For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Haircuts on Gun Hill Road

by Thomas Williams


henever I see guys with the shaved heads, you know, the Mr. Clean look, I have to laugh. I keep thinking of Frank the Barber up the hill on Gun Hill Road and Mario the Barber down the hill. Mario was down by Webster Avenue. Frank was up near Hull Avenue. They cut hair more than fifty years ago. If you didn't want to worry about messing up your hair, with that great pompadour, or your hair getting in your eyes, or your hair going every which way in the wind, Frank and Mario the barbers had the answer, and it wasn't shaving your head; it was the "green stuff."

For some strange reason, my family had a thing about haircuts. In good times and in lean times, as in no money, I always got a dollar from my mother or father along with the stern command, "get a haircut and give a tip" about every three weeks or so. In the 60s, when I was mostly gone from the Bronx and in school all over the country, my hair got long like everyone else's. I wasn't being cool; I wasn't rebelling. I don't know, I didn't like getting haircuts anymore. I'd like to think that I wasn't being lazy, that was another big no-no in my family, even worse than needing a haircut.

I didn't mind the clean look around the ears and the back of the neck all the time. It made my mother happy, and she deserved to be happy. I suppose the buck I got each time for a haircut was a factor, though. A buck was a big deal then, especially considering that Frank and Mario were great guys and didn't mind when I didn't lay on the big tip. Now, fifty years later, I think my long hair was all about Frank and Mario. When I left the Bronx to go to college I never found barbers or neighborhood barber shops like we had in the Bronx back in the 40s and 50s. And when I came home, they were gone. .Maybe the long hair look coming in back then told them it was time to pack up the beige wrap-around doctor's smock they always wore, the razor strap, the little black warm lather machine, the styptic pencils and the bottle of "green stuff. Sad day.

Well, I left home again for more school and each time I came home for a visit my mother would give me "the look."

"Ma, Frank's and Mario's are closed," I'd say.

"Go up by the Concourse and get a haircut," she'd say. And to top it off, I had to pay for it myself. I got to know what Thomas Wolfe meant when he said, "You can't go home again."

Frank and Mario were special guys. My parents first brought me to Frank's when I was too small to be counted as part of the neighborhood. I went to Frank's regularly until I was about eleven or twelve, and then discovered that there was a lot going on down Gun Hill by Webster.

Mario's shop was underneath a bowling alley and about fifty feet from the where the Third Avenue El tracks made an almost ninety-degree turn on Webster and headed across Gun Hill towards White Plains Road.. The trains produced that once-heard, never-forgotten famous steel-on-steel squeal as they headed towards White Plains Road.. It was even louder when the train had a little more speed coming down Gun Hill from White Plains and made the turn onto Webster.

At Mario's, between the bowling pins and the El, there was always something happening. And I liked him because he was fast, and in the summer he'd have Mel Allen on the radio...real loud. Up the hill, Frank was slower, much slower than Mario, and no ball game. Even though they each had three-seat shops, I never saw any other barbers there. When you went to Frank, you had to have some time on your hands. He loved to sing. He'd always include "Ave Maria" at the end of his medley. Then he'd say, "Did you like that? Tom, I think you should be priest." He was one of a kind, with a big crucifix hanging on the mirror wall. I always felt guilty when I started going to Mario regularly from eighth grade on. Funny thing is that I wound up going to the seminary to study for the priesthood. I never got to tell Frank

Both shops were the same. Same size, same kind of chairs with the big iron foot rest, same barbershop cactuses in the window, same razor straps. Both barbers were great slapping the old straight edge on the strap, and then that hot lather from the little black machine. That's when you knew you were almost finished, when they cleaned your neck. Mario was fast. Frank was slower with the razor and prone to nicks if he was singing. I'd always cringe then because I knew then that the styptic pencil was next.

Then there was the "green stuff." It came in a four-sided bottle, like a Johnny Walker bottle. There was a green and red label on the neck of the bottle and both barbers kept it on the top shelf by the black lather machine and the little box where they got those papers they put around your neck before the cloth. "Too tight, Tom," Frank would always say before launching into his first medley. "No, it's OK, Frank," I'd say, looking at my red face in the mirror. I knew he wouldn't hear me. He had already started his first song. It was always something from Puccini

By then I knew I was almost out of the chair (a half hour is a long time to sit when you're twelve), when Frank would put down the styptic pencil, grab the bottle and pour the "green stuff' on my head while swirling it around. He had to work fast because the set-up time was about ten seconds. He would comb using both hands. And there is was, a new haircut and a cool pompadour that would last for at least the next two days. The "green stuff" would harden to a "10" or more on the Rockwell hardness scale. You could go out in a gale with that stuff in your hair and not worry about a thing. I'd get out of bed for school the next morning and I didn't have to comb my hair. We didn't have bike helmets in those days. All you needed was a shot of the "green stuff" in your hair. Catch your wheel in the trolley tracks and go over the handle bars? A few scrapes and bruises was all. No head injuries with the "green stuff."

By my first year in high school, though, I was moving to the "dry look." The dry look and a little Man Tan worked wonders. That's all you needed for a sideways glance, a smile and a dance on Friday night at St. Brendan's, even with a St. Barnabas girl. I liked the "green stuff," and it was great while it lasted, but I knew there was no going back.

Mario always asked before he grabbed the bottle. Frank was pouring before you knew it. One time when I did catch him, I think he was hurt when I said, "No." Maybe he knew I was going to the dances with St. Barnabas girls and that meant no seminary. Who knows?

When I see these guys today with the shaved head look, I often find myself thinking about Frank and Mario the barbers, and the "green stuff". Not only them, though, but also the el on Webster and the trolley tracks, and Man Tan and the Friday night dances at St. Brendan's. Those shaved dome guys sometimes give me a strange look when they catch me staring, like, What's wrong with that old dude, is he senile or something? But I don't care. They probably never heard of Gun Hill Road. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again...even after a long time.

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