The Barbershop

A fixture beneath the tracks

By Brian Doyle | July 17, 2015
Paul Gorbould/Flickr
Paul Gorbould/Flickr


The barbershop was under the railroad tracks and it was tiny and it was where hunting and fishing magazines went to die. The barber called everyone Joe and everyone called him Joe. Our dad went there every three months to have his crewcut edited. He would stoop through the low door and a bell would murmur and the barber would say hey Joe and our dad would grin and say hey Joe and then he would sit and read the newspapers. There was a plethora of newspapers. Men off the trains would bring papers when they arrived and leave them when they left, so if you looked closely, you could find copies of The Forward and The Irish Echo and sometimes newspapers from other countries and languages and religions. Other men were always there reading papers and waiting for haircuts. We cannot ever remember seeing a woman or a girl in the shop. There were three chairs and when the barber’s chair opened up the man in the first seat would rise and the other two men would move up one chair each. If a new man ducked in through the low door and saw the three seats filled, he would say hey Joe and the barber would say hey tomorrow? and the new man would leave. Once while we were there sitting on our dad’s lap in the third chair, a man came in and saw the chairs full, and he tried to wait by the door for a chair to open up, but that was not the way it worked in the shop—you could feel the silent disapproval—and finally the man left, looking uncomfortable. No one said anything about this. The only sounds you could hear were the snick of Joe’s scissors and the crinkle of newspaper pages and the faraway thunder of the train.

We got so we could tell if the faraway train was heading east or west and whether it was the express, which would wail right through the station without stopping, or the local, which would stop just above the barbershop as it came to rest and the doors would sigh open and men would bustle out. A few women would step out, but mostly it was men in fedoras and overcoats and raincoats carrying brown or black briefcases and newspapers. Sometimes we would meet our dad at the train platform and we got to be good at noticing which men were slightly too hail-fellow-well-met, slightly too cheerful and genial and amused; those men had hit the bar car.

The barbershop was crammed and crowded with mirrors and combs and scissors and postcards and photographs and headlines from famous New York City events like the Blackout in 1965 and the Knicks in 1970. We thought that probably the barbershop had been there for many centuries, and if you looked under the yellowing newspaper cuttings you would find desiccated deerskins with headlines from the old days when people who called themselves the Peaceful People lived there. They had hair too, of course, as our dad said, and so of course they had barbers, and maybe they called their barbers Joe also, who knows? It could even be, said our dad, that the current Joe was old enough to have cut hair for the Peaceful People. You never truly know boundaries and frontiers of the possible, but the current Joe was always so busy cutting hair and saying hey Joe to men ducking in through the low door that we never found the moment to ask him about that; so the possibility remains that the barber under the railroad tracks when we were children long ago is not only still there cutting hair, which would be remarkable, but also had been cutting hair in that spot for something like 500 years, which is perhaps not likely, but is, faintly and amazingly, possible.

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