It wasn’t that I was trying to make a statement by not cutting my hair, but I hadn’t cut it since maybe June. Probably close to six months. I simply hadn’t cared to. Whiskey and self-loathing had pretty much taken up anytime that could have been allotted to a haircut. But I guess, even not trying to make a statement ends up making a statement in the end. And if you’re lucky, eventually the whiskey runs out.
The long bushy sideburns exploding from under my ball cap and the unruly hair covering the back of my neck must have made some type of a statement, because everyone at work kept asking when I was going to get a haircut. They weren’t coming right out and saying “you look like shit” but I could tell they were thinking it. I didn’t care, which I suppose was the statement being made in the end. And then the morning came. I woke up and realized that wearing a ball cap just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I was constantly tucking hair under my hat trying to get it off my ears. And I needed to move on. Move forward. I was going house hunting. But first I needed to clean up a bit.
I hadn’t been in a barber shop in probably fifteen years. An electric razor, a number two on the sides and a number three up top had been the extent of my monthly hair maintenance. Why? Well because I didn’t have to do anything to it. Less time combing your hair on an early Saturday morning means faster out the door and faster to the fish. It’s simple angling logic.
I walked into the Gentlemen’s Corner Barber Shop and found myself sitting in the seat at the far end. A friendly barber in a black apron with brown leather straps named Vic introduced himself in the way that the current and up and coming generations seem to have forgotten or have simply never been taught. A handshake and a smile, Vic moved a little slow and stiff, and told me how it seemed harder and harder to get up out of a chair these days. But once he was up it was all fine. A younger barber walked in and handed him a cupcake and said happy birthday Vic. He smiled. I liked Vic. He reminded me of my barber when I was a little kid.
Johnny Harp had a barber shop in West Utica. I can remember going there when everything looked huge to a little boy not even in kindergarten yet, when you looked up at everything and everyone else looked down to you. You know, those times when you thought everything seemed so much bigger, but looking back now you realize that you were just that small. It wasn’t so much Harp’s Barber Shop and the red, white, and blue barber pole outside that I look back so fondly on as the candy store next door and the black rope licorice I usually got after a haircut. Johnny often gave my Mother some change for me to get some candy.
Later on Johnny Harp moved his shop a couple blocks up onto Whitesboro St, only a block or so from my Grandparent’s house, and I was allowed to walk to the barber shop on my own as I got a little older. I laugh about that today, because the neighborhood has changed quite a bit. I’d never dream of letting my twelve-year old walk that street any time of day. Things change. Memories remain.
I’ve always credited my Grandfather for my love of fishing. But sitting in Vic’s chair as hair fell to the floor all around me I started to remember Johnny Harp, how he could carry on a conversation with anyone, even a little four year old boy, and how I never heard a single bad thing about him. But more importantly, I remembered a specific day.
He pulled up in an old gas guzzling 1970’s something car and lifted a brown metal tackle box and a cane fishing pole out of the trunk. I don’t remember what he said, I was preoccupied with doing something in the dirt. Probably playing with some toy, a matchbox car or a Star Wars figure I can only imagine. The car was big and brown, maybe green. I can see him getting out and walking to the trunk and my father sticking his shovel into the ground and walking over to the car. They talked, I played. When Johnny left my Father brought the tackle box and fishing pole over and set them on the ground. I remember him saying that Johnny said he couldn’t fish anymore and that he’d given them to us.
Later at the dinner table I can still hear my parents talking about Johnny being sick, and probably the first time I ever heard the word cancer and it sticking in my head. It didn’t mean anything to me. It’s quite possible that back in the early 80’s cancer wasn’t such a common word, but then again I suppose it’s also quite possible that it’s just like looking back and thinking everything looked bigger back then. When you’re a little kid that hasn’t learned anything about life yet, looking back things were just very different. Like the word cancer then compared to when I hear it today. Today you hear it all the time.
Sitting in Vic’s barber chair brought me back to a time when men were polite and shook hands sealing a deal. They looked you in the eye and told you what they thought. They had pride in what they did and even if they didn’t, they knew someone had to do it. They trusted another man to put a straight razor to their face and never thought twice about it.
And when they learned their time was coming, they gathered up their fishing tackle and they gave it to a friend knowing that they had sons, and that fathers are meant to take their sons fishing. As I got older, my brothers and I emptied that tackle box little by little until there was nothing left. The old cane spinning rod stood in a shed corner unused collecting dust. I don’t even think I ever realized where it had come from. Somehow Johnny’s memory had all but escaped my mind by the time I had hit my high school years. The irony in that is by the time I’d just barely scraped my way through the twelfth grade, my hair reached past my shoulders. Johnny Harp had been gone for a good many years. He wasn’t cutting my hair, but he was right there every time I rummaged through that metal box for worm hooks or an old lure.
I just realized that I still have that old cane fishing rod. And one old red and white wooden fishing lure that looks like it was meant to slightly imitate a swimming mouse silhouette. And I actually have the tackle box. Today it’s packed with excess fly tying materials. I don’t think that any of this is supposed to be some kind of sign or wakeup call to something, nothing like that. But it’s good to look back fondly on someone you’d all but forgotten about with sudden vividness.
The world needs more good barbers. And I don’t mean the kind that can turn a mop into a masterpiece. I mean the kind that will look you in the eye when they shake your hand, talk to you like an old friend when you’re in their chair, and give a little kid their tackle box when they find it’s their time to move on from this world. There’s one drink left in the whiskey bottle upstairs. Tonight I’ll have that last glass to Johnny. Just another person who helped make me who I am today. Thanks for the tackle Johnny.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies here on this website, JPRossflyrods.com.