When I was a little boy, my mother used to take me to the barber shop next to Paley's Drug Store on Rockaway Blvd. "Hold his head still," the barber would complain to my mother as she stood next to the barber chair. I didn't like that barber. And he certainly didn't like to give haircuts to little boys. When I was old enough to cross the street on my own, I went to Joe's Barber Shop next to the A&P on the other side of Rockaway Blvd.
There were really two Joes at Joe's Barber Shop, and neither one had any problems cutting my hair. The older Joe had gray hair and a gray mustache. He looked old, especially to a young kid like me. It was in the late 1950s, so I guess I was around eight or nine years old, and he was probably near sixty. The younger Joe had shiny black hair and was probably in his late twenties. The older Joe smoked a lot. The younger Joe talked a lot. The older Joe just grunted.
Mr. O'Malley was one of the younger Joe's steady customers. He was older than the older Joe. Looking back, I'd say he was already retired. Every time I went to Joe's Barber Shop, Mr. O'Malley was already there sitting in a chair next to his wife, waiting his turn. I didn't mind waiting because it gave me more time to read the current issues of Look Magazine and Life Magazine.
Mr. O'Malley and the younger Joe always had lively conversations about politics and the world –– conversations which probably began as soon as Mr. O'Malley walked through the door, and continued until the younger Joe said, "Okay, Mr. O'Malley, it's your turn." And the younger Joe continued talking while he cut Mr. O'Malley's hair.
Mrs. O'Malley sat waiting in her chair, in her winter coat, with a kerchief tied under her chin. She never said a word. She just smiled. The older Joe just grunted. Me? I had my head buried in the magazines.
"Okay, Mr. O'Malley. You have a nice day," the younger Joe always said as he finished cutting Mr. O'Malley's hair. Mrs. O'Malley would then reach into her pocket book, pull out her small purse, walk up to the younger Joe, and put just the right amount of coins in his waiting hand one at a time. Mrs. O'Malley would then pull out an extra coin, and with an even bigger smile, place it in the younger Joe's hand.
"Why thank you Mrs. O'Malley," the younger Joe would say. And both O'Malleys would beam, and walk out the door.
One day Mrs. O'Malley reached in her pocketbook and her small purse wasn't there. She searched inside the pockets of her winter coat. Her smile disappeared. And she spoke the first words I ever heard her say, "Oh dear!"
"Pay me the next time you come in," the younger Joe said. But Mr. O'Malley would have none of that. He insisted on staying until Mrs. O'Malley walked all the way home and returned with the money to pay for his haircut.
Mrs. O'Malley had a long walk ahead of her. She had to cross Rockaway Blvd., walk down half of 157th Street and then down 156th Street to her house, and then back again. It seemed to take forever.
Mr. O'Malley was clearly uncomfortable. The younger Joe tried to engage him in more conversation, but all Mr. O'Malley would do was grunt and look sad.
"Are you okay Mr. O'Malley?" the younger Joe asked. In the mirror, he could see tears running down Mr. O'Malley's face.
"She's not coming back. She doesn't love me anymore," Mr. O'Malley muttered. The younger Joe looked bewildered. For the first time ever, he didn't know what to say.
"Look! There she is!" the younger Joe said. He pointed out the window! Mrs. O'Malley was walking up 157th Street!
Not believing the younger Joe, Mr. O'Malley got up from his chair, looked out the window, and saw his wife struggling valiantly up the street. With tears still running down his cheeks, he smiled and said, "she still loves me!"