Like most boys, when I was young my parents took me to get my hair cut. I had a bad experience once with a man that cut hair in his backyard. I’m not sure why my parents took me there instead of a barber with his own shop but I imagine the consideration was either financial or parochial since money was tight and our local parish was the center of our lives. Perhaps he was a parishioner; maybe he was just inexpensive. In any event he operated close to our home.
I remember his house was on Garnet Street in Boyle Heights and he did have a real barber chair set up al fresco in his back yard. I found that both out of place and fascinating.
My friend Daniel went to a fellow named Dan the Barber who had a baby grand piano in his shop on Brooklyn Avenue. Daniel would go in late in the day and Dan the Barber would pour himself a drink and then play the piano. After a while he would stop and cut Daniel’s hair free of charge. East LA was like that back then; part lower middle class neighborhood, part Fellini movie.
I don’t remember much else about the backyard barber without a shop except he cut me accidentally and my mother was quite unhappy about that. He was a little too heavy handed with the electric clippers and left a small mark. It was enough to determine that I would never have my hair cut out of doors again.
A few years later, my father started taking me for haircuts to the father of a classmate, Mr. Mike Ramirez. Mike’s Barber Shop was on Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles. He was my regular barber for the following several years of my childhood. Eventually, I stopped having my hair cut there but then I rediscovered it again as a young man. From that point on, I never went anywhere else.
One day I was sitting in the chair exchanging the usual pleasantries with Mike. It was a reassuring and predictable exchange. He asked about my parents and I inquired about two of his children, Michael who had been my classmate and his brother Alfred who was two years ahead of us. We had dispensed with the customary small talk when it occurred to me to ask Mike how he had become a barber.
Then he explained to me how a simple twist of fate and harsh weather came to determine his life’s path. He said he was in the military and was originally working as an air conditioning and heating technician. He had been trained as such and did his job well. One day while working to repair a broken air conditioner on a hot roof in the blistering sun, he looked through the hole in the roof where the air conditioning duct had been removed and saw a young man in uniform cutting another man’s hair.
He recognized immediately that whereas he was being baked alive on this blazing hot summer day, they were just slightly inconvenienced as a result of only temporarily being without air conditioning. He told me that they looked very calm and pleasant chatting with one another as the barber cut the enlisted man’s hair. He resolved then and there to change careers. I don’t know how long the process took, but here in East Los Angeles, California, my friend Michael’s dad was now Mike the Barber with his own shop on Olympic Boulevard. From then on, I enjoyed haircuts even more because Mike was a good storyteller and had many a story to tell.
Mike was my idea of what a barber should look like. He was tall and handsome with a brilliant smile and a thick black head of hair parted on one side that said, “hair, here.” It looked as if he had not lost a single strand of hair ever. He was one of the “younger” dads in my school, especially when I compared him to my father who was born during the first world war.
Mike was also one of those barbers who took his time no matter how many men were in line behind you. He never rushed and never made you feel as if he was hustling you out because there were too many customers.
Sometimes the line would be four or five long and if someone else entered they might sit down or they might not because a line of four or five could be a two hour wait. Of course waits were always longest on Saturdays and Mike was closed Sunday and Monday.
Mike was also a talented painter. I remember he used to paint portraits of horses and other pastoral scenes and hang them in the shop. Maybe some were paint by number maybe not. It didn’t matter. They all looked good and they added to the character of the barbershop in a way that no store-bought poster or graphic ever could.
Unbeknownst to many people the site of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was once a Mexican-American neighborhood. The only vestige of its former life is now the occasional allusion to “Chavez Ravine” by the legendary Dodger announcer Vin Scully.
Many people came to live in Chavez Ravine when it was a Mexican-American neighborhood. In the 1940’s Mike the barber was one of them. Mike told me a story one day of a man named Chris-Pin Martin who lived in Chavez Ravine. He was an actor who played the sleepy Mexican or the bumbly Mexican or the whatever ill-conceived, racist stereotype sprang forth from the brightest minds in Hollywood.
