Monday, June 15, 2015

Dad, Crew Cuts & Herman the German

Even though Father's Day is coming up, and I miss my Dad, I'd still like to give him a swift kick in the ass for each crew cut he made me get.

To celebrate Dad and horrible crew cuts here is a link to a story involving flat tops that appears in my old Yorkville memoir, "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of scrappy New York boyhood." 

Thank you, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood for previously publishing a version of this story as, "A Barber’s Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm."

If you like my work check out my memoir, "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood." Available at Logos Book Store or online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The book has 105 Amazon five star reviews out of 105 total reviews posted. We're pitching a perfect game. My old world echoes TV's "The Wonder Years" ~ just add taverns, subways and Checker cabs. You can also purchase my photography portfolio, "River to River - New York Scenes From a Bicycle" on Amazon.


Herman the German
an excerpt from  "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood." 

At five after three, Michael, Steven and Gerard turned the corner, marching up the avenue in formation, hammering their cardboard schoolbags in time against the concrete sidewalk. Reaching 85th Street, they saw Herman the German leaning his body out of the barbershop doorframe, an eager look on his face as he awaited his prey.

The Murphy kinder, 12, 10 and 8, were getting haircuts. They faced their sentence defiantly, dropping their asses hard into the three barber chairs.

Every eight weeks, Mr. Murphy stopped at the barbershop on the way home from his Transit Authority job in Coney Island. He prepaid three haircuts - 75 cents apiece with a quarter tip -- and gave orders. “Herman, each boy’s head should resemble the village green – short, trim, tight.”

Mr. Murphy had two inflexible haircut rules: First, no hair should make contact with the boy’s shirt. Second, the boy’s hair must be too short to pull.

Rule Two had once led the middle son, Steven, to grief. During geography class in fourth grade at St. Joseph’s, which the Murphy boys attended, he was entertaining two girls in the back row. Sister Maria caught the usually sharp boy off-guard. She crept down the aisle till her shadow covered his head. With the girls entranced and under his power, Steven – Paul McCartney cute – had no warning when the nun went to her classic move, the hair pull with a neat neck snap. She had mastered this maneuver early in her career on countless knuckleheads.

Sister Maria pounced, but when she tried to pull Steven’s hair she came up with nothing. Too short. She tried again. Only air. She had a better chance of running away with Father Heidi for the weekend – her deepest secret desire, according to a recurring rumor in the school’s hallways.

Furious, the nun slugged Steven in the forehead with her two-pounder “Daughter of Christ” ring. His head swung back, hitting the blackboard with a beautiful thud. Punching boys into submission was a respected tradition both at St. Joseph’s, and at my school, St. Stephen’s. They called it cleaning a kid’s clock. Sister Maria, recovering from her dark moment, realized there might be an injury.

“How are you?”

“Huh?”

“How many fingers do you see?”

“Wha?”

Later, Steven collected compliments on the tattoo left by the nun’s ring. For two days, if you wiped the sweat and dirt from his forehead, you could see the imprint of the ring’s inscription.

The first time Mr. Murphy arranged the triple haircut, he came home and the boys were sitting at the dinner table. From the apartment’s front door, he immediately saw something amiss.

“Do I see unacceptable hair lengths? Are you mocking me? There will be no mocking! Anita, hold dinner.”

Frugal Mr. Murphy dropped his shopping bag full of on-sale irregular tube socks and ordered the boys back to Herman’s. They arrived just as he was locking his door.

“Herman, these aren’t the haircuts I asked for. I demand you fix them right now, or I want my money back, including the tip!”

Herman looked the boys up and down.

“Ach du lieber, Mr. Murphy, these boys look wunderbar!”

“Your ass’ll look wunderbar if you don’t open the door and cut their hair.”

Deflated, Herman flipped the lock, hit the light and reached for his barber’s smock. It hung from the hook under the Kaiser Wilhelm portrait.

After the deed was done, Mr. Murphy nodded his approval, the boys pouted, and Herman dreamed of the day when all haircuts would be done once.

Every September, Herman closed his store for the annual Steuben Day parade, which honors Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero who came to the aid of George Washington. The march ends in the center of Yorkville’s German town. An early riser, Herman would put on his lederhosen, yodeling socks, short Von Trapp-style jacket, and an Alpine hat with a single feather. He’d run up 86th Street to secure a good position in front of the RKO movie house. There he’d stand on a milk box with a blue cornflower, a symbol of Germany, pinned to his lapel, and madly wave two German flags until the street sweepers followed the last band with their brooms.

Herman knew the words to every song. For weeks after the parade, if you were getting a haircut, Herman would sing softly in your ear:

I love to go a wandering, Along the mountain track.

