For a while now, I’ve been restoring a classic old barber chair from the turn of the 20th century that was missing its headrest. I finally found a replacement online. It had a metal tube attached to it for holding a roll of sanitary paper used for covering the headrest. When I cleaned it up, I pulled the paper off the roll to find a section that wasn’t water damaged and to my amazement, words began to appear. Someone had unrolled the paper, written on it in pencil (in beautiful, fine handwriting), and then had rolled it back up again. After reading it, I contacted the seller, but he told me the headrest had been found in a box of random junk and he had no clue as to where it had come from. I don’t know what to do with this strange and disturbing document, except to share it with you here.
Maybe this is a mistake, maybe this will all turn out to be a huge mistake; the biggest in my life. Maybe it was a mistake getting involved with him in the first place. But I can’t stand this waiting and, if things go really wrong, I want someone to know why I really done what I done. Folks will talk and make things up otherwise. It might take 100 shaves or more before someone finds this, but then they’ll know. Or this maybe this is what will hang me.
I knew him a long time; he used to come to the big shop downtown where I got my start. But I don’t think he ever learned my real name. “Smoothshave” he always called me. He was a big tipper so I’d grin and say “Yes sir! The day I draws blood is the day I quits!” or some other such nonsense. I guess it paid off, because one day he offered to set me up in my own shop. It wasn’t much, just a one chair place in the old part of town, but it was mine, more or less. I knew what he was and who he worked for; everybody did. But, for me, he only had two conditions:
First, “respectable” men could use the side door inside the place that connected to the cathouse in the same old hotel the shop was a part of. That was all right, it brought in more business for me; some guys do like to look nice for their favorite whore.
The second was that he could get a shave on a Sunday. I’d get up every Sunday at dawn, just before he arrived. It was always the same; he’d show up yawning with a couple of thugs in tow and carrying a brown valise. I’d shave him as he dozed in the chair, then he and his boys would wait for this big, fancy car to pull up and he’d take the bag out to it and the car would drive away. I never saw who was in the car (before this morning), but whoever it was, made him nervous and I guess he wanted the shave to look his best for them. Once that was done, they’d leave and I’d close up for the rest of the day, like the law said I had to.
Folks might say it was about the girl, but I barely knew her. I first saw her working the street outside the shop. She looked fresh off the farm, in her too-tight print dress and long braids, but she was no bumpkin. She played the pitiful waif perfectly, but you could see the hard, heartless thing she really was in her eyes, the minute a mark’s back was turned. He showed up one day and started talking tough to her because she was working his street, then soft. She left with him, so I guess she must have liked what she heard. When I saw her around a couple of times after that, all the farm was scrubbed off her and she was dressed fancy, with her hair bobbed, bleached and waved.
So, last night was the Big Fight. I was plain sick of hearing everyone argue about it and was glad when it was over. And it seemed like everybody had a bet on it. That must have been why she took the risk she did.
One of his boys woke me a full two hours before dawn and told me to open the shop. None of them are men you say “no” to, so I did and didn’t ask any questions. We waited a while and then a car pulled up. He came in leading her by the elbow with two more of his thugs behind, carrying luggage that they dumped in the middle of the floor. Along with everything else, there were 2 valises like the kind he always brought on Sundays and they were bulging. He sat down on one of the waiting chairs and had the girl stand with the luggage, in front of him. She was trying awful hard not to look as scared as she was.
He started by telling her he didn’t mind that she had decided to move on, but wanted to make sure all her accounts were settled with him before she left and that she wasn’t taking anything that didn’t belong to her. He pointed to the 2 bags and had them set aside. Then he pulled a billfold full of receipts out of his coat and started thumbing through them. While he read off the things he had bought her, the thugs dumped out her luggage to find what he felt belonged to him, which was everything. Then he produced receipts for the hat, coat, dress and shoes she was wearing and they stripped them off her. He even had one for her brassiere, but not her silk stockings or pink, satin pantaloons.
She just stood there, shaking a little from the cold and fear of what might come. Maybe she hoped he would let her go now; I think she would have gladly run out the door even as she was, if she could.
But he pulled more receipts from the billfold. These, he told her, were from all her trips to the beauty parlor. Bills for haircuts, peroxide, permanent waving. He said that must mean he owned her hair and so it wouldn’t be right if she left with it, either. Now we all understood why he had brought her here. He looked at me; told her to have a seat in the chair. You could see she just wanted to survive this and so she did what he said.
