Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Barber

(Published January 2011)

AUBURN, Neb. — On a Thursday in November, at a nursing home just before dawn, a 97-year-old man took his last breath.

Elly Ingersoll hunted pheasants and chased golf balls. He loved Lawrence Welk and Golden Gloves. Before dinner, he drank a vodka and Coke.

For 68 years he cut hair on the same block downtown. Businesses came and left. Faces and names changed. But hair keeps growing.

Start with the clippers. Outline around the ears. Taper it up. Scissors the top. Kick 'em out.

Five steps, 15 minutes. But that's not why they came from all over southeast Nebraska to the shoebox of a shop in a 19th-century brick building.

They came for the Ingersoll shortcuts.

The unwritten tufts of wisdom. The unspoken clumps of truth. The strands that bind fathers and sons.
Elly didn't have brothers or sisters. His wife, his dogs and his job were long gone.

But there was someone sitting beside him that Thursday morning. His business partner, his only child, the boy who followed Elly from the fields of Nemaha County to the islands of the Pacific Ocean and, finally, to the smallest storefront window at the busiest intersection in Auburn.

The next morning, just before Friday dawn, Joe Ingersoll climbed on his motorcycle and rode three cold miles. He unlocked the shop door and flipped the sign in the window.


Ingersoll shortcut: Predictability pays

Elly lived four blocks west of the shop. Walked up the hill to work, then back home for lunch. Up the hill in the afternoon, down at day's end, into the setting sun.

People drove by and offered rides. No, thanks.

Winter came and the weather turned cold, but he showed up at 8 on the dot and left at 5:30. Home only on Sundays.

Remember, every time a customer sees a “closed” sign, he looks for another barber.

Saturday morning in December. Bright and brisk.

The shop door opens at 8:04 and the day's first customer discards his coat and plops down in the lone barber chair.

Joe spins him toward a 3-by-5-foot photo of a pheasant hunter on the south wall. 1963.
That's when Elly moved in and the photo went up. Same for the mirrors, cabinets and lights, even the hydraulic chair.

Nothing has been replaced. Everything still works.

No phone — walk-ins only.

No women — too picky.

There's a milk-house heater on the floor, a 20-inch TV in the corner, combs and brushes for sale on a shelf, starting at 50 cents.

After each cut, Joe squeezes the used neck strip into a ball and puts it in a plastic container. At day's end, take the number of neck strips times $11.

“That's bookkeeping.”

Ingersoll shortcut: Don't talk money

A fella asked Elly how many heads come through the shop each day. Twenty? Thirty?

“Why?” Elly fired back. “You work for the IRS?”

When a customer who headed for the door forgot to pay, he used another trick.

“Hey, I think you forgot your change.”

Outside, trucks rumble. Listen close and a bell rings at the drugstore.

Joe dishes on the shake-up at the Police Department; three cops got fired. On the Christmas program at school; Joe's got two grandkids. On hunting season; Joe likes to shoot birds, but he's too soft for deer.

He offers suckers to two kids. “You know where they're at,” he tells a boy in boots.

Black-and-white photos adorn the walls. Grand Central Hotel in 1898. Downtown Auburn in the '20s, with Model A's lined up on the barbershop's street.

Old motorcycle photos are Joe's favorites. Customers bring 'em as gifts.

Joe has four bikes. His 500 Honda Shadow is a second barber pole. See it out front, you know he's here.

By 11 a.m., the linoleum floor looks like a calico cat, a medley of black and blond and brown and gray. A lot of gray.

Customers line up five deep, waiting more than a half-hour.

“You're next,” Joe says.

A man with thick salt and pepper on top sits in the chair and describes what he wants.

Dead giveaway. He's new in town.

Ingersoll shortcut: Go the extra 10 blocks for the customer

Some nights Elly and Joe took their clippers and scissors to the hospital, some nights to the nursing home. Occasionally the mortuary.

One Saturday, Joe was at the shop when he heard a crash. He ran outside to an 85-year-old customer on the ground next to his walker. Joe skinned him off the pavement. Helped him back to his car.

“I'll come by your house after work, and we can do it there.”

1922. That's when “Ingersoll Barber Shop” first appeared on a sign downtown.

Maurice Ingersoll started it.

His only child, Elly, joined him in '33. Competed with 17 barbers in town. Charged 35 cents a haircut, a dime a shave. In June 1943, Elly went to war. He cut hair on a ship in the Pacific.

