Picture a naked eighty-five year old man, standing in the merciless glare of six large light bulbs lined along the top of a bathroom mirror that covers the entire wall behind the sink and the vanity top. My left hip leans against the edge of the vanity and I look askance into a hand mirror held in my left hand, at the image cast into it by the wall mirror, of the side and back of my head. I hold a tethered, electric hair-clipper in my right hand. The clipper’s cutting edge is protected by a little plastic bumper, like the cow catcher on the prow of a 19th century transcontinental steam engine. I have just successfully trimmed the hair on the back of of my neck and head. Now, by contorting my right arm and wrist, the cutting edge of the clipper enters terra incognito, a blind spot amenable only to an act of faith. Get on with it! Who gives a damn about the hair behind your ear. Done! I drop to my knees and with the flat of both hands, I sweep the tile floor, reaping the hair clipper’s pitiable harvest, a shallow handful of hair which I drop into the waste basket. I rise, turn and step into the shower.
I have just saved twenty-five dollars, which is what they charged in the barbershops I frequented four years ago in South Philadelphia. I give myself eight haircuts a year: that’s $200.00 saved, not bad. Multiplied by four years gives me $800.00, enough for a cruise to Bermuda. I paid $28.75 for the clippers and it costs pennies to operate. But this is not why I cut my own hair. Barbershops have become inhospitable places for someone of my age and disposition. Even the smallest barber shops may have two televisions. The one in the front of the shop is locked into Fox News. The bigger screen in the back of the shop offers non-stop sports games or incessant talk shows about sports. The clientele, which used to be knee-jerk Democratic, is now mad-dog Republican. So I do my Kabuki dance of the mirrors.
Mario Tarquinio arrived from Italy to work in Ralph’s barbershop when we were both seventeen years old. In Italy he had begun at thirteen, sweeping up and running errands. By fifteen he was cutting hair. At seventeen he was in Ralph’s shop, cutting my hair every five or six weeks until I was drafted at age twenty-two. He knew my head better than his own. By the time I got out of the military, Mario had his own shop and was married to a girl he brought back from Italy. He, his wife, his baby son and his mother lived in the apartment above the shop. Mario loved me, a college guy who accepted him on equal terms. In Italy. some of his customers cut him cold when they passed on the street. He bristled when he told that story and he told it frequently. We fed into each other’s half-baked anarchical leanings, nonsense that we discussed half in English, half Italian. We were utopians, not bomb-throwers. When other customers entered the shop, Mario would load his old record player with the same four or five scratchy long plays: collections of arias from Italian operas. Mario’s favorite was Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” which is about the Sicilian insurrection, in 1228, against their French oppressors. His favorite scene was when the Sicilian rioters break into the monastery and they drag out the friars who are ordered to pronounce the Italian word, “ciciri”. French language speakers find it difficult if not impossible to pronounce that word accurately. Anyone who failed the test was killed. Whenever I entered the shop I would greet him, defiantly: “ciciri”. “Avanti”, he would answer.
Mario was about five feet tall, stocky but not muscular. He had strong hands and fingers. His front teeth were short, thin-bladed and separated, like a small child’s. He spoke rapidly, almost incoherently when excited. When he made a telling point, in a story or in an argument, he would rise on his toes stretching to his full height, lifting his arms to chest level, like an orchestra conductor’s pianissimo. He would arch an eyebrow. Case closed! We were not close friends even though I had known him for thirty-five years. We saw each other only during my haircuts. On those occasions we played the same variations on a few themes: our families, politics, priests (up went an eyebrow.) I never met or saw his mother, saw only glimpses of his wife and I never met his son, an only child. We shared a second language, Italian, and we reveled in its allusions, a shorthand that set us apart, a small victory over the sameness of things. But nothing stays the same. South Philadelphia had changed, was changing.
“All you guys moving out!” he railed. I drove forty-two miles roundtrip for my haircuts and to visit my parents. I left my cleanly swept, tree-lined suburban outpost for two or three hours. The ride accentuated my awareness of the old neighborhood’s decline. The streets and sidewalks were littered, unthinkable in our youth, when our parents and siblings swept the sidewalk every day and scrubbed the front stoop as if it was made of white marble. Depending on the hour and the season, the steps were pleasantly warm or pleasantly cool. In the evening people would sit on those steps to chat. Rocky Di Carlo was a trolley car conductor whose route passed his mother-in-law’s house. My parents lived next door. When passing, if he saw his wife sitting with her mother, Rocky would stop the fully occupied trolley in mid-block, run out and kiss his wife. “Aren’t they a handsome pair?” Mrs Ianuzzi asked my mother. “Yes” answered my mother, who had sons only, “Yes, but Rocky is better looking.” Not the end of a friendship because they knew each other intimately. Mrs Ianuzzi weighed four hundred pounds and my mother, a dressmaker, made her tent-like dresses. But that generation was dying off. To make ends meet, many who remained rented out rooms or turned their second floors into small apartments, introducing more transients into the neighborhoods. More transients, more trash in the streets. The corner deli which used to advertise fresh ricotta on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, now advertises Vietnamese hoagies. Filipinos and Vietnamese began buying up the houses. These are Catholics who send their kids to the Catholic schools, and who attend the big, half empty, pseudo-Baroque church, In Springfield, a nearby white suburb, the Catholic church has a billboard sign in the parking lot: “on Saturday evening, there are ten priests on duty to hear confession.” The ironbound facts of demographics.
In the end Mario scarcely noticed the littered streets because he was hammered by tragedy. His son married “out”, an Americana from Virginia, not a tragedy but a blow. The bride was mystified by Mario’s elliptical discourse. She could not connect with a mother-in-law who still thought in Italian and a grandmother-in-law who spoke no English. The young couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia, another blow. Several years later, Mario’s mother slipped into Alzheimer’s. Then, cruelly, Mario’s wife was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Mario tried to cope by himself, at home with the occasional help of a nurse and health aides. It took its toll. The shop became slovenly, and so did Mario. He grew quick to anger. His clientele disappeared and his hours became erratic. I arrived for a haircut and found the shop closed. I returned a week later and found the shades drawn on the doors. I asked a woman sitting on her front steps next door what she knew about Mario. She said he had had a nervous breakdown and that they had taken all three of them away. “Where?” She didn’t know.
How quickly John Doe disappears from the human record! His house is sold (if he owns one.) Tax records are expunged on schedule. His children move to another state. He writes few or no letters during his life. His customers find another barber. The lady next door moves out or she dies. Mario has vanished.