The Lesson – VaMurimi
The June sun was blazing as I headed home from school that Friday afternoon, thinking to myself that I would soon be free for the summer. Just two more weeks then baseball, swimming and learning to drive. I was only 15 that summer, but my Uncle Frankie had promised to teach me to drive if I helped him in the barber shop this summer. Uncle Frankie was one of the most powerful black men in town. His barbershop was the only black barbershop in the county and having a monopoly he made a very good living. As I rounded the corner into our front yard, I heard my grandmother calling.
“Eddie, your Uncle Frankie just called and he wants you to come to the shop and work this afternoon.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied as I dropped my books at the door, ran upstairs, changed out of my school clothes into the fresh white tunic Uncle Frankie gave me. I ran a comb over my near shaven scalp, brushed my teeth and ran back out the front door. All I could think about as I ran down toward Division St., the main drag in town was that each day that I worked I was that much closer to getting behind the wheel. I was breathless and sweating like a stuck pig when I reached the air-conditioned shop two blocks down Division Street. I expected to see the shop full of customers, but it was empty, like closing time. Uncle Frankie sat in the first chair, smoking one of his stooges.
“How are you doing son? I see you got my message,” he said as he got up to flick the long grey ash into the ashtray on the counter. “Today, you are going to learn how to cut hair, and it don’t matter how bad you screws up, no complaints,” he said with a deep chuckle.
I thought to myself, only a blind man would let a kid like me cut his hair, but this meant that that car was closer and closer to my reach. After all, if I was going to cut hair I was moving up from pushing the mats of kinky hair up and brushing off the customers for tips.
Uncle Frankie went to the door and put up the closed sign, but didn’t lock it. Then he turned to me and said, “You know about that cat house over ‘cross Route 1, down by Ole Anderson’s place?”
I tried to feign ignorance, not wanting my uncle to know that all the boys at school had lost their virginity there last summer. I replied, “Well, I heard about it, everybody has.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit, all you young bucks been there, I ain’t no fool. The new judge at the county seat had them raided and closed the house down. The sheriff arrested the girls who were still there and the madam. Yeah, they closed that old house down and them gals got 90 days in the County Farm.” My uncle turned to me and said, “That’s why I called you, they called from there – the farm has a lice epidemic and they want me to do their jailhouse haircuts before they go to the farm. That’s what I mean, these customers don’t complain,” then he chuckled again. “I’ve done this at the jailhouse and the county farm, believe me it’s going to get real messy here.”
I was so turned on by what my uncle was telling me, kept trying to remember who the whore was who had fucked me a year earlier, after all I would be the last man she saw for the next 3 months. Damn was I turned on. Uncle Frankie said, “Just watch me, I’ll do all the hard work, you just watch me and do exactly what I tell you.” I nervously replied that my hands were getting sweaty and I could feel my heart racing. “Well here they come,” said Uncle Frankie as a county sheriff’s car pulled up in front of the shop.
The county deputy came into the shop. She was a stout white woman, she looked very masculine in her tan tailored uniform. She removed her Sam Brown hat revealing a salt-and-pepper brushcut. She said, “Howdy, Frank, I guess you know what I brought you,” then she turned to me and said, “Is this young fella your assistant?”
Uncle Frankie said, “Well he’s my nephew and I’m kinda teaching him the trade. I told him that these customers won’t complain,” and again he chuckled.
“They shouldn’t be no problem, these gals know the routine. I’ll bring them in, Frankie, they want them real clean. I got handcuffs if they act out,” she said as she ushered in her three prisoners. I opened the door for the deputy.
“Sit down gals.” I looked at the “customers” trying to remember if one was the whore I knew. The deputy motioned to a woman about 35, light brown skinned, with thick straightened black hair hanging to her shoulders. “Come on honey, you know the routine, in the chair.”
Slowly the woman got into the chair. My uncle snapped the cape around her and turned to his customer and said, “This won’t take long, it’ll all be over in 15 minutes.”
Then the deputy said to my uncle, “They want them shaved clean at the farm.”
My uncle turned the chair to face the mirror, picked up his clippers and said, “Now watch me. This is all you have to do.” With that he removed the guard from the clipper head, held the customer’s head down until her chin touched her chest and pushed the clippers from her nape to her crown. Then he grasped her head while pushing the clippers around her ears, all the time a pile of thick black hair was building like a black mountain in her lap. “Watch, Eddie the clippers do all the work,” he said as he continued to buzz all of the remaining black hair from her cocoa brown scalp. Uncle Frankie was enjoying his work, as the smile under his mustache indicated. With each stroke, he said, “Watch this because this is just how I want you to do it on that next gal.” My eyes were locked on to the “customer” in the chair. “You gonna clip them and then I’ll take care of the razor.” Each stroke was slow and deliberate, his customer had long since ceased all resistance and seem to offer her scalp to each clipper stroke. When only a shadow of black hair remained, the customer looked down at her lap, sobbed inaudibly as my uncle proceeded to lather her scalp. With a few deft razor strokes he removed the last vestiges of hair. Then he said, “Eddie, you clip them and I’ll do the shaving, do you think you can do that? Just remember you can’t do nothing wrong!”
The deputy chose the next “customer”, a Mexican girl about 16 who was sobbing as she watched the previous haircut. The deputy grabbed the girl by her arms and literally lifted her into the chair. “O.K. Conchita, you don’t have this to worry about any more,” she said as she lifted up her thick straight black hair from her back.
The panicked girl screamed “No! No, please no. No my hair.”
The deputy said, “Grow it back in Mexico.” then she nodded to my uncle, who was ready to wrap the cape around his unwilling “customer”.
He motioned to the deputy, and said, “You better cuff the gal, so she don’t hurt herself.” The deputy firmly cuffed the squirming girl into the chair. “O.K. Eddie she’s all yours!” and he handed me the buzzing clippers. Uncle Frankie grinned slyly.
My hands were trembling as I could not resist the temptation to run them through her thick black hair. I wanted to comb her hair for the last time, but resisted the urge. Tears were streaming down her brown face as she cried.
“No señor, Not my hair.” She was staring into the mirror and looking at the “madam”, who had just been shaven bald.
“Eddie, bunch all this here together,” said Uncle Frankie as he grabbed the hair twisted around my hand. “Then clip it here,” he said holding the clippers at the base of her neck.
Then with one slow and deliberate stroke I severed a two foot mass of thick black hair, letting it fall to the floor under the chair. I had the most tremendous sense of power and exhilaration I had ever had. As I held her head in my hands I held her hair and buzzed from the nape to her forehead. Each pass left more and more exposed brown scalp. I held her head forward, pressing her chin to her breasts, before pressing the clipper blade to her neck. She writhed and wiggled in the chair, oh what power, each pass of the clippers added to the growing pile of black hair on the floor, which now mingled with the hair from the previous haircut. I could feel her pulse through her scalp, each pass of the hungry clippers rendered more and more scalp until a few final passes completely denuded her head. My uncle was watching each stroke and offering guidance all through the clipping as he stropped his straight razor.
“Good work, boy, I told you they won’t complain.”
The deputy said, “Frankie, you going shave this one good, we want her to be bald when she gets back to Mexico.”
Uncle Frankie was already applying lather to the trembling “customer”‘s scalp. “Don’t worry, this will last 90 days,” he said as he removed the stubble left by my clippers with his razor. “It looks like you’re next.”
There was a young white about 21, still dressed like she was at the cat house. Her hair was blonde and teased into bouffant as was stylish in the mid 60’s. She, like the first customer, had been to the county farm before. She got into the chair and said, “I ain’t gonna fight, this is better then having the guards do it.”
The deputy replied, “Yeah, we want you to look real good for the matron.”
As Uncle Frankie wrapped the cape around the customer, she lowered her head in anticipation of her fate. This time I decided to start from her forehead with the clippers. I turned them and held her head firmly. Her hair felt rough from the hairspray that held the hair up. For a moment before I turned on the clippers I surveyed my task. The teasing almost matted her thick hair. Then I turned on the clippers and pushed them from her bangs to her crown, letting the hair drop onto the cape. Then she reached up to touch the swathe made by the clippers. It was coarse from all the teasing. As I dropped a lock, my customer said, “Hey, I was gonna get a wig anyway.” I clipped from the back of the neck forward all around her ears and back across her crown. My “customer” said to the Mexican girl, “Don’t worry, hair grows back. Get used to it, this guy is a better barber than the goddamned guards.”
I left a shadow of blonde hair on her scalp before making the final passes. The “madam” nodded in agreement, and said, “It’s bad enough to have them cut off your hair, but they always cut you with the razor”
My uncle ran his hand over her scalp and said, “Just clean this up here on top and I’ll finish her off.”
I continued to clip the last remaining stubble as my uncle stropped his razor for his final “customer”. The Mexican girl was still sobbing and looking at her shaven scalp in the mirror. I looked at the pile of hair on the floor under the chair as I flicked the remaining hair from the cape to the floor. Again Uncle Frankie with a few masterful strokes consigned the last girl to the ranks of the shaven. My uncle said, “Eddie, well today you earned your driving lesson. You can cut hair and earn your keep around this place.”
The deputy lined up her prisoners and cuffed them together. The Mexican girl was still crying as she saw her mane being swept up from the floor. Then I remembered, she was the one from last summer, that turned me on even more! My heart was throbbing as my first customers were led off to the county farm. What a lesson! Today, after 25 years in the trade I can’t forget that experience.