Fred Harris – American Small Town Barber

Last year about this time, poets from State College, PA were invited to interview residents of Juniper Village, an assisted living and memory care center and to feature them in a poem.  Here’s my poem about Mr. Fred Harris.

Fred’s blue eyes twinkle,
his lank frame curls into the chair.
He smiles, lost in reverie —
a toddler’s first big boy cut,
the mother picking up a tendril
fine as milkweed silk, to keep…
the mingled scent of Brill Cream,
lather, Bay Rum, Old Spice…
the high school football hero,
proud and sheepish at congratulations
from the men… the rhythmic sound
of straight razor against leather strop…
the businessmen in suits and ties —
just a little off the sides, they’d say,
and Fred obliged.

In the 50’s, it was crew cuts and flat tops,
in the 60’s, duck tails and pompadours.
Then the 70s, when grim-faced dads
dragged in their sons,
and shoulder-length tangles
were made presentable.
“Got another one,” he’d grin.

Fred knew the pulse of Huntingdon,
and if clients sighed a weary sigh,
Fred gave their shoulder an extra pat,
and they’d smile a little, meet his eyes
in the mirror. No music in the shop —
“It runs the batteries down,” he’d say,
but he tuned in to hear the obits read
every day in case a regular died,
so he could pay respects.

After Fred swept the floor at night,
straightened the well-thumbed Argosy’s
and Field and Stream’s, turned the sign
to “Closed” and locked the door,
he drove home to the farm, made dinner
for the kids and Cassie — Mama Cass
he called her — saw to it chores were done,
saddled up Prince for a ride at sunset.
He saw Niagara Falls once,
went to Florida for a couple days,
but that was travel enough.
He had his barber shop, his farm,
people who loved him.
He was useful. He smiles,
remembering.

– Sarah Russell
For Poets United Poetry Pantry
Photo Source

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39 thoughts on “Fred Harris – American Small Town Barber

  1. Lovely piece Sarah. Reading this I recalled my first big boys haircut – and the well- worn box that the barber whipped onto the chair so I could see my little self in that vast mirror. Loved how your poem opened up at the end – a fine tribute to your subject.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Peter. I spent summer vacations in Northport, Michigan, where my grandfather and uncle were the barbers for over a hundred years, so I drew some on that experience for the poem as well as on anecdotes Fred’s son told me. Fred was in the memory care unit, so I met him, but had to depend on his son for the stories.

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  2. First I do love the idea of writing stories about the people… to be a reporter in poetry is a wonderful idea. It also created a feeling of knowing… i used to go to a barbershop as a kid, a place where mostly military men got their haricut….then came the 70s… and my mother trimmed my hair. Now I go to a hairdresser in a saloon…

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    1. Thanks a lot, Donna. All of the poems (about 12 poets participated) were wonderful and very well received. I think Juniper Village plans to do this in other states since it’s a national chain.

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  3. A glimpse back at years gone by that are very familiar to me. I loved the varied hairstyles of the decades, smiles. Lived through them all. He sounds like a salt of the earth type of person. A wonderful read!

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    1. Unfortunately, Fred is in late stage Alzheimer’s. It was framed, though, along with the other poems, in the hallway of the care unit where he lives. I like that people will learn of his life.

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  4. Wow. That is fantastic. Did you intuit/fill in the details. I was primed, but the Niagara Falls part really got to me. Have you read Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow? It’s one of my favorite novels (based in truth of what happened to small town agriculture). The main character is a barber.

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    1. After the poems were read, one of the people attending came up and said he knew Fred and that I had captured him and his care of the people in Huntingdon perfectly. I thought that was high praise, given the little I had to work with. I guess most small town barbershops share their legacy whether it’s in Pennsylvania or Michigan.

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  5. Gosh I love this and this idea. I am starting to lay the groundwork to interview the homeless people I meet so I can write poems about them. A lot goes into things like this so I love seeing it done. Beautiful.

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