Join the army and see the world!

That’s just what Karl did: the German Army. 

In it took him to the outskirts of Moscow, on to St Petersberg, Poland, Czechoslovakia, he toured the low countries, and finally, France. His war tour was just about over.

In Normandy, just outside Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the American Army took over his travel arrangements. 

Karl, along with thousands of other German tourists, were taken across the ocean to Vermont. There they built roads, repaired bridges and cleared forests (today we call that that infrastructure). The pay was not good. In fact, it was nonexistent. No bother. They came with low expectations. They weren’t seeking a better life. Life would do. They were prisoners of war. The New England winters didn’t bother them. They remembered all too well the draft from Siberia. It was a good deal. The Americans got free labour. The tourists got three meals a day and the chance to learn English. They also escaped the chaos and rubble that was Western Europe. When their war was finally over (1950) some went back to what was left of the Fatherland but more than a few preferred life without bomb craters and rationing and the chance meeting of fellow comrades on the street. They chose to stay put. Slowly they were absorbed in this new freedom. Eventually Karl was discharged, abandoned really, in New York City. The first thing he did was to take the subway to the Bowery where the second hand shops sold everything from kitchen stuff to barber’s scissors and acquired a pair of professional barbers’ scissors. He began to practice his old vocation. It was the early 50s everyone wanted sprucing up. Everyone needed a haircut. Karl was in business.

In the Bronx, in a small store-front on McClellan Avenue, just east of the Grand Concourse, Karl put out his shingle, or in his case, a sign in the window. It was not a busy street but “Karl The Barber” was one man and two chairs. He didn’t need many customers. 

Although he spoke with a heavy accent, he was not mocked by the locals. With a few exceptions. Small kids taunted and teased outside his window. They made the Nazi salute and with their index finger a mustache, then tore down the street passed the candy store laughing with delicious terror. When he burst out in his white smock, razor in raised hand and yelling loudly in German. That’s how he got his nickname in the neighbourhood, The Mad Barber. But grownups left him alone. Who in that neighborhood did not speak with Eastern Europe, Germany or Russia on their lips? Everyone had a past they wanted to keep there. Everyone had been kicked from pillar to post by events. And everyone had an ambition of one kind or another. Ambitions, yes. Pretensions, no. Initially, Karl’s ambition was to be left alone and have enough to eat. His time in the war had left him with a hunger which even with extra helpings would not go away. Long kosher salamis hung from the ceiling in his room, hardening by the day. His body stayed thin. The same with cold. A storm hit the city and left 2 feet of snow in front of the building. An arctic wind followed and turned the snow into a block of ice which the city soon made black. Karl’s building at least had steam heat. He took over a spare room in the basement, between the storage room filled with bikes and baby carriages and the large black boiler that turned the residents’ garbage into cans of ash which the city collected every 2 weeks. It was a dark, a quiet place, a safe place to collect thoughts

Karl practiced English by listening to baseball. Baseball games on radio were his tutorials. He listened to Red Barber describe how the Yankees won. He started to read. First the sports pages of the New York Post. Then novels were his favorite (he had seen enough history not to want to read about it.). One day a man came in while he was deep in a book about Brooklyn, where the tree grows. You know the one. They talked while Karl snipped. The man, an ex-Marine, liked his haircut and liked Karl. 

“You’re buried here. Manhattan is where rich people walk their expensive dogs, a cup of coffee can set you back a buck and reputations are made.”

“Why do I need a reputation?” 

“To build up your business. Have you no ambition?”

“In my experience getting noticed gets you into trouble. No?”

They left it for the moment. But the next time the man came in for a haircut he had a proposition. 

“Look, you’re a talented guy and (I bet) not afraid of working. Let’s put that graft to better use than here. Come and work for me. Take a chance, what’s to lose?”

“What would I do? All I know is cutting hair.”

“Look, a haircut can be $1.25 or $10:00. Same cut, same hair. On the East Side men spend a fortune grooming themselves. I believe you could be in the middle that.”

3

That was the beginning of the The Complete Gent, a busines concept that caught the imagination of men who were following their wives into better clothes. Name clothes.

Maybe not Chanel or Dior, but Cardin and Geoffrey Bean. They needed to look good. 

Karl liked the name, The Complete Gent. A promise, a statement of fact. Nothing phony or European about it except for his accent and the occasional “Scheisse!”under his breath when he clipped more than hair, and apologized profusely. 

Complete Gent started with grooming, and grooming started with a haircut. Men would come in, unbutton the top of their shirts, take off their shoes and relax. Karl had the ability to make them forget the office, the meetings, the bad news phone calls, the desiderata of life. Hot towels, soothing fingers on their temples, Dave Brubeck on the speakers. No news channels, no hectoring commercials, no world outside. 

Karl and his mentor opened first one shop and then another. Each had the peace and solemnity of some place special. None had more than 2 chairs. Personal and service were unspoken watch words. They followed their concept with a line of products that followed the men home. Shampoo, scalp rubs, conditioners and skin balms. Each priced 50%/100% more than the men ever intended spending on themselves. Packaging was confident, plain, masculine, inviting indulgence. Hand addressed packages arrived at Christmas and customers’ birthdays with that understated wrapping paper. Each was signed by Karl and his (now) partner. New employees were trained by Karl. 

By year two, they were in the money. And Karl was out of the Bronx. In year three they were targeted by the big names in male grooming. Gillette, Old Spice, and Procter and Gamble came calling. But the partners felt most at home with an Italian brand backed by the designer Giorgio Armani. Two trips to Italy and ten years after the war ended the deal was done.

Now Karl could pack his bags and travel, and see the rest of the world.

5 thoughts on “Join the army and see the world!

  1. Gerry, So…” More, please! Hungry to read more of Karl’s story. Separate email ckeck-in to follow. Best to you, my friend. – Rory

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