THE DEMON BARBER OF STRAWBERRY PARK

I had long hair when I was a kid. This was the 1970s, and long hair was cool. Hippies, the Grateful Dead, the musical Hair- these had all paved the way for young men to have long hair. And I lived in San Jose, California- part of the liberal, cutting edge, new age love fest that is known as the Bay Area. Not that I was in the middle of Haight-Ashbury, walking around quoting Timothy Leary to my fellow fourth graders. Life was fairly subdued in my neighborhood of Strawberry Park. Still, I loved my long hair. It was brown, and turned sort of blonde in the sun, and groovy. Often, I'd run as fast as I could down our suburban streets just to feel my hair fly behind me. My hair was my joy, and belonged solely to me. My enemy was the barber, and I visited him as little as possible.

One Sunday morning in February, 1976, my mother announced it was time for us to get hair-cuts, handed my older brother Jerry some cash, and sent us off to the dreaded Strawberry Park Barbershop. If barbers were my enemy, the Strawberry Park Barber was their king- known the world over for hair-cuts that made you look stupid, lame, and infinitely uncool. There were other barbers in the area- more expensive hair salons, places that weren't quite so awful. But the Strawberry Park Barber was cheap. Thus, our patronage. I begged and pleaded to be spared from this cruel and unusual punishment. I promised to do my chores, to clean the whole house- anything! But to no avail- Mom was adamant, and so we quietly got out our bikes, and pedaled to the House of Horror. We rode in silence, each contemplating how bad our hair would be in a short time. When we got there, the barber's chair was empty. My brother and I looked at each other, two condemned souls. Jerry bravely said he'd go first. I sat down on a chair, dejected, and tried to read one of the boring grown-up magazines they laid out for customers. You'd have thought they'd at least put out a few comic books to ease the pain, but no. So I picked up a copy of Time, and flipped through it, page after page- trying hard not to notice what was happening to my brother mere feet from where I sat. I didn't want to look up and have to see what they were doing to him. It was too much to bear.  But Time magazine just couldn't hold my attention for so long. I looked up, to see how Jerry was doing. 


It was awful. Jerry's hair was popping up in strange places, and combed back in what was called the "wet-head" look. He looked like Dagwood Bumstead- and I am not exaggerating. I don't know how they'd done it, but they had.  Jerry smiled at me, hoping no doubt to get some encouragement. I probably should have smiled back, told him it didn't look so bad, that come to think of it, his hair looked pretty good. Jerry kept smiling. I kept staring. Jerry asked me, "Well, how does it look?" I froze. what could I tell him? I didn't want to lie, but the truth was too horrible.  I don't know how long I stood there, staring at him, mouth agape. He asked again, "How does it look?"  I blurted out "You look like Dagwood!", and ran out the shop, jumped on my bike, and pedaled away as fast as I could. I often wonder what Jerry must have thought, sitting in that terrible chair as he watched me make my escape. But at the time, I just rode as fast as I could, as far from that damned barber as my bike would carry me.

I rode without thinking. I ended up at Murdock's Creek, a natural creek that had been altered by the city with a couple of little dams that made perfect pools for swimming. You had to climb a fence and over a trail to get there, which gave it a sense of isolation. There were lots of trees, and frogs, and I loved it.  It was the unofficial spa for all the boys of Strawberry Park. When I rode up that day, my buddy Noel, and a couple of other guys, were goofing around, throwing rocks, climbing trees- doing all the things that could make a normal day fantastic. As I rode up, everyone was daring everyone else to climb one of the trees that surrounded the pond and jump. "I dare you to climb up ten feet and jump". "I dare you to climb fifteen feet and jump." They were somewhere near twenty feet when I arrived. Noel turned to me. "I dare you to climb to the branch with the rope swing on it and jump!" I looked up. That particular branch was pretty high up. At the time, I had a sleight fear of heights. "Scared?", Noel asked. "No", I lied, and began to climb. It didn't seem so bad up there. I got the branch and looked down at everyone. Some of the guys looked impressed, which felt great. Then Noel called up, "I dare you to go higher." All the other kids started to chant "Higher! Higher! Higher!". So up I went.  After about five more feet, I looked down. "Higher! Higher! Higher!" I climbed, higher than I had ever climbed before. I could see over the tops of the other trees to the rows and rows of houses in the distance, and beyond them, the Santa Cruz mountains, covered with clouds.  I could feel the tree sway beneath my weight. I edged my way out on the last branch that I thought could hold me up, far enough out so I could drop into the water. I looked down. All the guys were silent, awestruck, even a little afraid. Perfect. "How's this?" I yelled down. "Awesome", Noel yelled back up. I looked down. The water seemed far away. A cold wind was blowing. What in the hell was I thinking? I didn't want to do this. But I couldn't go down  now. I'd never hear the end of it. I'd be a loser, a wimp, a nothing. And I did not want that. I took a lot of dares back then that I ended up regretting- did things that were stupid and dangerous but that seemed to impress other people. If you wanted someone to jump off a roof, make a prank phone call, or ride their bike over a ramp- I was the go-to guy.  And here I was, out on a limb way up in the air on a cool February day.

