A SHORT STORY: Amid the barbershop rituals of the 1950s, two boys learn about racial prejudice & class distinctions within the Black race.
My father takes us to the barbershop near Hunter and Ashby streets, and I sit there no less beguiled by the candy-striped cylinder near the door than the life taking place outside the plate-glass window.
That window is like a movie screen, and there is plenty going on in the Hunter Street movie I do not understand: the thick tangle of black overhead wires, along which trolley cars find their way from one part of the city to another; the women in stiletto heels and short skirts who flag down men in cars; people writing down numbers as they leave the liquor store.
Men shout greetings and put-ons to one another across the street, or from as far as half a block away. Like a vaudeville joke. “Hey Leroy, man, who was that ugly-looking woman I saw you with the other night?” Leroy turns, recognizes the face, and says, “I don’t know, man. She was so ugly I didn’t get a good look at her. Mighta been yo’ wife.” “I ain’t got no wife,” says the first man, “so I know you wrong about that.” They both laugh a locker-room sort of laugh. That’s how it opens. Then, more heartfelt: “Ain’t seen you in a long time, man. How you been?” “Doin’ alright, man. You know how it is.”
Music plays from a car radio.
A door opens on a restaurant, and different music spills into the street, adding another ring to the unfolding circus. I watch the men: young men in silk shirts and conked-up hair tied with rags; rich-looking older men wearing skinny mustaches, razor-sharp shark-skin suits with silk color-wheel handkerchiefs peeking from the breast pocket; and men in snap-brim fedoras, overcoats, expensive pointy-toe shoes called Cadillacs. Some of those men look quiet but dangerous. They suck toothpicks or smoke cigars. They cut their eyes this way and that. The words rackets, pimp, gambler whispered inside the barber shop as they go by.