I picked up a cloth to cover her, but he said not to. She sat there straight up, like a little girl in school, and everything was silent for a moment. Then he barked “Do it!” at me and I jumped and fumbled for the right tool. I thought it would be best to do it quickly as I could, so I grabbed the clippers. Maybe, for a moment, she had hoped it would be just a cruel threat, but not anymore; when I turned back towards her, her head was hanging down.
So, fast and gentle as I could, I started cutting her hair off; clipping it to the scalp, like I would with a kid who came in with lice. I started at the nape, where her hair was the shortest, and just went straight up the back. The thugs watched with disinterest while he smirked at the sight those platinum curls tumbling down her front and into her lap. There wasn’t a sound except for the crunching-clicking sound the clippers made as I squeezed them and moved them forward as fast as I could.
It all only took a few minutes until I had every hair on her head no longer than a day’s growth of beard. I’d let her keep her head down the whole time, but now she raised it up and looked at him; make-up running down her tear stained face. It was not the first time I’d had a crying woman in my chair since the bob got popular, but I felt awful sorry for what he had made me do.
She just sat there, covered in her curls and looked at him weakly. He pulled out the billfold again and looked through it, he said, to see if there was anything else. He pulled out another bill from the beauty parlor for getting the blonde of her roots touched up. So, then, he also owned her roots. She looked at him confused, but I knew what he meant.
I whisked off as much of the hair on her as I could before I took a towel from the steamer and wrapped it like a turban around her head. She gasped at the heat and realization of what was coming. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, but I was too scared to say anything. I just stropped my razor as she started to sob. He laughed and said it would be alright; he praised me for never having cut anyone and I had told him I would quit the business the day I drew blood. He told her to be a good girl and hold still so that wouldn’t happen, otherwise he’d be forced find someone else to give him his Sunday shave.
I mixed up lather and brushed it on. I really did want to do the best job I could for her now. And she did sit as still as a stone, tears streaming from eyes squeezed shut, as I pulled the razor slowly and carefully over every inch of her scalp until the gray skin up there was smooth. I gently took a warm towel and wiped the remaining lather off.
When he told me not to be stingy and give her the works, I splashed some bay rum on her head and she jerked. He ordered me to rub hair oil on her head to make it shine. Then he told me to show her and I turned the chair to the mirror. She just stared at herself, like she didn’t know who she was, her shoulders slumped. He even made me use the hand mirror to show her the back. He got up, came over to her, and slapped his hand on the top of her head and rubbed it around, then backhanded her across the mouth. He pulled her to her feet and told her she was still a long way from paying him back and she was going to work off every cent.
He made her pick up all of her stuff, including her hair, and cram it back into the bags. With mocking gallantry, he let her wear his overcoat to carry everything out to the car. Then he told his boys to take her to the “darkie” whore house.
They left, and he stayed behind with the two valises. Looking pleased with himself, he took off his coat and settled in the chair for his shave. He was dozing by the time I took the hot towel off. As I stropped my razor, all I could think about was the old laundry chute to the basement. The laundry down there closed up a long time before I took over the shop, so I had found an old crate and put some shelves in it and it fit just fine over that hole. He was snoring when I quietly moved the waste basket under the head rest and grabbed some extra towels.
After, I cleaned up and closed the shop, like every Sunday, and went in the back and tried to stay calm. It wasn’t long before that big car pulled up. It waited for a while and then a guy in a chauffer’s uniform got out and pounded on the door to the shop. I came out like I didn’t know what was going on and told him that if he was looking for my regular Sunday morning customer, he had taken a taxi right after he sent his friends away, an hour or more ago. Didn’t even stay for his shave, I told him. The chauffer walked back to the car and talked to someone I couldn’t see sitting in the back. Then he came back asked if the guy had been carrying anything with him and I said he had the two bags. When whoever was in the back of that car heard this from the driver, they sped off.
I have to wait, so it doesn’t look like I’m running. I threw the bags down the chute and put the shelf back in, tacked the money into the lining of my overcoat and thanked my dear, dead mother for teaching me to sew. Pretty soon now, I’ll just walk out like I’m going to church or something. I can’t take anything with me. I’ll just keep walking until I come to the nearest place to get on the next boat or train or trolley away from here.
I’m still not really sure why. The money, sure; but it was more than that, too. The way he just came into my shop and used me, like a tool, to do that to that poor girl. Maybe, in a way, it was for her. I can’t forget her eyes when she looked back at me, just before they took her away. Right then, that white girl and me understood each other. We were both his slaves.
So, like her, I’m taking my chance to escape bondage. But, if I keep my head, it just might be a good one. One black face looks pretty much like another black face to them. And a black face can always find another willing to help him out, especially if there’s greenbacks to go along. They never even knew my real name. “Smoothshave” they all called me.
And today I quit.