It seems Mr. Martin had a big house in Chavez Ravine and sometimes employed local people to do work at the house. One day he hired an eager youngster that grew up to be Mike the Barber. As a boy, Mike remembered working all day in the hot sun for the actor for a sandwich at lunch and 25 cents at the end of that day. Perhaps Mike’s aversion to working in sweltering heat began there.
According to our family mythology, my own father had once spent a day with this actor as well. In the 1930’s and 40’s Los Angeles was the final destination on a journey that began in El Paso, Texas courtesy of the Southern Pacific Railroad. My father used to ride the train as a tramp when he was a young man. Having no money and in the midst of the Great Depression, I imagine tramp riding was a common undertaking back then when young men were looking to start new lives under cooler skies closer to the ocean.
My father was not yet married to my mother and came to Los Angeles to visit relatives and explore the working and living conditions. One morning, after everyone had gone to work, he arrived at the Chavez Ravine home of his relatives.
Some of my uncles then worked for the Department of Transportation building the highways that have come to symbolize Southern California. It was hard backbreaking work in extreme conditions; sometimes they toiled in hellish heat and other times endured freezing cold. Pouring asphalt back then was not the mechanized process it is today; much of the work was still manual and it required hours of labor to accomplish it.
My father probably did not know this when he arrived with the promise of a job in the 1930’s. Seeing no one around and mesmerized by the gentle breeze and the summer sun he stood on the porch and took in the sights of Chavez Ravine. It might have been a poor neighborhood or a barrio or little more than a ramshackle enclave to some but to him it seemed paradise.
As he stood on the porch listening to the birds in the trees and children playing in the distance he heard a voice interrupt the silence. “Oye, Oye, tu!” which roughly translates to “Hey, hey, you!”
He looked around and saw a man on the porch of a large house nearby calling out to him. The man was Chris-Pin Martin and he asked if my father would like to work that day. Without asking a single question my father agreed and off they went to the MGM studios across town riding in Mr. Martin’s automobile.
A friend of the actor was unable to report for work that day and my father would take his place instead. The work was easy if somewhat humiliating. He wore a grass skirt, no shirt or shoes and had to raise his hands in the air and then bend at the waist when a certain celluloid potentate walked past. The movie was called The Firefly. My brother says he found it some time ago on DVD and watched it in slow motion. I don’t know if he was ever able to spot my father and I have never seen it. Certainly it was not a featured role.
Many years later after nine children, several wars, one wife and a lot of hardship he was still able to muster a winsome smile when conjuring the memory of his one day in Hollywood. He confessed that he thought he would be a movie extra forever and imagined all he had to do from then on was wear grass skirts and bow ceremoniously in fake native tribesman style. He said that the pay was an extraordinary five dollars a day at a time when five cents bought a loaf of bread.
My father returned to El Paso, Texas the same way he arrived, on the Southern Pacific Railroad. He met my mother, they married and then they both went to Los Angeles to start their life together in 1941. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My father was drafted and was posted to Goose Bay Labrador, Canada. After some time he was honorably discharged.
My family moved from Chavez Ravine. Battles over eminent domain ensued and the turmoil over the land made headlines. Eventually the stadium was built and the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team my wife’s cousin, Harry Eisenstat, once played for, moved west.
Fortunately for the O’Malley’s, my family, and many other Mexican-American families, love baseball and especially the Los Angeles Dodgers. My brother Tony, the most Dodger crazy of them all, has been to countless games at Dodger Stadium and although he has lived in Germany for over thirty years, he still attends whenever he is in Los Angeles. He attends ballgames the way I attend concerts.
He has a remarkable memory of games he attended back when he was a teenager. He is able to remember where he sat, what he ate and how he got there. He recalls each game in amazing detail including plays and lineups. I also find it ironic that my brother is such an ardent fan considering that he was named after my uncle Tony who was killed by police gunfire in Chavez Ravine in 1940. The policemen were cleared of any charges but that was a different Los Angeles. Or was it?
