I get my hair cut two to four times a year on average, and when I do, it’s at one of those unisex salons down in Real City, part of a chain known for quickness and fairly low prices. But when I was a kid in Nashville, there was a very clear demarcation between hairstylists for men and women. Women would get their hair “done” at either the beauty parlor (for the carriage trade) or the beauty shop (for our class, most of the time.) Men and boys? We went to the barber shop.
The first barber shop I remember is the one I went to when I was about three, and it was called the Flat Top Barber Shop, which eventually became one of the salons I mentioned earlier. But in 1968 or so, it — well, it wasn’t that yet. I remember magazine racks and the smell of bay rum aftershave, and chairs with leather strops for sharpening a straight razor. I’d wait my turn, reading comic books my dad had bought at the J.P. Brown drugstore. Sometimes other adults would give me an odd look, especially when they realized I was actually reading, but I think they were mainly glad I was sitting quietly.
My barber was named Sonny, and in later years, Dad would say he thought Sonny looked like someone who would cut your throat for a nickel and give you back a dime in change, but he did a fine job of setting me up with the JFK-Jr.-with-bangs cut that was pretty standard for little boys of my era. He also would use that straight razor on the back of my neck, which made me feel like I was getting a shave like Dad. (A few years later, Dad grew a beard, which he kept for most of the rest of his life, but that hadn’t happened yet.)
When I was not quite five, we moved to my grandparents’ neighborhood in Hermitage Hills — the one I visit when I’m in Nashville. Probably just as well that I don’t visit the old one; I found out recently that my earlier home is now a scrub lot. Since we were now in a different part of town, we changed barbers, and that brings me to my actual focus today.
The Newport Barber Shop had three barber’s chairs when I was there. Again, there were magazine racks, which I recall as holding hunting and fishing magazines like Field & Stream, and a soda machine with a long, narrow door on the left side, which you would open to hand-select your drink. (On days when my parents were relatively flush, they’d let me buy an orange soda called Delish. After I finished, the empty bottle went in a nearby rack for deposit.) Out front was a motorized version of the traditional candy-striped pole, and the front window was painted with the shop’s name, its hours, and the fact that it was closed on Mondays — a fact I didn’t understand until Dad explained that barbers worked on Saturdays, so their weekends were Sunday and Monday.
My barber was Joe. In later years, I would learn his last name was Fitzpatrick, but as a kid, he was simply Joe the Barber. (Having been “raised right”, I’m sure I likely tried to call him “Mr. Joe,” but I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t necessary.) And when Mom would decide that I was looking scruffier than usual, she, or Dad, or my grandfather, would take me to the Newport, and although there were three barbers on duty, Joe would always cut my hair — again, the JFK-Jr. look, which I got until I discovered the Beatles a few years later. After that, I tried to grow my hair like Rubber Soul-era John Lennon, but somehow it kept turning out like Mamie Eisenhower.
But when I’d go to see Joe, even though I was a kid, and even if Mom was sitting in one of the waiting chairs by the magazine rack, I felt as though I was in a space of men. The paneled walls — at least that’s how I recall them — the magazines, the presence of other, older men all around; it felt very adult, and I remember being proud when I was tall enough not to need a booster chair, and again, when Joe would shave the back of my neck, I felt initiated in my own kid’s way.
And like all good barbers, Joe was a talker, and he was a listener. We’d talk about school, or about the treehouse in my grandparents’ back yard. I remember he was constantly amused by my idea of adding a bathroom to the treehouse, but if he was also amused by the fact that I almost never climbed up there — I was afraid of heights — he never let on. He was much kinder than that, and treated me with the dignity and courtesy that too few people realize a young boy can value.
And we’d talk about sports. I started playing football when I was six — tackle and full pads, because it was the early 70s in the South — and although I wasn’t particularly good at it, I read about it everywhere I could, on both the pro and college level. I’ve mentioned previously that by 1973, I had decided that Alabama was my favorite team — possibly because my team wore red and white, and possibly because they had a charismatic coach with a cool name — and I hoped to play for him when I went to college. As the years went by, I found other dreams, but I still cheer for Bama against anyone but my alma maters. So every year, I’d read the football previews published by folks like Athlon and Street & Smith, and when I’d go to see Joe, we’d talk about football. I’d talk about Bama, and he’d talk about his beloved UT Vols. Again, he took me seriously, which felt like a privilege.
We moved to Kentucky in late 1978. I wore my hair longer then, but when we’d go to Nashville, either for a visit or when my brother and I would spend weeks with my grandparents, I’d drop by and say hello, and as the years went by, the barber shop eventually became “Joe’s Barber Shop”, but I knew it really had been that all the time.
Of course, now that his name was on the door, he could make a few changes, and one of them brought him a measure of fame. As I said, he loved the U of Tennessee, and he decided to play that up. Specifically, he turned most of the interior UT orange, with pennants, schedules, and the various other bits of paraphernalia marking his allegiance to Vol Nation. One of the other barbers was a fan of UT’s in-town rival Vanderbilt, so that corner of the shop had some black and gold, but otherwise, it was all Big Orange, all the time. One of the Nashville papers did a human interest story on it, but the black-and-white photo didn’t do it justice. And until he retired, I’d stop by, just to say hello, because Joe had been as much a part of my life in Nashville as the posters on my bedroom walls.
I found out this morning (via Facebook, as one does these days) that Joe Fitzpatrick died yesterday. He joins his wife, and is survived by his daughters and their families. So long, Joe — and thanks for helping me grow up.