He came home to the barber boom: Postwar America liked its hair short. Elly gave 'em their money's worth. High and tight.

He juggled long days at the shop with his new boy at home. Joe was Nemaha County's first baby of 1947.

Joe didn't see Elly much in those days, especially on Saturdays.

That was social night. Farmers came to town to sell eggs and cream and eat popcorn across the street from Elly's shop. Sometimes he cut hair 'til midnight.

Joe remembers one vacation — a trip to Colorado in a '52 Chevy.

The old man sure was snug with a buck. He'd sooner miss a meal than eat at a restaurant.

But Elly and his wife, Babe, caught every big band performance at the Eagles Club. Lawrence Welk's band came to Talmage, and the couple didn't miss a song.

On Sundays, Elly, Joe and the German shorthairs jumped in a '64 Chevy pickup and went hunting.
They hit the Golden Gloves in Omaha — Joe Tess' to eat fish, then to the fights. Fifty years straight.
Business slowed in the '60s. Damn the Beatles and their long hair. A lot of shops closed.

“We 'bout starved to death,” Joe says.

Elly moved a few times but didn't lose his job. He never even left the block.

Ingersoll shortcut: Or go the extra 10,000 miles

An Auburn soldier in Iraq received a care package stocked with beef jerky.

Adam Wenzl dug a little more and found a bottle of Kessler whiskey. Wenzl shared with his friends, then wrote a thank-you note home.

His unit, Wenzl wrote, had voted Joe Ingersoll the best barber in Nebraska.

Elly was bugging Joe that summer of 1968. Join the Navy. Better than being on the front lines in a jungle.

Finally, Joe gave in. He drove to Omaha and enlisted. He came home and opened the mail to find his draft notice.

He spent a few months in the Gulf of Tonkin, cutting 40 to 50 heads a day. He never set foot in Vietnam.

Joe wasn't much of a sailor. His best friend, Doug Boldt, cut hair in the same barbershop on the USS Arlington.

Doug remembers Joe ducking a brawl one night in Guam because, as he put it, “I'm a lover, not a fighter.” He recalls Joe getting misty in his barber chair reading “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

“Lifer,” Doug called him, because Joe was anything but.

“Boar-ass,” Joe fired back, because, well, Doug liked to eat.

In December '70, Joe came home. He walked into Elly's shop wearing scruffy sideburns. When he walked out, they were on the floor.

“Dad put the whitewalls on me.”

Joe took over the shop's second chair, but picking up clients wasn't easy. Elly knew what they liked. Joe didn't dare ask a customer for direction.

So when a regular sat down, Elly flashed signals to help.

One finger for the No. 1 guard. Two fingers for the No. 2.

At 65, Elly retired to give Joe most of the work. Elly went out to the golf course. Three days later, Joe walked in the shop and Elly was cutting hair.

“What the hell are you doing?” Joe said.

So much for retirement. Elly worked another 23 years.

But slowly, the son took over.

He learned to shoot the breeze. Memorize names, where a customer lives and where his kids go to school. Some nights Joe got home and felt more like petting the dog than talking to his wife and daughter.

He learned to perform through adversity. There used to be apartments above the shop. Occasionally a toilet flushed and dripped on Joe's bald head. “It wasn't near as funny then,” he says.

He learned to deal with weirdos. Like the guy who hadn't seen a barber in 18 years. He walked out with a big plastic bag full of hair.

He learned to welcome new faces. Like the day a boy hopped up in Joe's chair, the same place his great-great-grandfather once sat. Five generations.

He learned to appreciate old faces. One guy told the best hunting stories. Joe went out and bought a tape recorder, stuck it under his chair and asked for his greatest hits.

The guy died a few years ago. Every once in a while, Joe finds the recorder and pushes “play.”

Ingersoll shortcut: Bite your tongue

In 68 years, Elly never ran anyone out of the chair.

Not worth it in a small town. About the time you make an enemy, you're sitting next to him at the firemen's social.

Most of the time, Joe listened to his dad.

One time a husband came in with his wife.

Joe pulled out the clippers and outlined around the ear. The wife started pacing, sighing and groaning each time a hair hit the floor.

Finally, Joe had heard enough.

“I grabbed the cloth off the guy and said ‘Hit the road.'”

We will not recommend you to any of our friends, the woman declared.

“If they're all like you,” Joe said, “I don't want 'em.”

