JIM THIELMAN: What? They Closed The Barbershop?

The coronavirus has closed a lot of businesses, including barbershops, whose gravitational pull was once the envy of any trade. Shuttering these shops decades ago would have gagged communication in small towns and urban neighborhoods.

Any news worthwhile to the citizenry was heard in Dad’s barbershop, long before it arrived at the newspaper office.

The simple marketing genius of a barbershop was the huge picture window. You peered beyond your reflection into a knot of men that might include round-bellied bankers, thick-armed farmers and kids whose restless legs dangled above the floor.

With the door open during warm days, whiffs of rubbing alcohol, the fruit and sandalwood of Clubman talc and maybe a mix of leather and tobacco sneaked into the street.

Conversation spun around the walls, from sports to soffits, cars to crops, the souvenirs of youth and the galling setbacks of life.

Dad’s shop rested under the town’s iconic theater marquee that jutted to a point over the sidewalk. It shared a common wall with the movie theater, a wall that could have been built in Berlin.

Fire engines were heard from every corner of our river town that summer day. With no telephone in the shop, Dad dashed across the alley to the Wilkin Bar to call home. I was about 12, the Ridge was on fire and the Thielman family cash flow was in peril.

My friend, David Casper, and I rushed the four blocks downtown to see barbers and customers removing bolts from the floor to free the three heavy barber chairs. Firemen fought the blaze next door while we carried out supplies and razors.

I didn’t feel or see the dangling straight edge blade slash into my index finger until the blood poured out. I removed cabinets from the walls with my left forefinger wrapped in a half dozen Sanek Neck Strips that went between a neck and the barber’s cape.

People hauled out Dad’s desk and his display of classic golf clubs with wood shafts. Someone even took the bank calendar off a wall.

Dad at work.
Dad at work.

Had the fire broke through it would have carried the impact of the coronavirus for us. There’d be no shop, no business, and Dad couldn’t work from home. But the wall held.

He was back in business the next day. What better place to discuss the fire?

The phone in the Wilkin rang our home again a few summers later. Dad has just left after noon lunch. I picked up the landline and was greeted by a gruff voice.

“Thielman’s? Is this the barber?”

“Dad just left.”

“Tell him he better get down here. His barber is lying on the floor.”

You gotta miss the good old days, when diplomacy was anytime you didn’t get kneed in the groin.

The screen door slammed behind me and I caught up to Dad. We ran the rest of the way. A trim, avid golfer in his late 50s at that point, I’d never seen the guy run. A lifetime of Lucky Strikes didn’t hold him back.

Herman was on the floor next to his middle barber chair. A barber’s cape was still on his customer, as though the guy thought Herman would rise from a short nap and finish the haircut.

I’d seen dead men only on TV. Herman looked like them. Only more so.

Dad always had his shirtsleeves rolled up, so no need for that. He pulled white barber towels from the cabinet, knelt on the floor and put them under Herman’s head of black hair threaded with strands of gray and parted in the middle.

Dad didn’t panic, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was a World War II combat veteran who had wanted to be a mortician before the Great Depression got between him and mortuary school.

Dad sent someone to call the ambulance. It seemed odd that no one had, or better yet, had hauled Herman into the backseat of a car for a short ride to the hospital.

It sure took the ambulance a long time to arrive in that small town. When it left, Dad coached me, then sent me home to have Mom call Herman’s wife.

Poor Mom. She had to hear from the kid in her house who didn’t get the straight A’s. After listening to me, she was better equipped to discuss Australia’s bauxite industry than to deliver bad news.

With delicate charm, her words over the phone levitated at the right height, offering Herman’s wife neither promise nor doom. Mom learned that Herman took medication for high blood pressure, but once controlled he had stopped to save a few bucks.

The man with the barber cape tucked around his neck was Herman’s last customer. People downtown knew before his wife did that Herman had died of a stroke.

After all, it happened in the barbershop.

Leave a Reply