I jumped. The water was freezing, but I didn't care. I was alive, and all the guys were yelling their admiration. Life was good. We spent the rest of the day running around, discussing the latest issue of Spiderman, and told whatever dirty jokes we knew. I was shivering most of the time, but didn't care in the least. Life, for that moment, was perfect. At the end of the day, we rode off into the sunset, young heroes who could do no wrong. The incident at the barbershop was a distant memory.

Sadly, my mother did not find the days events amusing. She said she had told my step-father Vern what had happened, and that he would talk to me when he got home. Sometimes, on Sundays, my step-dad had to go into work for a few hours. Usually, he was home by four. But it was past four already, and he wasn't home yet. This was not good. The later he got home, the more likely he'd been drinking. At seven, he still wasn't home. A dread silence pervaded the house. Nobody said anything- by this time, we didn't have to- a storm was coming, and there wasn't anything we could do about it. Around eight or so, we got sent to bed. Still no Vern. Then, sometime past nine, I heard his car pull up, the front door open, the tell-tale uneven footsteps from door to kitchen. Not good. I could hear Mom talking with him, and then I heard him call.

"Kelly! Get your little ass in hear. Now!"

I was scared. Dad, as we called Vern by then, had never beaten us or anything like that. At least not yet. But I was certain it was only a matter of time before he lost it and killed one of us. He'd gotten pretty angry before, and broken some plates and stuff, and it didn't seem like that much of a stretch for him to just go completely psycho. Sometimes late at night, as I lay in bed, I would hear him in the kitchen, opening drawers. We had this one butcher knife that was ridiculously huge, and I had this idea that he was looking for it, and that once he found it he would walk down the hall, open my door, slowly walk up to the bed, and cut my throat.  Whenever I could, I pushed that particular knife far back into the drawer.

"Kelly, God Damn it!"

I climbed out of the top bunk, looked at Jerry, who tried to smile for me. I slowly walked to the kitchen. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, I hoped. Maybe I'd only get grounded, or spanked or something. Maybe they'd take away my bike. That wouldn't be so bad.

I stepped into the kitchen. He looked extremely pissed. Sometimes, it seemed like actual waves of anger would come off of Vern. I stopped dead in my tracks.

"Come here", he said.

I didn't want to do that. He knew it. I knew it. He pointed to the floor, right in front of him. "Come...", he said, and pointed again for emphasis, "...here".  This was something he'd do, pointing to the floor in front of him, commanding you to "come here". His entire body was tense, and I remember thinking he kind of looked like a snake about to strike. I still didn't move. He frowned, and his eyes somehow got meaner.

"NOW!"

I inched my way towards him, step by step. I've taken many walks in my life, even some pretty long hikes- miles in the mountains and through Europe and once almost all the way around Manhattan in the middle of the night, but I have never taken a longer journey in my life than those few steps I took that night in the kitchen of the old house in Strawberry Park.

Vern crouched down so that we were face to face- our noses almost touching. I could smell wine on his breath- sour and mixed with cigarettes. "I understand you had a little trouble at the barbershop", he said. slurring his words just a bit. I looked down and mumbled, "Yeah".  He cocked his head, as if he was looking at some strange, slightly disgusting animal. "Yeah. From now on, you do what you're told. Period." He liked to use the word "period" for emphasis a lot. I always thought it sounded stupid, but didn't think this the right time to tell him. "Is that understood?", he asked. "Yes", I said, trying to sound as contrite and pathetic as I could. But something about my answer was wrong. His nostrils flared, and he snorted out his breath like a bull. "Yes, what?", he demanded. I had no idea what he was talking about. Yes was a pretty direct answer, I thought. Yes. Positive. Affirmative. What had I said wrong? Should I have said "Yes, Dad" or "Yes, wise and powerful one" or "Yes you crazy son of a bitch?". He kept looking at me, expecting something. Then it hit me. Of course! "Yes, sir". He held his glare for a moment, then sighed. "Alright".

And that was that. I couldn't believe it. Was that all? Fantastic. I turned, and headed back to my room- but he stopped me before I got out of the kitchen. "Where the hell do you think you're going? Your mother wants you to get a hair cut, and you're going to get a God damned hair cut".

And then he turned, opened a drawer, and pulled out the butcher knife.

"Come...here".

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