I can remember attending games with my father but most of the fun for me at those events was in a red and white striped bag full of salty unshelled peanuts and of course a “Dodger Dog.”
Dodger Stadium, unlike Wrigley Field which sits in the middle of Chicago at ground level, perches atop a precipitous hill just north of the city. In the early 70’s my father was a janitor at Cathedral High School at the bottom of the hill, very close to the stadium. One way my father saved money when attending a game was not to pay for parking; a common trick used by stadium fans everywhere, I’m sure. He parked at the High School and then the only catch was the treacherous climb up the hill to the park.
It started out innocently enough, as we hiked up a narrow desert scrub and brush lined dirt path. Gradually the path grew steeper until it narrowed to a twelve-inch wide trail between a chain link fence and a sheer drop. We were forced to inch our way sideways up the last harrowing bit of trail with both feet together wedged into the fence. First the left foot moved and then the right foot followed, like two chopsticks opening and closing, clinging with our hands for dear life to the aging rusted out chain link fence while behind us was the fearsome sheer drop down the canyon.
Surviving this, the path suddenly grew wide again until you emerged at the edge of the stadium parking lot with all the lights blazing like the klieg lights at a Hollywood premier, but you were the movie star and the movie was baseball. As others less economically constrained emerged from their vehicles in nicely pressed clothes, we creatures of the night emerged out of the darkness at the edge of the lot, dusted off our jeans and sauntered in to see the game. This was a trip to the ballpark for me.
Some years later when I discussed going to the ballpark with a friend of mine, she recounted a tale of climbing a treacherous hill that seemed to accompany every trip she made to the park. I guess my father was not the only one willing to risk life and limb to save a few dollars, but looking back, our hair-raising walk up the hill was thrilling fun.
Hair raising experiences seem fewer and farther between now but maybe it is because I have much less hair to raise. Strangely, finding a barber is even more important now than when I had a full head. Four years ago I moved across the country to New York City.
Since Mike’s Barber Shop was no longer just a short ride away, I needed to find a new place to get my hair cut. After trying many different barbers I finally settled on David’s Barber Shop on East 84th. It is an old school shop and both of the older gentlemen, Joseph and Yuri, are brilliant.
When I am traveling I never mind trying a new barber either. Sometimes it opens doors to new experiences sometimes it just provides a window on another world like the wonderful haircut I received in Biddeford, Maine a few years ago from a fellow with a shop in his home. He had been in that location over thirty years and it was a pleasure to sit in his chair.
While in Berlin recently I found myself in need of a haircut. I was walking along Zossener Strasse in Kreuzberg when I noticed a simple establishment. From the area and listening to them speak, I figured they were Turkish and decided that it was a good idea. The price was right and the place looked like barber shops everywhere, magazines strewn about, some chairs for waiting patrons and a coat rack. I took my place and waited for the only person ahead of me.
When it was my turn I sat in the chair and made my preferences clear. The barber spoke much better English than I spoke German and together we agreed upon the type of cut. Everything proceeded exactly as haircuts usually do, first the scissors and then the electric clippers. Finally, the hot foam is applied to the sideburns and edges and a straight razor is used to complete the cut.
Just when I thought we were done, leaving the plastic around my neck he went to a small device that resembled a mini-torch from the Middle Ages the kind you light to see your way in a castle except it was about the size of a fat Q-tip. He soaked it in some liquid and then struck a match to light it. Through my alarm, I determined that whatever was about to happen was either going to be extremely painful or was merely part of the normal tonsorial experience in Turkey and I had no need to worry.
Before I knew what was happening he was moving the mini-torch about with precision and flair. He was pushing it into my ear canals and removing it as quickly as he put it in. It was all very fast and accompanied by the distinctive smell of burning hair.
I then realized that he was burning the small errant hairs in my ears. It was a crude but effective method and once I got over the fact that I was not going to be seriously injured, the slight scorching seemed like a walk in the park. All in all it was a great finish to a pretty good haircut and one that would not have been out of place in a barber shop on Brooklyn Avenue with a baby grand piano and maybe some raki.