“Ode to the Basement Barbershop of My Youth”

When I was a little kid, my dad always took me to a basement barbershop next door to the Rivioli.

The owner was named Jim Gipson, and he had a superb selection of comic books. In a lesser tonsorium, one was fortunate if one could find even a single, yellowed copy of “Weird Tales” whose previous owner had already clipped out the Johnson Smith Company order form. But at Jim Gipson’s, the library featured many Marvel and DC favorites and was kept meticulously current. I recall once begging to be taken in for a wholly unnecessary trim, just so I could read the denouement of the previous month’s “Hawkman” cliffhanger.

To spelunk one’s way into Gipson’s Barbershop was to enter a realm of old school masculinity. Had a woman or an effeminate male dared venture into that subterranean testosterone distillery, I believe they would have spontaneously combusted. The shop’s sole emblem of femininity was a prurient pin-up calendar, tame by today’s standards, but scandalous in its day. (Not that I cared, mind you: I was six, and there was a new issue of “Shazam” that required my immediate and undivided attention.)

Unlike today, when men get their hair “styled” in distaff dens perfumed by diffusing reeds and little pots of potpourri, the musk of Gipson’s was an aromatic anthem for all things manly: Clubman Aftershave, Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic, Barbicide and cigarette smoke. Jim clipped away at my mop, an unfiltered Camel in the corner of his mouth, while Dad chain-smoked his Old Golds and the two of them talked excitedly about the tax problems of someone named “Agnew.”

I remember peering over my comic book, watching intently as Dad underwent his own grooming. The advent of AIDS was timed precisely to coincide with the advent of my pubescent facial hair, so I never got to experience the lazy luxury of a professional straight-razor shave. The Old Man always treated himself to one, though. I enjoyed watching the mummification process as hot towels were wrapped around his face.

And oh, how I longed for the day when I, like him, would require scissor work on my eyebrows and in my nostrils and ears. Now that day has arrived, and I must say that I had grossly overestimated the thrill I would get from that particular badge of hirsute manhood.

Today, there’s no longer any smoking or straight-razors or Spiro; Gabels Brilliantine Pomade has been replaced by something called “Got2b Magnetik Styling Gel”; and the guy wearing a colorful cape isn’t in a comic book but is, in fact, the customer himself, with dainty clips in his hair after a dip into the shampoo sink. But I’ve still got my memories, and I can still I still get a world of satisfaction from that cooling talcum, applied to the back of my neck with a few brisk strokes of a horsehair duster.

So there’s that.

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