Friday, March 27, 2009

The Last Barbershop

Yesterday afternoon, although it's still today because I haven't gone to bed yet, I went for a haircut and found a proverb...

As I climbed into the chair at Frank's barbershop, I told him I had just been reading a Chronicle that didn't look like the Chronicle, and I saw a picture of all the sidewalk mailboxes that they've taken away, while sitting next to a sign for his retirement party. "It's a new era," he laughed.
He's been in Berkeley since 1962. I started getting my hair cut there in the early 80s.
It was several years after I moved here. In that time I'd become familiar with Moe's seeming omnipresence at his bookstore. Moe's face was the face of Berkeley. But he's been absent a dozen years now. So from my perspective, after twenty-five years, Frank is today the face of Berkeley.

Frank is not very tall, bald, white of hair, not stout but nearly so, and quite pleasant but not always easy-going. I have not patronized his shop exclusively all those years by any means. I used to feel a little bit of an ambiguous vibe there at first. I was also concerned that some of his haircuts made me look too square. But square in a way he was--"I'm not a stylist." And that's why you went--nobody can give a white man a better "fade". I think he perfected his trademark cuts while in the military.
When it comes to short hair there is, of course, a fine line between square and not square. What I would usually do was to doctor the haircuts up a little when I got home. What was crucial was the professional short sides and back. If the somewhat longer hair on top made me look a little like a game show host, that was easily remedied. I could make slightly oblique and angular chops in it with my own barber sheers. With it gelled-up, I looked like an Interview magazine stylist had had his way with me.
Yes, I have cut my own hair when I felt like it. I actually cut my ex-wife's hair a few times too. A hairstylist was too timid to give her the cut she wanted, very short with a long forelock, so I did. She got compliments-- especially from some Japanese friends who ran a little restaurant in nearby Albany called Sakura. They dug my advanced design. My career was brief, however--hair-cutting is a headache and eyestrain for a crude perfectionist like me.
Nowadays I attempt to tend things when I need a trim between haircuts. Of course Frank notices the trail of my mutilations but doesn't mention them. I told him this week that I knew I looked like an overgrown vacant lot. I am tempted to paraphrase the old saw about acting as your own lawyer, and say a man who acts as his own barber has a fool for a client. But then I was reminded when watching Henry Fonda in the film "Young Mr. Lincoln" that old Honest Abe used to cut his own hair too. It kind of restored the nobility of it in my sight. The actual Lincoln has quite artfully messed-up hair in many photographs.

When I started going to Frank, he had his deluxe old shop next door to the UC Theater, which was then central to the local social scene. It was a familiar lay-out with all the classic barber furniture and equipment. The surrealism of everyday life abounded in these places, as with the vats of antiseptic with combs in them. They were always rather evocative of the barbershops, soda fountains and drug stores of...the twilight zone. The past as seen in the distorting mirror of memory.
While he sometimes had partners in those days as I recall, he's worked solo for two decades since. I seem to recall there was an elderly barber with him at first, and an awkward but routine decision by most people to wait for Frank. The old guy would sit quietly and read.
I even remember the period he shared the place with a woman barber, for once breaking with tradition. It never seemed quite workable but, like many unwieldy marriages, it went on for quite a while. She was incongruous in the same way the wall of framed posters by David Lance Goines was. But that was able to hang much longer. After all, Goines' deco-moderne posters for local high culture are echt Berkeley. He had a studio shop nearby for ages and probably got his hair cut at Frank's as well.

I recall experiencing a Proustian moment the first time Frank applied hot shaving cream to my temples and neck to shave me for the real aviator fade. It was something I had experienced regularly as a youth in the pre-Beatle-haircut days. It feels terrific.
A lot of the stylistic appeal of Punk and its aftermath, one of retrospective and revival, had to do with the charm of things lost in the hippie end of the sixties. This would include primitive rock and roll, tattoos, flat-tops, hot-rods, make-up, vintage clothes, low-budget movies--the whole morbid psycho-billy 50s-early 60s shebang. Frank's place still had illustrated cardboard racks of pocket combs and copies of Playboy with the reading material---it was the real thing, not some phony LA retro-style marketing concept.

Then, in the transformation of that UC Theater block, I lost track of Frank. His old shop between the theater and the corner cafe was closed-down. Another regrettable step downstairs for the city scene. But only some of us will feel the loss of habitat and resources. And with extinctions come new species.
That said however, I was pleasantly gassed when I picked up an issue of the New Yorker and read a full-page color comic by Adrian Tomine telling the story of a somewhat stern barber who looked exactly like Frank. And, of course, it was Frank. This fact was confirmed for me when I discovered that Francesco Caramagno was still open for business on University avenue, a mere few blocks west of his old place. And there on the wall was the New Yorker page in a frame.
In the comic, Tomine's character comes back to face Frank's consternation after having gotten his last haircut elsewhere. Many of us know the look. The story shows his utter trust in Frank's opinion and skills. I should say that this view is nearly unanimous among a multitude of his customers.
Though Tomine eventually moved away to New York on a more permanent basis, he started off his career locally. I used to see him walking along College avenue and frequenting the same Elmwood post office I did. We both had mailboxes there, and so did another star of alternative comics in the 90s and beyond, Dan Clowes. I became acquainted with Dan but never met Adrian. I believe he noticed me too though, observing me from across the street even. We were each noting another bright-eyed Berkeley-dweller at large and on foot in the mid-afternoon. He is the comic artist of his generation who has impressed me the most. I enjoy the precision and humor with which he draws subtle moments of emotion and behavior.

