The Barber

This is a guest blog post by Robert Hafetz. It was originally published by NJ CARE in 2008. You can contact Robert at or visit his website

My first home was The Door of Hope, a Salvation Army Booth Home in Jersey City New Jersey. My second home, the one that came with a family, was on 30 South Dean Avenue in West Trenton. Three blocks from Junior Three, South Dean was a quiet street with tall mature trees that were old, even in 1951. Tree trunks stood like great pillars on both sides of the street, their branches forming a soft canopy beneath the sky. Families of grey squirrels were everywhere leaping from tree to tree.  In front of my house a large root lifted the sidewalk three inches above the ground.  Across the street a concrete hitching post still stood but I never did see a horse tied to it. It was from a time long gone and stood as a silent monument to the way things used to be. There was no John Fitch Way. In its place a canal flowed quietly by, a buffer between the Delaware River and the neighborhood. Families of ducks from the log basin, commonly known as the loggy, would often cross in front of my house, defiantly strutting down the street stopping cars and bicycles. There was a strange man who never talked to anyone, always there hard at work, simonizing someone’s car. The Kelnor sisters lived together across the street.  I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have children or a family. Family was everything to me. I was born in a place where mothers give their children away. Then others acquire them to raise as their own. It never made sense to me and even today I still don’t comprehend the arrangement we call adoption. It’s a word that inspires distant feelings of incompleteness, and isolation in me. As a child I never knew where I actually belonged.

One of the first rituals of my life was the dreaded hair cut. I would go in looking one way and emerge looking vastly different. I also had to sit still for twenty minutes and that was damn near impossible for a ten year old boy.  In spite of the instinctive dread, I found myself looking forward to my mother’s mandated barber shop visits. I would walk down West State in the direction of Sanhican drive. The street seemed to fork just past the Acme on my right. I passed the Sanhican Deli, and Roberts Hobby Shop. Next to that was the beauty parlor with women and their blue hair. It was beyond my comprehension.  Next to the barber shop there was a store owned by Eddie the shoemaker. I always saw Eddie before I went in for my haircut. He always seemed to be out in front talking to someone.  Eddie had arms like a prize fighter, a loud deep voice and a big smile that never left his face. I was afraid to talk to Eddie but his presence always made me feel safe.  With a keen eye on Eddie I would open the noisy door to John and Steve’s Barber Shop. Stepping through that door brought me upon a whole new world. There was hair on the floor, loud talk, laughing, and only men were ever in here. The shop was owned by Steve Brown and his son John. They always wore grey dress pants with a sharp crease, a black belt, and a pressed white shirt. It never mattered what John and Steve were doing at the moment I walked in. They would stop, and together, both would loudly announce me, “Hey its big Bobby, big Bob, take seat, and we’ll be right with you.” To a child who had been given up by his natural mother and family, they made me feel like the most important person in the world. I always felt like a shadow and in that moment they made me feel real.

I would sit and read the best selection of Marvel and DC comics in the world. There were times I would visit when I didn’t need a haircut just to partake of their magnificent literature.  Iron man, Superman, and Green lantern, filled my world with wonder. Then, when I was completely immersed in the exploits of Iron man a voice pierced the aura of comic fantasy, “Big Bob!” John would swing the chair in my direction and smack the seat with his towel making a loud crack, “Big Bob your up!” The world stood still and I obeyed. I didn’t do that often and this was one of the few times I would listen without question. I climbed up into the chair. John would cover me with a striped cloth that always snapped too tight around my neck. I never complained about it. I summoned the courage to speak; “Just a trim, only a little off the top.” To which John would always reply, “I have my orders.” My mother has previously expressed her wishes and a mother’s desires for her son are not to be questioned.  I would continue to protest but he has already begun and he doesn’t hear me.  He turns me away from the mirror so I won’t see what’s happening. Then he starts to sharpen his straight razor on a long leather strap. I can still hear it scraping back and forth. Suddenly there is soap on my side burns. The razor is at my ear. John says; “hold still, if I cut off your ear Ill give you a bag so you can bring it home.” I hear Steve laughing from the other chair. I heard that joke a thousand times and still I sat petrified every time they said it. I’m not even moving my toes. I know the haircut is over when John says “Bobby want a little Green River?” Green River is this bottle of mysterious green stuff that always sits on the shelf in front of the mirror. There is a picture, on the label, of a river with green water flowing off into the distance.  I say “no”, as he splashes a quart of it on my head. He takes a towel and wipes off the excess shaking my head back and forth hard enough to loosen up a few bones in my neck. A few comb strokes and I’m free. “How do you like it?” “It’s alright” I would quietly mutter. Then John would always look me hard in the eye, man to man, and gave me a big smile. I dig into my pocket and hand John a crumpled up dollar bill. I look like a ten year old kid with a crew cut but I feel like a million bucks.

It has been fifty years since I have been to see John and Steve. I don’t think they ever knew what they did for me or how important it was. As I grew up I returned year after year, John and Steve never failed to greet me with the biggest hello I have ever heard. Steve retired; I got older and went off to school. Eddie, the shoemaker and the barber shop are long gone, but their memories are alive in me as if it all happened yesterday. I can still see their faces and hear their voices. I can hear the razor striking the strap. I can hear the sound of the metal Venetian blinds striking glass as the shop door closes behind me. Most of all I still feel the sense of authenticity, and legitimacy they instilled in me. For those of us who are denied the knowledge of where we came from, or how we came to be, it is everything to feel we are wanted and belong. Not bad for a buck.