My 3-year-old grandson likes to crank me up and down in my desk chair and pretend he is giving me a haircut. He knows the procedure well, although vague about how the cutting is actually done, which he cannot see. He then brushes me off and gives me a pretend taffy.
His mother takes him for his haircuts near her parent’s house in an old-fashioned neighborhood off of McDade Boulevard in Ridley Park that seems unchanged from our day. That’s the only place I know of that still uses the old Philadelphia term “taffy” for what the rest of the world calls a lollypop.
When I was only a few years older than him, I would get my haircuts alone, walking over to Schwab’s Barbershop on Long Lane, near the WWI memorial with its silver-painted cannon ominously pointed toward East Lansdowne. It was a non-union barbershop, cheaper than the others and always crowded. The two barbers were Schwab (I never heard his first name.), the older proprietor with a full head of white hair, and the younger Vince who I and all my friends preferred because he did not cater to our parents by cutting our hair shorter than we wanted. And Vince was faster, rhythmically clipping his scissors, even with his hand away from our hair.
Waiting among the adults was the worst part. If I did not jump up when it was my turn, I was afraid I would sit there unnoticed even as they closed. But if I jumped up too soon, I would burn with shame as I was sent back to my seat.
But once in the chair, it was all good. For kids, they had a flat seat that fit over the arms of the regular chair, and this raised me up an extra foot. They swung out the cape in front with a flourish worthy of a matador and pinned it at the back of my neck. They cut quickly and efficiently, frequently adjusting my head with a quick, firm but gentle touch.
They finished by rubbing in a sweet-smelling hair tonic that left my hair stiff, at least until I got home and my mother could see the results that always made her happy. They then rubbed a little talcum powder on the back of my neck, brushed away the cut hair, and flung open the cape with a shake. As I climbed down, they would hand me a “taffy” with a Tootsie Roll center.
I usually got my haircut on Friday afternoon so it would have time to grow out a little before I was back in school. Anyone with an obviously recent haircut was susceptible to the call, “Swats!” followed by a glancing upward slap on the back of the neck, not painful, but humiliating.
I did not appreciate how well I had it. When we moved to Lansdowne after sixth grade, my mother sent me to a nearby barbershop on Shadeland Avenue near Berkley. It was run by two old Italian men who spoke Italian to each other, but said nothing understandable to me. They finished by trying to cut the hair out of my nose. (Where are they now that I need them?) I held onto my trousers, not knowing what other hair they would try to cut. I hated the whole process, which is why my hair looks so long in my high school pictures.
By my mid-40s, barbers were no longer using the sweet-smelling hair tonic, and when they stopped giving me a taffy, I figured enough was enough. I learned to cut my own hair and get my own taffies. I never looked back.