I am by no means impeccable, nor is the art I create, perfect. No matter how hard I try, there is always a flaw, somewhere. I don’t let it stop me, however. I respond creatively, then move on to the next piece and try again. I learned my pursuit of perfection from Mr. Blackburn, my instructor in barber college.
In 1973 at Aurora Barber College I learned the fundamentals of barbering and anatomy in the back room and practiced on customers in the barber shop in the front of the building located on a side street of the low rent district of downtown Aurora.
On the first day of school I was assigned chair 29, the last chair. I would eventually make my way to the first chair. Each week as students graduated, we packed up our things and moved up to the next chair. Customers knew that if they asked for the 25 cent hair cut they might get someone who had just begun school. You could start anytime. The winos and bums (we call them “homeless” now) made that choice. Fifty cents was a little better. The odds were your barber had some experience, and of course, a dollar got you first, second or third chair—someone who was about to graduate.
“Chair 29!” I heard my chair called over the intercom. Wearing my turquoise smock over my orange-and-brown tweed mini skirt, my shag haircut pulled back softly, I rose out of my chair. (It’s what we all did, sat in our chairs, read The Practice and Science of Standard Barbering and studied the muscles and bones of the face and head while we waited for our chair number to be called.) I unfolded my perfectly creased chair cloth, moved behind my chair and stared as a scruffy old man sauntered down the long narrow aisle. As I watched him coming toward me, I wondered if he knew I had never cut a head of hair in my life. He didn’t say anything at first, as he settled himself in the chair. I draped him with the black and white striped chair cloth, wrapped a neck strip around his neck according to sanitation regulations and tightened the cloth with a silver clip I kept in my smock’s breast pocket. As I pumped the chair higher, he said, “Give me a regular.” This was code: taper in the back, clean up the sides, a little off the top. Most regular customers of a barber school know enough not to ask the last chair for a shave.
Mr. Blackburn, the owner and head teacher, ran his school strictly, demanding punctuality and cleanliness. Sanitation was maintained with a few drops of a blue solution called Barbercide poured in to a glass jar containing our combs. Little tablets of formaldehyde were stored inside our tool drawers where we kept our shears and clippers. Fragrant bottles of Pinaud Clubman shave cream and talcum powder glistened on our back bars. At the end of each day before anyone could leave, we each stood behind our chairs while Mr. Blackburn paced slowly down the aisle eyeing the chrome base of each chair for hair still remaining after we swept. He wore black pants and a crisp white shirt everyday. Each morning a different student styled his gray hair in a pompadour by using a brush and blow dryer. He, of course, only trusted students in chairs one, two, or three for a haircut.
My grandfather, Julius Zabielski, was a Polish immigrant to Chicago in 1917. I married a barber, became a barber, a hair salon owner and eventually a wearable art designer. There is a connection. Notice the posture.
Bessie Zabielski had her own style. She, too, immigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1917. Coincidentally I wore the same style hat in my first poetry reading and I love flared skirts.