I suppose when you go to college you can learn a lot of important things. After all, professors are paid pretty nice salaries to stand up in classrooms across the country and blather about the fishing industry in Peru or the marginal propensity to save in Italy. These enlightened educators will wax poetic about mitosis, malaria, Monrovia, mercury, metadata, and militarism; and then remind you that’s alliteration.
When I was in college I suppose I learned a few things from the professors, but I think I learned a lot more from my barber.
In 1989, I found a little barber shop in South Dartmouth Massachusetts, not far from the campus of the University I was attending. It was a little white building with the requisite barber pole in the window. The barber was a man named Frank. He was a nice old gentleman and as he cut my hair he would occasionally hum or sing along with Al Martino or Frank Sinatra playing on his small radio that he kept on the counter in his shop.
Frank had a classic pair of barber chairs, although he only used one of the chairs. I guessed that the second chair was from a partner who had long since left the business. Unlike many barbers today, Frank rarely used the electric clippers. He was a maestro of the scissors and the comb. The scissors hissed in a rhythmic scat – almost a form of jazz, as Frank breathed heavily through his large nose; getting my hair cut “just right.”
Every day, Frank’s wife would sit with him in that barber shop, knitting away. She looked to be in her late 70’s which is what I pegged Frank’s age at as well. It was tough to tell with Frank – because he always was smiling and happy, which hid the years. He probably could have passed for 65, if not for Millie sitting quietly with her needles creating beautiful things from balls of yarn.
Frank and Millie rarely talked to each other when I was in the shop – but they were together every day. It amazed me.
Any guy will tell you that when you first go to a barber – there is a “feeling-out” period. During the first few cuts, the conversation between barber and client will center on weather, sports, and local events; nothing too heavy. After all, no guy wants to make an emotional commitment to a barber until he sees proof that this man can actually cut hair. It would be a disaster to move too fast and really like your barber if he ended up butchering your head. Great conversation will never make up for a Three Stooges haircut.
The rule applied to my relationship with Frank. We kept it light and easy: “Are you a student?” “How about this weather?” “There’s a good new sandwich shop on such and such street.”
It wasn’t long before Frank proved he could really cut hair and cut it well. Then I decided to really talk to him.
One day, as Frank was clipping away at the back of my head I noticed on the wall a black and white photograph of a young Frank standing by a barber chair. There was an older man standing by a second chair.
“Who is that in the picture, Frank? Your Dad?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s my dad. We had a shop in the north part of town before they built the shopping mall on route 6.”
“Cool. Hey Frank – how long have you been cutting hair.”
I must have heard him wrong. Seventy years? “What? When did you start cutting hair?”
“When I was 14.”
“Wow! So you are 84?”
“I can’t believe it – you look so young. Did you always know you wanted to be a barber?”
Frank stopped cutting and paused for a minute. Then he started the scissors again, “I never wanted to be a barber.”
“My father made me become a barber.”
“What did you want to do?”
Frank stopped cutting again and he gestured with his comb and scissors like a master conductor, “I wanted to be a botanist! I always wanted to study botany and become a botanist!”
I was stumped for a minute. I realized that Frank was the first person I had ever met who ever expressed a burning desire for botany. I knew nothing of botany. I tried to remember – wasn’t there something about xylem in botany?
Then Frank continued talking. “My father came to me when I was 14 years old and said ‘I have to pull you out of school.’ I asked why and he told me he needed the help and the family needed the money. So I quit school to become a barber.”
“Just like that?”
“Oh I tried to argue with him. I said, but dad – I really want to be a botanist! I was good in school too. But, I was the oldest, so I quit school and learned to cut hair.”
“Wow, Frank. And you’ve been cutting hair for 70 years now?”
“Yes, 70 years of cutting hair. My father and I had a shop together and now it’s just me.” He was finishing up the hair around my ears and the back of my neck.
“Frank, did you ever go back to school? Did you ever get a chance to study botany?”
“No. I never went to school; never studied botany. My younger brothers finished school but I never went back.” He said it all without a trace of bitterness. “That’s just how it was. The family needed help and so my father told me I had to help.”
“And you did.”
“And I did.”
I deeply admired Frank. I couldn’t get his story out of my head. Here’s a 14-year old kid with all these dreams of becoming a botanist and he ends up a small town barber; cutting hair for a living in a tiny shop. Yes, I admired him but I couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of sadness about his story.
A few weeks later I returned for my haircut. I walked into Frank’s shop and there was Millie knitting away quietly. Perry Como crooned in the background. Then Frank smiled brightly at me, “Hello! I have something to show you before I cut your hair!”
Frank went over to a table in his shop and grabbed a three-ring binder full of pictures. He beamed and said, “Just look at these for a minute!”
The binder was full of photographs of rose bushes; Beautiful rose bushes.
“What’s all this Frank?”
“My roses!” These are all roses I’ve grown. Some of them I’ve cultivated myself. I’ve created my very own hybrids.”
“Jeez, it looks like a lot of work.”
“It’s not work because I love it. I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”
“Frank you know what this means don’t you?”
“You are a botanist!”
He laughed and grabbed me around my shoulders.
It is people like Frank that made America a great place. I learned so many great things from him.
I learned that dreams are wonderful things but family is more important than dreams. I learned that honest work and decency are precious commodities. I learned that there is no higher calling than working to help your family succeed. I learned that if you found the right mate, the right woman; that late in life when your world is slowing down, she will always be at your side, supporting you every day. I learned that if you keep a song in your heart the scissors aren’t heavy and there is a lot of joy in every task.
What college ever taught anyone that?
“I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”
Thanks Frank. You are the most beautiful botanist that I have ever met.
Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham