| I have vented to Rick for about 25 years, which made me one of his more junior customers. Every few weeks I’d settle into his worn leather chair and begin talking – not about mundane things like weather or traffic, but about whatever seemed important to me at the time. Like politics (Rick never really let on about his). Or digital technology (Rick's an analog guy). Or baseball (Rick glances at the sports section but doesn't watch games).
You see, Rick was so empathetic that he never burdened customers with his own views, preferring instead to focus on what they had to say.
Let me set Rick's scene while it's still fresh in my mind. It's a small shop on a side street with two barber chairs, a small waiting area and a stack of National Geographics, the newest of which was published in the mid-eighties. There's a pole with hooks for coats and hats, and a Mister Coffee machine that has seen cleaner days.
Piled on the chair that would have been used by another barber were dozens of Rick's record albums and CDs – a small, rotating sample of his vast collection at home. Rick scours thrift shops and yard sales for used records, never paying more than one dollar per disc.
So there was always music in the shop: Nelson Eddy, Perry Como, The Ink Spots, maybe a dash of Patsy Cline, all vintage stuff. Rick knew every detail about every track on every album and had a turntable in the shop with which to play them. Plus, he hummed along.
I wasn't crazy about the humming, especially with Rick working just a few inches from my ear. Occasionally I'd try to shift his attention – much as you might nudge your partner to interrupt snoring. "How old was Peggy Lee when she recorded that?" I'd ask, and Rick would stop humming to answer.
Notably absent from Rick's place were photographs of hair styles and types of cuts. They wouldn't have served any purpose since most of Rick's customers had been getting the same haircut for decades: a little off the top, shorter on the sides, cleaned up in back.
When I first stumbled upon the shop it was because of the genuine spinning barber pole out front. That's the surest sign that a guy is a barber, not a stylist.
During a brief stretch of insanity back in the nineties I tried paying $175 a pop for styling in Beverly Hills. The owner floated around the shop, never actually cutting hair; rather, he directed his assistants about how he wanted each customer's hair coiffed. I never said much to him because he was too busy chatting up the wives and girlfriends of the guys whose hair his assistants were shampooing, cutting and gelling.
Back at Rick's shop every $25 haircut was therapeutic. Rick had a knack for making you feel important, feigning, when necessary, interest in whatever you had to get off your chest. He'd ask leading questions, as needed, to keep you on course.
Old school barbers – the kind who dust you with the same talcum powder your dad used – are on the endangered list, along with gas station attendants who know how to check your oil, and milkmen who deliver to your door.
Maybe we can get along without the personal touch. But I'll miss guys like Rick who are willing to give you the time of day.
(c) Peter Funt. Distributed by Cagle syndicate.