Ah-ha, the Cowlicks

A few afternoons in a South Philly barber shop

by Mike Walsh
Published in the Philadelphia Welcomat in 1991.

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The first time I went to Dominic’s Family Barbershop, which is right down the block and around the corner from my house, was on a weekday afternoon. As soon as I opened the door I noticed that the barber’s chair was empty even though there were several men in the shop. This is not unusual for my neighborhood. No matter the time of day or season, both the young and old hang out on street corners, on the stoops of their rowhouses, and in shops.

Personally, I never hang out. I’m too busy. Besides, I wasn't brought up here, so the art of hanging out was not passed down to me by my forefathers. My forefathers taught me to mow the lawn, clean my room, and watch TV.

So it didn’t come as any surprise that the barber’s chair was empty even though the barbershop was full of middle-aged men, men you might reasonably assume to be customers. These dudes were simply hanging out, and they all gave me a good once-over as I came in the door.

I also noticed that the men were all watching a porno film on the barber’s TV and VCR setup. I naturally did what anyone else in a similar situation would do. I started watching the movie. But the fellow in the white smock, carefully layered silver hair, and gold chains, the barber, Dominic himself, directed me to the lone barber’s chair. By the time I climbed into the chair someone had stopped the tape and turned on ESPN, which was broadcasting a rerun of a boxing match. This disappointed me. I had destroyed an important experience for these guys. They had sensed that I was not one of them, and certain pleasures, evidently, were not to be shared with outsiders.

As the haircut got underway, I noticed several boxing photographs on the walls of the shop. They all featured the same pale, hairy, somewhat nervous-looking welterweight. One of the pictures showed Dominic with a towel around his neck, his arm around the boxer. Dominic was smiling, a gold tooth gleaming. The boxer was crouched and punching at the air.

The haircut seemed to be progressing just fine when Dominic whirled me around in the chair to face the mirror and pointed out something on the back of my head for his cronies. “See this. This shit right here,” he said. “That’s what I’m talking about, that Center City shit. ”

Evidently, Dominic didn’t approve of the way my hair had previously been cut. I didn’t challenge his remarks. In my neighborhood people generally don’t take their disagreements lightly, that is, if the arguing that echoes through these rowhoused streets every night is any indication. Since Dominic and his friends looked like middle-level mob functionaries, I decided to ignore the comment. Besides, I really didn’t care what he thought of my previous haircut.

It did make me slightly apprehensive, however, when Dominic sighed loudly and said, “You got a head full of cowlicks, you know that?”

I didn’t know that. Not one barber or hair stylist had ever mentioned any problem with cowlicks in my entire life, a life that encompassed hundreds, maybe thousands, of haircuts.

Dominic shook his head and said, “Whew, that makes it tough, man.” A couple of his buddies nodded in agreement, as if they too had had tough experiences with cowlicks.

This development had me slightly bewildered when a young fellow, approximately thirteen or fourteen years old, came in. He was dressed in sweat pants, a stylishly torn tee-shirt, and unlaced high-tops. His hair was spiked and gelled. Everyone in the shop exchanged grunts with him.

He immediately went to a floor-standing, electronic, poker machine in the corner and was poised to place a quarter in the coin slot when Dominic stopped him. As all present soon learned, Dominic had won dozens of free games on the machine earlier that day. They were still available in the machine, and Dominic was willing to sell the 25 games to the kid “five for a dollar.” The kid gratefully accepted, paid Dominic directly for several dollars worth, and started dealing himself electronic hands of five card draw.

Soon an odd looking fellow with a limp and a dirty baseball cap came in carrying a small brown paper bag. Dominic went to him and took the bag. He looked inside, sniffed, and immediately started screaming at the guy.

“What is this shit? I said provolone, you stupid bastard, not mozzarella!” He threw the bag to the floor.

The man mumbled unintelligibly, and I could tell he was retarded. He was also on the verge of tears.

Dominic’s face became bright red. “Provolone!” he screamed into the man’s face. “Provolone, do you hear me? SLICED!!!!”

Then Dominic slapped the poor fellow sharply across the face, knocking his baseball cap sideways. “Now you take this shit back and bring me provolone, goddamnit, or I’ll fuck you up.”

The retarded man quickly reclaimed the bag from the floor and ran off.

“I don’t fuckin’ believe it,” Dominic said to no one in particular as he directed his attention back to my haircut. His buddies in the shop seemed equally disgusted that the fellow couldn’t follow a simple order. As far as I was concerned, the incident had seriously jeopardized my future business relations with Dominic.

By the time my haircut was complete, the kid had lost several dollars worth of poker games to the machine and to its benefactor. Dominic held up a mirror so I could examine my haircut. It looked fine. I asked him how much I owed him. He paused for a good ten seconds before deciding to charge me $11. I paid him and left.

Every few months since then, I’ve again found myself in need of a haircut. Rather than go through the hassle of taking a bus into Center City and paying prime rates, I half-heartedly opt for the convenience and weirdness of Dominic’s.

Once while I was in the barber’s chair a skinny, edgy guy with a greying beard and several layers of well-worn clothing asked me, with a wink, if I smoked.

