The Barber’s Sanctuary
By Shelia Stovall
Mr. Jewell died today. I heard the news at the Piggly Wiggly. The cashiers talked among themselves trying to estimate his age. A wave of sadness washed over me and I remained silent though I knew the answer. I’d heard him brag last summer at the V.F.W. fish fry that he was about to celebrate his 90th birthday. Remembering that hot afternoon, I recalled hearing a young man ask him “When you gonna retire Mr. Jewell?” He replied “Only the good Lord knows. He didn’t put us on this earth to do nothing. As long as I’m breathing and able, I’ll be cutting hair.” Before he died this morning, Mr. Jewell had just finished cutting Wilbur Johnson’s hair. He then stubbed out his cigarette and collapsed on the floor with scissors in his hands.
Jewell’s Place was where most men went for a haircut and shave. Many old men had visited daily to share a cup of coffee and gossip. Grandpa and Daddy had been regulars for years. My husband had experienced his first hair cut at Jewell’s Place. I wanted to take my son to a hair salon for his first trim, because I knew women were not welcome in the establishment men referred to as “the barber’s sanctuary.” In the south, there are two businesses where women are not welcome: the pool room and the barber shop. I had never entered either. The men in my family insisted on the tradition of my son having his hair cut at Jewell’s Place. My husband informed me “Real men do not go to hair salons.”
I was determined to be present for my son’s first haircut and so I was grudgingly allowed to visit Jewell’s Place with my husband as an escort. I hesitated as I crossed the threshold, taking in the scene. The room was lit by fluorescent lights. As I looked around the tobacco stained paneled walls, I breathed in the smell of cigarette smoke, burnt coffee and Vitalis hair oil. I turned and saw an ancient drip coffee pot with a lopsided sign taped onto an old cigar box: “Coffee 10 ¢, Drink the last cup, brew the next pot.”
Mr. Jewell smiled and with a grunt; he bent down onto his knee to meet my son. Mr. Jewell asked him “Do you like cherry or green-apple lollipops?” After making a new friend and a regular customer, Mr. Jewell lifted our boy and said “Let me introduce you to Miss Delilah.” Witnessing my raised eyebrows, my husband whispered “He calls the barber chair ‘Miss Delilah.’”
The other men stared at me and didn’t say a word, but Mr. Jewell talked and hummed without ceasing. He tapped his toe and kept beat as Johnny Cash’s voice resonated from an ancient radio singing “Ring of Fire.” I’d been warned that Mr. Jewell might grab a fiddle hanging on the wall and break out into a square dance jig, so the singing did not surprise me. I held my breath as I noticed Mr. Jewell’s lit cigarette burning so close to my baby’s head. The long ash extended, but Mr. Jewell seemed to know exactly when to tap the lengthy burnt tobacco into the overflowing ash tray. I’d witnessed a cigarette burn on my husband’s collar more than once and feared my precious boy would suffer the same, but my husband told me to relax.
Sitting in a creaking, black vinyl chair, I took the opportunity to study my surroundings. An old goose preserved through taxidermy was displayed on one wall and a trophy large-mouth bass was hanging on the paneling across the room. Cobwebs clung to the goose’s wingspan and I was curious about the last time it had been dusted. The checkerboard tile floor might have been black and white once upon a time, but the white tiles were now closer to grey in color than white. The well-thumbed, Field and Stream magazines on the table next to me were over five years old. My husband explained that as a boy, he’d looked forward to visiting Jewell’s Place so that he could read every word from cover to cover. Mr. Jewell had a reputation for being an avid fisherman and he had more than one fish tale to tell which had often been retold to me after a visit to the barber’s sanctuary.
As he cut my son’s hair, Mr. Jewell said “It don’t matter if the economy is good or bad, hair still grows, and I charge so little, that even a poor man can get the same good looking haircut as the banker.” The other men stared at me and I turned my head but wondered how Mr. Jewell kept the place open if these were the sort of customers who patronized his shop. All of the four men staring at me were bald and appeared to have little need for a barber. Mr. Jewell’s hands worked quickly and he made the last snip and kindly handed me a plastic bag with curls for a keepsake and said “Now that little Mike and me are buddies, we’ll not trouble you to come again.”
I understood his gentle hint and asked him if he would pose for a picture. He smiled and held my little man with his cherry lollipop waving. I snapped a picture and thanked him for tolerating my visit. I knew my place and therefore avoided the barber’s sanctuary. It fell to my husband to take our boy in for regular haircuts and I had no reason to enter the men’s haven until one spring. With long days and little rest, my husband had not had time to visit the barber shop and both he and my son were in dire need of a haircut. After and elderly lady commented on my cute daughter but thought she’d look prettier in a dress rather than overalls, I decided to take matters into my own hands. When I suggested that my son let my hairdresser trim his hair, little Mike replied “Real men don’t go to hair salons.”