And as I go, I love to sing, My knapsack on my back.

Valderi, Valdera, Valderi, Valdera, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha

Herman’s narrow shop was crammed between a bar and a beauty salon. He had no room near the entrance to plant a barber pole, so he hung a photo of a barber pole in his window. It looked stupid, but it helped block the view in or out.

This was important to me, because if the neighborhood’s jerky kids saw you in the death chair, they’d storm the place and spread out to watch you get scalped - all angles covered to enhance the commentary. After a haircut, you always looked weird. The hyenas followed you home taunting all the way. Kids wore baseball caps year round to cover the damage. The barber pole photo, which offered at least some cover, was my friend.

Herman wore a monocle and had a shiny bald top with a buzz cut on the sides. It was comforting to think, as I sat in the barber chair, that at least he also had a crappy haircut. As Herman snipped away, his cigarette would dangle from his mouth, often coming dangerously close to my ear when he leaned in to work on my sides. I could feel the heat of the ash.

Herman wasn’t actually visible during most of the haircut. A swirl of smoke enveloped my head. You only knew he was there by his smell, a cocktail of tobacco and talc. Sometimes, the first thing coming out of the cloud was his monocle and his eye behind it, magnified like a horror movie.

Despite the dread of getting a haircut, it was fun sitting in the chair. I was truck-driver high and surveyed the store. If Herman turned the chair to the left, I might see a man thumbing through a Playboy in the “off limits to kids” waiting area. Even from that distance, the photos were delivered tout de suite to the room in my brain where my art collection hung on the walls. This was my favorite stop on my way to dreamland.

But one thing bugged me a lot on Herman’s counter: the Butch-Stick display.

Butch-Stick was a waxy hair product that made your crew cut stand up in front like a lawn. First of all, I hated getting a crew cut. Girls wouldn’t look at you. That there was this unique product to make a crew cut look better made no sense to me since I thought all crew cuts were bad ideas.

Adding insult, the product display included a picture of Yankee star Roger Maris with a bubble over his head saying, “I Use Butch-Stick!” Well, Roger, that’s great, just what I needed. Every two months, I gave my father 50 reasons why it was not a good idea for me to get a crew cut. Dad’s response:

“If a crew cut is good enough for Roger Maris, well then it’s certainly good enough for my son.”

With all due respect – up yours, Maris.

But there was one reason I was glad to get a crew cut, and it had to do with the combs in the blue water in the glass jars. Under no circumstance did I want my Teutonic trimmer pulling one of those long combs out of the blue-water jars and putting it on my head. And if I had a crew cut, there was no reason to.

Why did I hate the blue-water combs? The answer requires a journey into the minds of Yorkville’s kids.

We kids knew lots of things about Herman. We knew that he kept a liverwurst sandwich and an apple in a brown bag under a copy of the Staats-Zeitung newspaper in a drawer. We knew he had Grundig short wave radio. And we knew that Herman was fit. He practiced the gymnastic rings at the Turn Verein, a German-American social center, three times a week, and he limited his meat shopping at Schaller & Weber.

But for us kids, there was one big mystery about Herman. As far as we knew, he never left his shop to go the bathroom, from the time he opened in the morning till the time he closed at night. We knew that Herman’s shop had no plumbing besides the lone sink in front of the barber chairs where he washed his hands. That is, no bathroom. True, in the building next store, there was a bathroom in the back of the first floor hallway, but we never saw him use it.

So how did Herman get through his day?

My friends and I suspected the secret was hidden in the blue water. We believed that, if you looked in the barbershop window on Monday, the second and third comb jars were dry, but as the week progressed those jars would get fuller and fuller. If these were filling with pee, though, how did it turn blue? Our theory: On Mondays, Herman would place a Ty-D-Bol tablet in the comb jar that sat on the counter next to the first barber chair, his chair of first resort. That was his go-to jar, and as it got filled he would pour the contents into jars two and three.

When Herman’s leak became unstoppable, we theorized, he would stand at the window by the first barber chair and pull the shoulder-high curtains shut. His eyes would dart from side to side while he centered himself strategically behind the barber pole photo. Once hidden, he would take down the jar, take out his bird, and find blessed relief.

I can’t say we kids found definitive proof of our theory. But late one Saturday I was playing catch in front of the store. Herman’s head was resting on the curtain rod to the side of the barber pole photo. Through his monocle, I noticed his eye spinning around aimlessly. He looked like he was moaning. Then he had a weak smile on his face. I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. Seeing this brought back the only reason I was glad for my crew cut -- no blue water.

“Heads up!” Steve yelled.

I turned and chased the ball down the sidewalk, leaving Herman to his private moment.

(Previously published as “A Barber’s Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm” in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood)

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