some kind of cotton bag over one shoulder, holding it there with one hand which is holding a wad of cash, right at eye level! He must have about $80 or $90 in his fist; a combination of fives, tens and twenties. He holds his other hand out toward me, as if to shake. I stare down at it for a second and, keeping mine firmly in my coat pockets, ask “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I want to shake your hand!”
I don’t want to shake his, so I ask “Is there something else you want?”, my hands still in my pockets. I kind of know where this is going.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he says as he pulls his bag open slightly, allowing me to see inside.
I find this a bit freaky and I won’t look in the bag. He’s standing right up to me, very close, too close for comfort, but I refuse to be cowed as I stay where I am and then say, a little too loudly, “Of course you’re not!”.
“I don’t have anything in my bag to hurt you with.”
I’m still not looking into his bag. “I understand. Now what can I help you with?”
Neil closes his bag and looks at the money in his other hand. “I have some money here, but I’m just a bit too short to buy myself a pair of gloves. I need some more money to buy gloves. Can you give me some money?”
“I’m sorry, I have no change on me. I have no cash at all on me, in fact,” which was true.
But I hadn’t even finished my apology when Neil’s eyes flicked away from mine and started surveying the other passers-by. I didn’t exist any more as he pulled a pair of thick, warm-looking gloves out of his coat pocket and wiped his nose on them. Then he just turned away without saying another word and walked off down the street, slowly.
I watched him go for a second or two, then breathed a sigh, rolled my eyes, and turned away to continue walking home along Adelaide.
Adam is sitting in the steel and leather barber’s chair, his back to the small table displaying the tools of his trade and the large mirror on the wall, as he talks to an older guy seated across from him. The mirror competes for wall space with a number of vintage Playboy pin-up posters, the edges of which are tattered and curled, as well as some old sepia photos of Corrado Accaputo, the former owner (since the 1960s) of this small barber shop on Bathurst Street in the west end of Toronto.
Corrado has retired now, just recently in fact, and in his place is the new owner, Adam, who quickly rises from the chair as I enter the shop and snaps open the black barber’s cape with an audible flourish as he waits for me to sit. With his curly, waxed mustache pointing out to either side like a pair of horns, and the cape now hanging over his arm, he looks like both bull and matador.
“What’s it gonna be?” he asks as I sit in the chair, the cape now covering me.
I tell him what I want and in no time at all the shears are out and he’s working away on my hair. We start to talk. He tells me about how—finally!—he’s taken over the business from Corrado, and what his plans are for the shop. He doesn’t want to make many changes, if any at all, really; he thinks the place is such a Toronto institution that he feels if he made any changes it would spoil the old-fashioned, authentic atmosphere that this small shop has had for so many decades now. He even thinks he’ll keep the sign on the window outside: Corrado’s Barber Shop. Men’s Hair Stylist.
I agree with him; I feel as though I’ve stepped into a time-warp and have been transported back to the ’60s. Either that, or I’m in some kind of living museum to the barber’s art from that bygone era. It’s a fascinating place, with its pin-up posters covering every part of the available wall space. So much so that I find myself temporarily forgetting all thoughts of PC regarding such a display of scantily-clad women–some of whom must be grandmothers by now!
Adam continues to cut my hair. He’s very chatty, very old-style in his white barber’s shirt and matching pants. He knows what he’s doing; he’s very adept with the scissors as he cuts and snips, expertly culling any wayward strands, all the while looking at me in the mirror as he talks about the business. And the older guy behind me (who, it turns out, is an old friend of Corrado’s going back 30 years or so) repeats some of the things Adam says, as if for emphasis. This guy has a deep, scratchy, smoker’s voice, which makes for a strange counterpoint as he parrots some of what Adam’s saying.
We talk about Corrado. How is he enjoying retirement? “Not very much,” Adam says, as he takes down one of the old photos of Corrado, taken outside of this very same barber shop in the ’50s, standing alongside Augustino Gentile, the original owner. “I don’t think he knows what to do with all this free time on his hands now.”
“You should get this blown up,” I say. “It should be framed and put on a wall somewhere, as a piece of Toronto history.”
“You should get it blown up,” says the older guy, whose name I never did get to know, and who is now starting to repeat some of the things I say.
Adam shrugs and says he’ll think about it. Corrado will be dropping by the place sometime soon to collect some of his personal belongings, which may or may not include all the old Playboy magazines that fill, absolutely fill, the shelves of the cupboards by the sink. There are hundreds of them, all tattered and well-thumbed.
“At least the pages aren’t sticking together, which is a good thing!” Adam says, and then laughs out loud.
Finally, he finishes cutting my hair and I get ready to pay. He’s done a good job, so I give him a decent tip and tell him I’ll be coming back again for my next hair cut. And I will, too. There’s something to be said for having a good old-fashioned barber shop in the neighbourhood, one which has seen thousands of clients sitting in the same old chairs, having their hair cut while shooting the breeze over this-and-that; whether it’s politics, religion, local news, gossip, or simply admiring the pin-up girls on the walls.
As I leave, I wish Adam and the old guy a happy new year. “See you next time!” Adam shouts out, as I close the door behind me.
And then, as if hearing an echo, there comes a deep and smokey: “See you next time…”
Last night, New Year’s Eve, sitting at the bar in our local pub with a friend and the bartender…
“Get a good grip. That’s it.”
“Yeah, now move it gently. Gently! That’s it, keep going. Pull it slowly.”
“I hope I’m doing this right.”
“Mm, you got it. Nice. I can see it coming. The trick is not to make a sound…”
“Oh, it’s frothing!”