Flipping a coin, I told my son, “Heads we go to my Miss Becky’s, tails we go to Jewell’s Place.” I flipped the coin and our fate was sealed. We were going to the barber’s sanctuary.
I entered the room and conversation ceased, as if an untrusted adversary had entered the room. No one was sitting in Miss Delilah’s seat so little Mike smiled when Mr. Jewell indicated for him to jump up. Mr. Jewell cleared his throat and was about to speak to me when we heard a commotion from the back of the shop. It sounded as if several shelves had fallen. Peering down the hallway, I was surprised to see Miss Myrna, a spinster, and longtime member of the Smithville Women’s Club. She was tying on an apron and eyeing the room with disapproval. I saw her bucket of cleaning supplies and wondered if she’d been hired to clean, but I’d never known Ms. Myrna to do anything other than volunteer work. She’d inherited funds from her Papa, a lawyer.
Mr. Jewell said “Now honey, this ain’t the place for you.”
Miss Myrna said “Jewell, the honeymoon is over. What kind of a wife will people think I am if I don’t help you clean your shop? It’s my privilege and duty as your wife to take care of such things.”
All attention had been transferred from me to her. It appeared that Mr. Jewell had not shared the news of his recent marriage with anyone as I took in the open mouths of the men with eyes bugged out in disbelief. Mr. Jewell had been a widow for about 10 years and Miss Myrna, or Mrs. Myrna now, had never married. I was trying to calculate the age of the couple, but before I could get my mind wrapped around what I’d just heard, Mrs. Myrna grabbed a broom and attacked the old goose on the wall. Dust flew everywhere and we all started sneezing. In the frenzy of sneezing, a cigarette fell into the trash can where something flammable created an instant “poof” and flames erupted from the stainless steel trash can. Men were jumping and cussing left and right. Two were trying to get out the front door and another called for help to be pulled from the recliner in the corner. I was stunned into immobility while I witnessed Mr. Jewell calmly wet a towel. He dropped it over the top of the trash can and the flames were immediately smothered. Ignoring the noise of the smoke detector, he walked to a closet and pulled out an old window fan. He propped open the front door, plugged in the fan and placed it in the entry.
As all the old men resettled themselves, Mr. Jewell silenced the smoke alarm. When he finished his task, he looked at Mrs. Myrna with furrowed brows and with his hands on his hips he said “This is a place for men and only men. My customers like it just the way it is.” He kissed Mrs. Myrna’s flushed cheek. I studied her straight backbone as she considered refusing to leave. The only sound was that of the fan pulling the smoke from the room. Relaxing her shoulders in defeat, she shook her head and said “I’ve got better things to do.” And with that she returned to the back room with her cleaning supplies. No one said a word as we listened to the racket of her putting things away.
Trying to shrink into my seat, I knew what was coming next. Mr. Jewell turned to me and said “Young lady, your Daddy would not approve of you sitting among these rough men. I believe there is an empty stool at the drug store with your name on it. I’ll return your boy when I’ve trimmed his hair.”
He motioned to the propped open door and as I exited I heard an applause from the men. I’d learned my lesson well and that was the last time I entered the barber’s sanctuary.
My son continued to visit Jewell’s Place on his own after that visit, and just last week he had a trim for the same $5.00 fee. It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since his first haircut. We never know when it will be the last time to see an old acquaintance and this was the final lesson he would learn from Mr. Jewell. A sudden death leaves a hole in our life, a shift in the patterns of routine. There’s not another place like Jewell’s because there’s not another person like Mr. Jewell. He lived through the depression, plowing with mules, he saw the electrification of the countryside, and was a World War II veteran. His first car was a Model-T Ford. Imagine his awe when he saw the space shuttle lift off at Cape Canaveral. His faded blue eyes witnessed more changes than I can imagine.
Jewell’s barber pole has been turning for 60 years, 6 days a week for six hours a day from 6:00 am ‘til noon. But the doors are locked and lights are out because Mr. Jewell’s work is done. The good Lord has called him home. We’ll miss the gentle barber who liked to smoke, and sing and dance, and every now and then, trim a young man’s hair and tell a tale of the fish he caught and the one that got away. Mr. Jewell died today, but he will never be forgotten.