I’m sure everyone can look back on their life and identify something in their childhood that shaped their perception of the world. Some teacher that influenced you, a family member or neighbor that provided some guidance in your life. Regardless of who you are today, the people around you in your earliest years helped to form the person you are today. I can’t really think of a single incident, rather it was a series of situations, discussions, conversations that led me to who I am today. The one defining location for all those incidents was a barbershop.
At the age of 10, I started working for my great-uncle in his barbershop. Joe’s Barbershop at the corner of Kensington and Indiana on Chicago’s far south side. I worked for three hours after school each day from Tuesday through Friday and another three hours on Saturday morning. And for those fifteen hours of work, I received $15 per week plus tips. Not a bad income for a 10 year old kid.
I started my job with Uncle Joe by receiving very clear instructions on cleaning the sink, dusting and cleaning all the tools along the back, mirrored wall, cleaning the toilet, sweeping the hair, emptying the ashtrays, and most importantly polishing the mirrors and glass storefront. Not all of those directions came on the first day, but they were provided along the way as my skills increased throughout the first few weeks of my job. The job that provided for tips was the shoeshine stand. Each day my uncle would have me shine one of his pairs of shoes. I can still remember the intricate details of those fine Italian shoes he wore, trying desperately to keep the polish away from those sheer, intricately designed socks. Each day I became better and better at my main job of shining shoes so that I could earn extra money from each customer.
The barbershop was more of a men’s club. Most people sitting around in the back of the shop were daily regulars, smoking a few cigars, watching daytime television, reading the endless variety of magazines. They came in on a lunch hour, sometimes after their first shift job, some came for the endless supply of orange or grape Crush soda or perhaps the beer that was ever present in the shop. Or perhaps the meats and cheeses that were provided every Saturday brought people together for a community lunch. Regardless, that old 1930’s era GE Monitor Top refrigerator with its large round cooling coils on top of the unit kept the food and liquid extra cold and ready for anyone.
Joe’s Barbershop helped me gain the work ethic that has been with me all these years. Those hours I spent in that barbershop gave me a voice. I was never afraid to talk to any of those customers or regulars as politics, family issues, and neighborhood arguments were discussed. I became a voice with all the knowledge I gained from a daily fill of Esquire magazine and Mike Douglas on daytime television for the four years I worked there. But more than any of that, it was how Uncle Joe dealt with the people of that community and more importantly his wife. His actions are what helped me learn what caring and compassion really are. Joe the Barber was an institution in that small corner of Chicago. He has been an influence in every part of my life.
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