During the nineties I grew my hair long again and tied it back, "like Punk never happened." But not really, any moreso than that Punk was "like the Beatles never happened," as one slogan went. Nevertheless, for money-saving years all I required was the exchange of an ends-trim with a gal pal of mine. I had long hair like it in the seventies and it was a nice return to having it again. Long hair is spiritual and sensual, a blast and a bother. It's also amusing to see how differently people treat you with it and without it.
However, in recent years, with more snow on the roof, I try to keep it quite short. I have come to depend entirely on Frank to get my hair cut. More often than not it is not only worthwhile, a good cut at a fair price, but more fun and more informative than ever. After 47 years beside a big window on University Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Berkeley, he knows quite a bit about the life of this city. The "How Berkeley Can You be ?" parade goes by once a year, but really it's here every day.
Frank is unusually wise and always insightful on society and politics. I speak freely when I'm there and, even if I'm sometimes slightly tendentious, more often than not I find general amusement and a majority in agreement with what I say.

This visit, I was the last customer in the shop and said, for example, that I wanted to change careers, to become a bee-keeping monk in Hawaii. "The monks in Hawaii wouldn't get the property near the beaches," Frank replied.
At another point the mayor of Oakland came up. We'd seen him on TV airing some ceremonial rhetoric after an ex-con killed four cops in a traffic stop followed by a shoot-out. "I watch a lot of Western movies and it's not exactly honorable, but for the bad guy to take out four is certainly memorable." I took his silence as assent.
The conversation turned to cooking. I tell him that even though I am largely vegetarian I regularly use Israeli chicken consomme cubes in my cooking. I confess that I don't tell my vegetarian friend it's involved and he thinks I'm a really great cook. "Now I don't like Israel all...and I would just as soon boycott their products..."
"...but they are too good to do without!" he finished my thought.

There's just no one else I know of hereabouts who can cut hair like Frank anymore. Even his fellow old-timers rarely have the quality control that he has shown consistently. And that is after the decades of standing-up to work have made his walk a little slow and ponderous. My dentist once treated Peter Townsend who had broken a crown while he was here on tour with the Who. I doubt if Frank would care if he had a famous customer unless it was like Jerry Vale. I'll bet he has though, even if he didn't always recognize them. University Avenue used to be hip--the Berkeley Square (Mission of Burma, Robin Hitchcock), Keystone Berkeley (Jerry Garcia, Hugh Mundel), Lookout records (Green Day, X) to name a few lost locales whose scenes I used to make. Of course, there are many more I missed in the days, for example, back when there were "psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street." In it's heyday the old UC Theater next door to his shop was a magnet for the alternative film audience.
Ah the 20th century, how naive and complacent we all were back then.

From his barber's chair today, I could see the building for Trader Joe's going up on the corner of MLK. There is mercy in Frank's timing in that he will no longer be there when that Gordian knot of traffic starts tightening. Maybe it will be good for the locksmith next door or the hot hot-tub place across the street. Hope springs eternal hereabouts. I noticed a nice new whole wheat artisan pretzel place a few doors over. And I recently caught an art show by Mark Mothersbaugh, artist/composer and beautiful mutant, at a tattoo gallery in this patch. Naturally Frank himself will be fine, at home with his family, attempting to replicate his aunt's recipe for white beans with tomato.
Until then, he still occasionally smokes a cigar even after a local ordinance said no, again like Moe. I'd find him puffing and sitting in his chair on a slow day and other times he'd take a hefty puff while cutting your hair. I have never minded the smoke and it's a tiny place that airs-out in no time with the door open. The music is always at a good volume and is always on a radio tuned to a classical station. A real Italian, he has a authentic zest for life, a sense of humor and an open laugh. He can voice advice or opinion on anything. Or not. That's the wisdom.
Hat's off to Frank.
(He's open until May 2009 if a reader is interested)

As always with human destiny in this material world, the only constant is impermanence. It means one less cool attribute to Berkeley, at least it does for me. Like all substantial changes to dependable things: you can't imagine it could happen; it happens; you go on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Au Printemps...

Poster for a poetry reading
Stephen Ronan and Nanos Valaoritis

Drawing by RAY with digital color-design added.