Lessons From a Barber Shop
Ralph Avellino’s barbershop was always buzzing. A thick smell of Vitalis filled the air, rivaling the cheap cigars some patrons smoked. Clippers buzzed while people flipped through magazines like Field and Stream or True or Popular Mechanics. They read Tom McCahill’s review of the Studebaker Hawk or laughed over Virgil Partch’s cartoons in True. People spoke to one another. The place was a haven in a heartless world. Ralph’s shop was a public square, a place where issues could be debated without rancor or polarization.
Common wisdom says, “Never discuss religion or politics,” but in Ralph’s shop these were the main topics of conversation. Where else could Protestants learn about Mary, or Roman Catholics about Protestant hymns? Jews were able to explain their approach to God. The Orthodox got to tell why they were neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics. Even the neighborhood atheist got a fair hearing. We came together as a human crazy quilt, stitched from the hairs that covered Ralph’s black and white tile floor at the end of the day.
Everybody got a hearing, even young folks willing to speak up. As soon as you could raise your voice, you could chime in your opinions. Social ills surfaced, were fine-tuned, debated, and solved to the music of the scissors.
I may be blinded by the halo nostalgia tosses atop our memories, but everyone seemed to know a little more about his religion, though at times we heard glaring stereotypes and simplifications. Furthermore, people knew they should put their faith into practice even if they weren’t real good at it. On a superficial level you might harbor racial or ethnic prejudices, but in your heart you knew it was wrong to do so.
The argumentative nature of the barbershop was just part of life in my hometown, Philadelphia, that wonderful city with the reputation for having the worst – and the most argumentative – sports fans in the country. But even if you disagreed completely with the other person’s position you were not free to trash the person or the position. You had to listen. You could leave the shop with your own take on the truth unchanged, but you had to listen because that’s how we get along in a diverse culture. People realized that they could hold to the truth of their position without having to destroy the other person’s reputation or life.
In Ralph’s barbershop, I think people believed that religion was more important than politics in the long haul. Politics dealt with time, religion with eternity. Folks knew this and acted on it. People would say, “This, too, shall pass,” when politicians they didn’t want were voted into office. They put up with local ward heelers and petty magistrates as the trappings of big city life.
Ralph’s barbershop was neither a church nor a synagogue. But it was a public square where people of widely differing backgrounds came together and exchanged more than the time of day without acrimony and with a measure of style and grace. Not bad for a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. Not bad at all.
Wouldn’t it be healthy and affirmative if more churches and synagogues and mosques were safe place to discuss and learn like that barbershop of fifty years ago? So often we enter into places with our minds made up in advance, unable to yield or shift positions from the polarization that has overtaken our culture. Let us celebrate those places where we can engage in conversations that transcend religious and ethical divisions – and let us pray for and work to create more of them for the welfare of the city.
published 5 June 09