I remember riding my old bike down the main street sidewalk as fast as my legs could pedal. My Little League baseball glove was swinging back and forth from the handlebar in rhythm with my pedaling like the pendulum on a clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Down the curb, up the block, swerve to miss the couple leaving the bakery. The air hitting my face made my eyes water, but I couldn’t slow down. I had been playing ball at the park and completely forgot about it. I hoped I could make it there on time.
I finally approached my destination out of breath, my legs and lungs burning. I snuck a look at the upcoming windows to see if the place was still open, then I slammed on my brake, finally there. I didn’t have time to come to a stop before I abandoned the bicycle, my feet hit the sidewalk and I ran for the steps of the glass store front. As I heard the falling bike scrape the sidewalk behind me, I bound up the steps to the giant wood framed glass door and gave it a good push. The door didn’t budge. As I looked up from the step, I saw a hand grab the sign on the other side of the glass, which by then was eye level and two inches from my nose, and flip it from “open” to “closed.” There I stood trying to catch my breath, staring at the sign.
As I took a step back on the stoop, feeling defeated, sweaty and staring at the red letters through the glass, the hand that still held the sign then flipped it back over from closed to open. Still gasping, I looked up from the sign to see what had become a familiar smile.
As he unlocked the door and opened it, I blurted out something like, “I need a haircut, Buster!” Still smiling, he welcomed me in and assured me he had time for just one more.
To walk into Buster’s barbershop was quite a treat. I’d been there many times with Dad, but this was my first solo cut, and I was excited. Thick woodwork, a floor with just enough creakiness in it to make it cool, and mirror for miles on each side wall. There was always this special scent about the place that was a mixture of talc and aftershave. It wasn’t overpowering; in fact, I remember it being perfect. Like if I could pick out one kind of cologne, after shave, air freshener and fabric softener for the rest of my life, it would be that scent. Often, an old television set on a stand would be on by the front door. Along one side wall sat a few coffee tables full of magazines divided by a mix of chairs and benches that faced the barber chairs. To top it all off, there were the old-style barber chairs.
This particular shop had two chairs, although the one closest to the window was the only chair I ever remember being in use. The other was for over flow, I think, when the place was full, as it often was. Both of these chairs were porcelain, metal and leather works of art. White and leather chairs designed and crafted, most likely, by God himself. These chairs were the most comfortable chairs in the history of the planet, as far as I was concerned. Head rest, foot rest, arm rest, hydraulic lift. Swivel. Style and grace. The perfect chair.
I remember asking Buster that day about the Marine flag that hung on the wall near the back of the shop. He told me that he had joined during wartime, maybe 1942 or 1943. Although I assumed when I was young that he was a G.I. Joe-type soldier, I never asked him what he did during the war, and he never really offered that information. As his scissors clicked away and hair fell around my shoulders and down the apron, he shared about his service in the most unique way. As he spoke, I was taken on a world tour, first to basic training and then on to the South Pacific. He talked of the people and the beauty of the places and the traveling to and from as it were a wonderful thing to have been able to do. He recalled how different it was half way around the world in climate and sights and sounds. He described trees in colors and shapes and textures. Experiences with the food and drink, even candies. Islands, rocks and sands of a million different colors. Bodies of water hundreds of feet deep so crystal clear one could see bottom. Most striking, still today, was that he painted such a rich, beautiful picture of his experience, without complaint. Wartime in the South Pacific. Beautiful. And while I realize the possibility that he could have been talking heaven instead of hell for the sake of the kid in his chair, I think there was much more to Buster, and to his barber shop.
I’m positive there are a lot of people, spanning quite a few generations in my hometown, who have a story or memory of the little barbershop in the middle of main street. Dads took sons there, and sons grew up to take their sons. I guess it would be that way with any place that was open for almost 60 years.
Buster’s shop served as a melting pot in our community, as much of a melting pot as one can have in a Wisconsin town of under 2,000 people, anyway. And it was authentic. Genuine. A stop at the barber shop at any time would offer a good sample of the people who made up the community. The banker would sit next to the farmer, who sat next to the business owner, who sat next to the truck driver. The doctor’s kid sat next to the factory worker’s kid as they waited for their turn in the most awesome chairs in the history of sitting.
The door would be open on most nice weather days, and people walking by would exchange greetings with people inside, Buster being usually the first to wave or smile.
There was always chatter, at the very least. No one ever seemed to sit silently there. Over the years I learned that no topic was off limits. Everything from the weather to the Cold War. From taxes to religion to politics to popular TV shows and movies. All sorts of sports were discussed. From time to time, rumors and gossip were explored. Fishing and hunting stories got bigger as the years went by. From the neighborhood to the continents, I would bet it was all placed on the agenda of the day for discussion at one time or another.
But the magic of the barbershop was that while there were at times passionate discussions and debates, they never fell into arguments. I don’t remember name calling at the barbershop. I don’t remember seeing or hearing about anyone ever storming out of there. People with completely different views and backgrounds poured each other cups of coffee from the pot on the counter. The mayor held the door open for the out of town stranger. I don’t remember anyone telling someone else to shut up or anything of the sort. I think Buster was a kind of gentle tie breaker sometimes when two or more were discussing taxes or fishing or foreign policy. It was a job he did well… and often, always in a way that was fair and where both sides felt like they had gained something. In the end, there was a respect and a common drive to reach an understanding, and not to win an argument or to prove someone else wrong. After all, back then the farmer needed the banker, who needed the business owner, who needed the truck driver. We were all connected. We were all “we,” and it was a neat time to be we.
Many years have passed since that particular time of my youth. Although Buster passed away a few years ago and the barbershop as I knew it back then is now a memory, I keep the place and the echoes of the stories and lessons from there. In a world that often seems to be train wreck after train wreck, I miss being met at the giant door with a smile and a friendly greeting. I miss the subtle creaking of the old floor as I walked across it on the way to sit in the most amazing chairs ever crafted. I miss the positivity in the gentle old Marine who spoke of the wonderful beauty in things, rather than the ugliness, and who always seemed to have time for just one more. I miss the welcoming, unforgettably perfect smell of the after shave and talc. I miss witnessing the process of difficult problems being solved, and not being made worse. I miss the sound of one person talking at a time, and not so much everyone demanding to be heard at once. Buster and his barber shop left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I often think about how neat it would be if that old sign could flip just one more time.
In memory of Leland “Buster” Chase