“Not cigarettes,” I told him. He smiled and put two fingers to his lips as if he were toking on a joint and the sweet fumes were filling his bloodstream with happiness. I didn’t smoke pot, and his response made me regret my attempt at humor.

A few minutes later he said, loud enough for everyone in the shop to hear, “Wanna get high? Me and you. What do you say?”

This struck me as an odd question, especially since I was in the middle of a hair cut. “No, thanks anyway,” I responded.

This remark must have offended him deeply because he immediately stomped out of the shop.

“Don’t worry about him,” Dominic said. “He’s crazy.”

During another visit to Dominic’s, a short fellow came in. He was dirty, his clothes were wrinkled and torn, his face was puffy and badly in need of a shave, and he sported several fresh scrapes and bandages.

He proceeded to go from one person to another in the barbershop exposing his cuts and bruises while telling the story of how he had received them. He even went so far as to remove his bandages for a closer examination of the more serious wounds. To each person he said, “Do you believe this shit?”

“Looks bad,” I answered when it was my turn to examine the gruesome evidence.

As he told it, the night before he had been beaten viciously by his younger brother, who, the fellow explained, “just went ape-shit.” This beating had taken place while he was drunk, which had rendered him defenseless.

He seemed to be addressing all of us when he announced, “Look, you got a problem with me, you take it up with me. You don’t fuck with my girlfriend’s car.” This twist in the story took me by surprise, although no one else seemed put off by it. Nevertheless, the general consensus was that fucking with his girlfriend’s car was, indeed, a dirty trick.

He asked if anyone had any “pain pills.” Nobody had any pain pills, although one fellow suggested, in an unexpected display of common sense, that he see a doctor. This suggestion, however, was immediately dismissed. Dominic offered him some aspirin, which the beating victim enthusiastically accepted before leaving.

On yet another visit, the shop was empty except for Dominic, a young Spanish-speaking couple, and myself. I was surprised to see such a couple in Dominic’s shop. Dominic and his gang weren’t especially receptive to minorities in the neighborhood, so I assumed that Dominic’s cronies had been chased off by their presence.

Strangely, both the young man and the young woman wanted matching crew cuts. During each of their cuts, the other stood right next to the barber’s chair and spoke to the other in Spanish, only occasionally adopting English to give Dominic directions on exactly how to cut the other’s hair. At least twice they interrupted Dominic’s progress to kiss, and they laughed loudly numerous times to some private joke.

Occasionally, Dominic tried to make small talk with them, but they brushed him off with quick word or two in English. Nevertheless, they did explain that they were planning a six month camping trip to South America, with the final destination Buenos Aires, the young man’s birthplace. They wanted the crew cuts to keep cool during their travels through the tropics. They also admitted that they weren’t taking any firearms along for the trip, despite Dominic’s urgent advice otherwise.

Dominic was clearly overwhelmed by this couple. They had changed the atmosphere of the shop, and Dominic’s disposition was the worse for it. He seemed tired and listless. Maybe he missed his friends. Remembering his awful treatment of the retarded fellow, however, I could hardly muster any sympathy for him.

When they finally left, I remarked to Dominic that I had never seen a woman loose so much hair. Dominic said that in Center City they’d charge “Sixty bucks — minimum!” for such a cut. He had charged $25 for both.

Dominic also said that he “wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those crazy fuckin’ Central American countries without an Uzi and a case of grenades. The people down there, they got no regard for human life,” he said.

He then began cataloging the weaponry he had amassed over the years, a small arsenal by most standards, which he kept on the premises. “I’d like to see some son-of-a-bitch come in here and try to rip me off,” he boasted. “I’ll blow his fuckin’ ass off. You ever see what a thirty-eight can do to the back of a head? Leaves a hole the size of a grapefruit. I shit you not.”

Oddly enough, every time I’ve gone to Dominic’s he gives me a slightly different price. I haven’t seen the retarded man, and the nervous boxer featured on the walls of his shop is his son, whom Dominic helps manage. Dominic, a young looking fifty-eight years of age, used to be a boxer too. Like many small businesses in this neighborhood, his shop is actually the front room of his house, and virtually every room has a cable hook-up. “Christ Almighty, it costs me $65 a month,” he growls. “I don’t know why I do it.”

Just as I entered the shop during my most recent visit, Dominic said to me, “Hey, what happened to your hair?”

His cronies looked up from whatever it was that they were doing — TV, newspapers, porno magazines — and they too asked, “Yeah, what happened to your hair?” They were all staring at me like I was Eraserhead or something.

Nothing had happened to my hair. Sometimes it gets pressed down or stuck straight up on one side while I’m sleeping, and it’s difficult to get it to lie neatly.

I thought they were kidding, so I said, “Nothing. What’s wrong with your hair?”

Nobody laughed. “Sheesh,” said one of the guys, shaking his head in dismay. The others just shrugged.

“Ah-ha,” Dominic exclaimed looking at my head as I sat down in the barber’s chair. His cronies looked up in expectation. “The cowlicks.”

“Ah-ha,” sounded his colleagues, nodding their heads knowingly, as if the mystery had finally been solved, “the cowlicks.”


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