When Elly started, customers were talking about the New Deal. When he finished, they were talking about the new millennium.

Downtown changed. Stores started closing early on Saturday.

The industry changed. Fathers don't take their boys to barbers anymore. Mothers take their boys to beauticians.

About that time, Elly likely hit a milestone. Do the math: 25 heads a day, 300 days a year, 68 years. That's just north of half a million haircuts.

In 2001, Elly was closing in on 88. He started working just two days a week.

One Saturday he walked into the shop to find a customer in Joe's chair, and another five or six waiting.

Who's next, Elly asked.

“I'm gonna wait for Joe,” said the man in the first chair.

Elly looked at the second man. Waiting for Joe, he said.

Elly went down the line and each young face said the same thing. He walked past his empty barber chair, went into the backroom and took off his smock.

“Guess you don't need me anymore,” he told his son.

And he walked out the door.

Without the shop and without Babe, who died the same year, Elly found a new routine.

He drove his white Park Avenue to Casey's for coffee and doughnuts. At 1 p.m. he walked to the first tee at Auburn Country Club. He liked to fish balls out of the lake. Golfers worried he'd fall in and drown.

Every night Joe finished at the shop and stopped by the house. He fixed Elly's dinner, paid his bills, mowed his yard, gave him a trim once a month. No one cut Elly's hair but Joe.

Last winter, Elly ventured out and got stuck in a snowdrift. He got a room at the nursing home.

In October, 60 years after Elly and Babe and a 3-year-old boy moved into a new house, Joe sold it. He didn't tell Dad.

One night at the nursing home, Elly fell. Broke his hip. He took more pills the last three weeks of his life than he did his first 96 years.

The first Wednesday of November, Joe closed the shop. He walked into Dad's room at 10 a.m.

He sat in the recliner next to the bed. All day. All night. Into Thursday morning.

2 a.m. Elly labored to breathe.

3 a.m. Joe held his hand.

4 a.m. I love you, Joe said. “I probably hadn't ever told him.”

5 a.m. Elly was gone.

But hair keeps growing. And the next day, just before dawn, Joe went to work.

Start with the clippers. Outline around the ears. Taper it up. Scissors the top. Kick 'em out.

Sunday afternoon, a table at the visitation displayed Elly's old razors and shavers. “In the Mood” bounced off the chapel walls.

Monday morning, Joe put on his only suit. At the chapel there was barely an empty seat. Joe sat front row. Two old friends sang “How Great Thou Art.”

At Sheridan Cemetery, sunshine hit the fallen leaves, a medley of brown and blond and red.

At the minister's cue, Joe's old partner on the USS Arlington fulfilled his duty. He walked to Joe holding a folded piece of fabric.

“For Elly's service to his country in World War II, the United States government and a grateful nation present to you the flag for which our comrade served.”

Then he saluted Elly Ingersoll's only son.

When it was over, after the tears had dried and the crowd had gone home and the light started fading, Joe turned to his old shipmate, who drove five hours to the funeral.

“Well, we didn't do too bad, did we, Boar-ass.”

Ingersoll shortcut: Sometimes hair can wait

Joe used to work six days, like his dad. Not worth it. On Mondays and on Saturday afternoons, now he schedules grandkids.

Elly spent too many days in that shop, he says. He missed too much.

“But that's just the way that generation worked. Every buck counted.”

A few weeks after the funeral, Joe didn't show up for work. One day, then the next.

Down at Darling's Cafe, a rumor started: He had called it quits. Locked up for good.

When Joe came home from his hunting trip, he started getting questions.

“Kinda ticked me off.”

He found the source of the rumor and straightened him out.

When he retires, he'll let you know.

Joe pulls the apron off of a middle-age man, and thick brown tufts fall to the floor. The day's last customer hands him a check.

Joe balls up the neck strip and puts it in the bowl. One for each head. Times 11. Open the cabinet. Write the total in a pocket notebook.

Into his dustpan he gathers strands of Auburn. Dumps them in the garbage can.

Off goes the smock, on goes a jacket and camouflage hat. He changes shoes and pours out his cold coffee.

As he walks to the door, he tugs one light string, then another, then a third. Dark.

He flips the sign on the window. “Closed.”

He locks the door behind him. 5:01 p.m.

Winter's coming and the weather's turning cold.

He straps on his helmet and climbs on his bike, turning right at the light and accelerating down the hill.

Dad's road home.

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