#50: Old Joe of Canaryville

August 22nd, 2012

Joe sits in his barbershop with the door locked, listening to Lite FM and the police scanner at the same time.

The Italian barber has had his little two-chair shop in the rough Irish ‘hood of Canaryville for 37 years, he said as he walked me to the chair where he had been sitting.

Before that, he worked at a shop at 51st and Halsted. He started there in 1944.

He was, in his words, “very, very young.”

“The area got all black. Too many close calls,” he said, running a wet comb through my hair.

I asked about close calls at the “new” location.

“None so far, let’s put it that way,” he said. “But it can happen. It doesn’t have to be in a black area. It could be a white area. It could be a white person.”

“Normal haircut?” he asked

I said yes. I wanted to see what that means to Joe.

Joe was old but didn’t seem very old. He had a sure hand – you can tell when someone cutting your hair is quavering. Bald and gaunt with flappy old man arms that looked melting.

He had a rasp in his voice, but not as much as you would expect from a man with a 68-year career. He shuffled a bit, but not as much as you would expect from a man whatever his age must be.

I asked if he had seen Canaryville change in his 37 years here.

“Oh yeah,” Joe said, not elaborating.

There were pictures everywhere, from black and white to grainy washed Polaroid colors to crystal-sharp new ones. Plaques and mementos on the walls. Pictures of families and old softball teams. Tucked behind the old-style register that goes ding were stacks of pictures, postcards and the lyrics to a new version of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” with all the places changed to Canaryville spots.

He was telling me about his three grandchildren, the oldest 24 and living in Riverwoods in the suburbs.

“He works for, what is it, Discovery!”

“The TV station?”

“No, the credit card.”

“Oh, Discover.”

The grandson had a college internship there and they liked him, Joe said.

“And they told him to stick around. They said, ‘We’ve got a job for you.’ Started him at 58 gees a year. He’s lucky, you know? Lots of kids, they get out, there’s no jobs. They’re lucky to start at 30 thousand a year. But he’s good at computers. He’s sharp, you know?”

Joe shaved the back of my neck with hot lather and a straight edge, something that always makes me purr. He also shaved behind the ears with the straight edge, which was new to me. He asked about raising the sideburns, but I said I like them where they are. I asked him something about the place, but he misheard me.

“It doesn’t matter to me, but it’s better for you because it gives you a lot less face to shave, huh?” he said.

There were cobwebs under the cabinet holding the old-style register. Some hair in the corner missed his aging eyes. Everthing looked old, classic. There were two chairs although he didn’t have another person anymore. It was just him.

“It’s rough now,” Joe said. “You’re lucky to have work. The old days, it’s not so bad. Before, you could quit a job and walk right into a new one. Now, not so much.”

It took me a second to realize Joe’s sympathy wasn’t for himself, but for me and his grandson.

Joe sits in a locked South Side barbershop day after day with Lite FM and the police scanner and he considers himself the lucky one. It was a little angering. Pity will do that. But looking around at the seven decades of memories lining his walls and cabinets, I couldn’t help think that maybe he was right.

One of the black and white photos tucked in the glass doors of the cabinet holding the register was of three smiling men standing at three barber chairs. One of them looked very, very young.

It could have been 1944.

This was the 50th “1,001 Chicago Afternoons” story! Start from the first one.

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