I’d Do It For Free – Franklin Farmer
Every summer in my teen years, the 1960’s, I helped my Uncle Henry in his barbershop. My uncle’s shop was the only black barbershop in town and was always busy, particularly in July. This was the hottest Saturday in July.
My job was to sweep up after each haircut and to handle the cash register. The shop was full all day. One after another, young boys surrendered their thick growths of kinky black hair to the clippers. The most common “style” was called the clipper shave. All the black boys in town and the surrounding county looked like recent Marine recruits.
As my uncle finished up the last two young customers, a large coal black woman came in the door. She was dragging a light-skinned girl with thick straight hair hanging nearly to her waist behind her. My uncle asked the woman if he could help her. The woman was holding her nervous charge by her arms. She said to my uncle, “Can you cut this girl’s hair? They ain’t going to have no time for all this mess.”
The girl tried to break the woman’s grip and bolt through the door when she heard what was coming. My uncle replied, as he examined the girl’s hair closely, “Well, something shorter for summer might be a good idea,” then he said to the girl, “It’s gonna be a real hot summer.”
The woman said, “Let’s go we ain’t got all day.”
My uncle brushed off the chair and shook out the cape. As the girl got into the chair and my uncle wrapped the tissue around her neck, my uncle began to brush her hair, which fell like a black cascade down the back of the chair. Trying to relieve the girl’s tension, my uncle said, “Let’s see how much we’re gonna cut off here.”
The woman said, as my uncle reached for the scissors, which he rarely used on his typical customers, “Don’t bother with them, I want you to cut it all off.”
Hearing that the girl started to cry. “No, please, no, Auntie, no.”
My uncle said, “Well, you’re the boss.” With that he reached for his clippers and said to the woman, “Now you’re gonna have to hold her.”
The woman positioned herself in front of the chair and literally sat in the girl’s lap, holding her arms. My uncle said to the girl, “Don’t worry baby, hair always grows back, that’s why I’m in business.” He then said to me, “Hey son, get the broom, you gonna have a big job to clean up here.” He then turned on the clippers and said, “Turn her around away from the mirror.” Then he pushed the naked clipper blades to her forehead, the clippers cut a swath on her scalp 2 inches wide.
My uncle continued, each pass removing hair until the girl’s scalp was completely denuded. The woman released the girl from the chair after my uncle had brushed the last remaining locks from her shoulders to the floor. The girl was still crying as she looked in the mirror and saw her shaven scalp. The woman ran her hand over the girl’s scalp and gave my uncle $1.00 and wrapped a bright red scarf around the shaven girl’s head.
As I was sweeping up the fallen locks, my uncle said, “I get such a thrill out of my work, I’d do it for free.”