He was wild-eyed with ghostly white flesh, and, to my 8-year-old-eyes, ancient.
He had just enough flesh hanging over his bones as he ran by the candy store to seem like a skeleton in hot pursuit. In his white barber’s coat he was a horror comic cover with a surreal hospital theme: a post-mortem doctor chasing an unwilling corpse, scalpel at the ready.
I see him still: tall, gaunt and deadly earnest, long legs carrying him along much faster than they should have been able to: down Sheridan Avenue and up McClellan Street with an open barber’s razor held high in his right hand.
Seconds before we were his tormentors, dancing stupidly in front of his window. Now our faces were contorted with fear, eyes wide and and ears pulled back as if by the wind.
An exquisite terror urged us on. We ran for our lives.
Meanwhile, six blocks away, at 161st and River Ave, the Yankees would be winning, or Mickey or Yogi or Rizzuto would soon make sure they would be by the end of the 9th. All was normal in the west Bronx.
The barber, German, an immigrant—-surely a survivor of the war—-but on which side?—-had a small shop on a side street off the Grand Concourse. We’d tease him by dancing around the front of the shop, banging his window, one leg tensed for escape. He showed no reaction while he clipped and shaved his customer, until the moment our awful teasing and ignorant chants (“Heine”? “Kraut”? “Nazi”?) dredged up what-ever demons lay shallow in his skull. In one movement he was away from the chair, out of the door, razor high. We were gone, around the corner and up the hill to the Grand Concourse, laughing and screaming. Right on the Concourse towards 167th Street and the refuge of the alleyways that ran under the Art Deco apartment buildings standing side by side, welcoming sentinels of safety. We headed for their dark storage rooms and dusty furnace rooms and finally, at the back, concrete rear “gardens”. You wanted to get in amongst the rusty bikes and dusty baby carriages of grown-up babies, and disappear, hearts pumping, in the blackness. You did not want to get caught out back where there was only one way in and out, and the walls too high to climb.
Today the same buildings, with their tongue-in-groove flooring, spacious sunken living rooms and Deco multi-colored tiles, along with the 20-minute commute on the D Train to Columbus Circle, are waiting to welcome a new migration of young families seeking sanctuary from Manhattan, this time not from the terrible old ghetto-like lower-east side, but from the new uber-fashionable lower-east side where restaurants are good and rents are bad.
Unfortunately in both neighborhoods the sour pickles in huge wooden barrels are gone.
Besides playing hookey and going to Yankee Stadium (Bleachers, 50¢) this test of boyhood mettle and group sadism was the most exciting past-time in the neighborhood, a rite of passage and a truly dumb thing to do. How long could you wait before you ran? Who would wait the longest?
The Barber was a mystery. What nightmares exploded in his brain from a tragic or malevolent past? Was he a refugee from a concentration camp with faded purple numbers on his forearm, or one of its guards—-a Nazi who had been interned in America and after the war, and, as the 40’s dragged into the 50’s, simply let go.
Here amongst Bronx streets named for mostly useless Union generals, he found a little private war where for us every engagement ended with an egg cream, a long pretzel and an elevated heart rate.
From adrenalin rush to sugar rush, and the candy store: when you and your gang of desperadoes are 8-years old, what could be sweeter?