I don’t remember my first haircut but I know where it took place. It was at Frank’s Barber Shop on Pocasset Avenue in the Silver Lake section of Providence.
We lived on the second floor of a tall three-floor tenement (a triple-decker) on Rye Street. My Aunt Etta and Uncle Vito lived on the first floor and Helen and Harry Mitchell lived upstairs. We all shared the same green grass yard, the same dog (a cocker spaniel named Boe) and the same kids (my brother and I). One day I’d be eating macaroni (we didn’t call it pasta unless it was with beans) in my aunt’s kitchen and the next day Helen would be showing me her new Christmas tree ornaments that had bubbling water inside them. The Rye Street Elementary School that I eventually attended for about one month was right next door on the other side of our fence. Before I was old enough to go to school I used to sit on the 50 gallon garbage can next to the fence and watch all the kids at recess. I even had friends to play with when I was five. Jardo (that’s a girl in case you were wondering) and I ate sandbox sand while under the huge cherry tree in the backyard (there were no front yards in our neighborhood). I remember playing with Eugene (?) who once announced that he had the mumps; curiously I also had the mumps a few days later.
My mom did not work and she was obliged to take us everywhere on foot or by bus (my dad drove the only car to work). We would walk a couple miles to Olneyville to shop or four blocks to Frank’s Barber Shop for haircuts. I don’t remember much about Frank’s except that it had one big window in front and possibly a bell that rang when you entered. That all changed when my grandmother died and we moved in with my grandfather (1955). His house was in a village called Conimicut. It was in the suburbs. The house had a little side yard, no front yard, and a backyard that was almost all vegetable garden with one narrow grass path down the middle. We now had a pear tree instead of a cherry tree.
The A&P grocery, Rexall drugstore, Rainville’s Meat Market, Kennedy’s Bakery, Rainone’s Cobbler Shop, and Christie’s Restaurant were all on our block. Christie’s was owned by my grandfather’s younger brother who also lived next door to us. Today it is a community satellite police station.
One block over was Gus’s Barber Shop, right next to Joe’s Pharmacy (Joe’s had a wooden telephone booth and a soda fountain. Our friend Dennis passed out in Joe’s after being served 14 cherry sodas – that’s when he found out he had diabetes). Gus gave my brother and I crew cuts every summer and regular cuts the rest of the year. Some kids, like Norman the cobbler’s son, were not allowed to get a regular cut until third grade. A haircut was fifty cents and no kids were served on Saturdays – men only on weekends unless you wanted to pay the adult price. The only women who ever entered the shop would be escorting little kids who were not yet old enough to go alone. Most kids were ‘going alone’ by the first grade. You just stopped by while walking home from school (Conimicut Elementary, three blocks from home, 6th grade crossing guards on every corner). Customers never had appointments. You just dropped in, sat down in a chair against the wall, and memorized who was before you so you would know when it was time for your fifteen minutes with Gus. We got our hair cut at Gus’s until about 1970 – that’s when Gus found out he had cancer. For a short time my dad and I would go to Gus’s house for a haircut. He still had one chair and was not yet ready to quit. My dad did not want to quit him either. A good barber makes you want to come back. And if you ever dare stray he will know. The height of embarrassment is to hear your barber ask “Who cut your hair? He really butchered it.”
We needed to find a new barber shop and the only logical choice was Louie’s. Louie’s was on the south end of Conimicut, a whole three city blocks from our house. It was right across from the Pioneer Market (the Pioneer was owned by the Douquettes – I went to school with Peter and Paul Douquette). Louie’s opened for business on a permanent basis back in 1929. It was actually opened a few years earlier but Louie left and went back to Italy for a while.
He came back in 1929 and reopened the shop and it has been in business continually since then. Louie is long gone, the shop having been bought in the early 1950’s by Paul. Paul once told me that one reason he emigrated to the United States from Italy was because he was tired of not having enough to eat. Italians ate well in the United States, not in Italy. He explained that for most people in Italy life was hard and they did not have all the things we enjoy over here. He would visit Italy on occasion but he never wanted to go back there to live. Paul would always ask me how I wanted my hair cut and I would tell him to just use his judgment – he knew best. Paul wasn’t the only barber at Louie’s; we also had Henry. Henry was from Northern Maine and many of his relatives were French Canadian. Henry had a bit of an accent (Maine will do that to you) and always kept up a good conversation, especially when telling me about his young son. I moved out of Conimicut in 1976 when I got married. We lived in Cranston for a year and moved on to Coventry, a half hour drive from Conimicut, where we remained for 32 years. Our most recent move has taken us even farther away to the southern part of the state. Paul is semi-retired now and is only occasionally seen at Louie’s.
Paul’s son Mark has been cutting hair and talking up a storm right where his dad left off for many years. He has inherited his dad’s talent for both cutting hair and conversation. On busy days John, a barber from Coventry, holds court at the middle chair. We also sometimes see the newest staff member, Al (Marc’s nephew – a real young guy). Henry, still at the window chair, is aging ever so slowly as we all are (he’s been a grandfather for many years now). My son had his first haircut at Louie’s. I took my dad there for his last.
These days I get a haircut about every couple of months or whenever my wife complains about my appearance. When I walk into the shop I say “Hi” to the guys and take my place in a seat along the wall while taking note of which customers are before me. I’ve been going to Louie’s for over 40 years and somehow I don’t expect that to change very soon.
A final note about the 1929 barber pole: the only way to make it light up is to turn the crank (notice the crank hole on the left side) just like with a Victrola. The last time I was there Henry was kind enough to demonstrate. This experience was truly one of those “you learn something new every day” moments.