January 30, 2014

By T.W. Burger, (c) 2014

Virgle and meVirgil chatted happily as he snipped and buzzed around my hair and beard.

I was home.

Short and stooped with a proud nose below a high forehead, Virgil Rossi moved thoughtfully, stopping often to dredge up memories and to talk.

Virgil gave me my first haircut. He has been cutting hair in the same shop for 74 years.

It had been a long drive west through the mountains of Pennsylvania, in winter, the Turnpike looping through clouds of leafless trees smudged with evergreens.

I was home; not where I live, but where I began, the town where I was born but left when I was still small. I have ancestors in the ground there going back four or five generations, including my parents.

I sometimes visit their graves, not because I think that they are there; what is down there are ruins; spent machinery, abandoned vehicles, vacant houses, the occupants long gone. I go there to think, about them and me and my brother and how we all fit together, however poorly, in the scheme of things.

From the front stoop of the little barbershop I can look to the left to the stony hill where they lie, on a steep slope overlooking the Shenango River, where my mother and her father used to gig for frogs.

George Young Miller was a rough, profane steelworker with a fondness for liquor and a disdain for the soft college kids who came to work at the mill in summer. Martha “Bunny” Miller was a tomboy who used to beat up the boys who picked on her sisters. She got her nickname because as a little girl she was fond of pulling carrots from a neighbor’s garden and eating them on the spot.  She spent WWII in the U.S. Coast Guard, and was once demoted for laying her immediate superior out on the barracks floor for bullying one of her friends.

Mom and I drove one another crazy, but she was one of the strongest people I have ever known.

My father was a grocer’s son, raised by his mother and grandmother. His mother was the grocer. She died in the 1970s with a lot of people still owing her money.

Dad’s father, the son of an itinerant fire-and-thunder itinerant Baptist minister, was a notorious drunk and womanizer who worked sporadically as a night watchman. I still have one of his pistols, a Harrington & Richardson five-shot hammerless revolver that couldn’t hit a wall if you fired it in the house.

Dad and I bought a box of cartridges once and set a Blatz beer can on the ground about 10 feet away. We used up the whole box and never hit the can once, though we dug up the ground around it pretty well. It was one of the few things Dad and I ever did together.

Dad’s father, Bill, disappeared for several years in the late 1940s. He showed up again on the mean streets of Sharon, wearing the same suit of clothes he wore when he disappeared.

I have only a handful of photos of him. His face reflected the various ruins he suffered. I went to his funeral at the age of three months. Mom said my father wept, but I don’t remember.

Dad went to West Virginia’s Bethany College on a basketball scholarship – he was president of his fraternity — but could not afford to go on to the graduate level. He married his first wife, had a daughter, joined the Navy, fought in the Pacific in WWII, and then went to work in a steel mill.

He divorced and remarried, had two sons, became an engineer through night school, and then went to work for a major corporation, which used him up and spat him out, as major corporations are wont to do. He was passed over for promotion any number of times because, as it turns out, night school engineering degrees are a lot less shiny and impressive as are those earned by younger men with the wherewithal to go to graduate school.

Until he had his first major stroke, he would sit alone in the darkened living room, chain-smoking Viceroys and staring at the wall. We never knew what he was thinking.

Just before she died, my mother said she wished Dad had been better at fighting. He didn’t even cuss well. Mom, however, could make the air crackle when the mood hit her just right.

The Rossi & Rossi Barbershop is a rectangular wood building maybe 10 by 20 feet, clad in gray asphalt roofing tile. Its front sits parallel to a chain-link fence that stretches out on either side and surrounds an old steel mill that looks abandoned.

The shop could pass for a guard shack if not for the sign and the traditional red, white and blue barber pole.

I had wanted to stop by the shop for some time for a haircut from Virgil.

He is the only Rossi left in the shop. His brother, Ralph, died several years ago.

Virgil is 89. I am 64.

He’s kind of a big fish in Sharpsville. This past December 10 was declared “Virgil J. Rossi Day” by the mayor.

My first haircut was a while back, probably 1950 or 1951. I sat in that shop, in that same chair, probably on a padded board stretched between the armrests of the Koken chair, and probably cried most of the way through the process. I don’t really remember crying, but I do recall sitting in the bay window reading comic books and sitting in that chair getting my ears lowered.

My dad, my brother, and I all had our hair cut there until we moved away in 1957 or so.

From the bay window, I would sit listening to the men talking about work, that place where my dad disappeared to every morning and from which he returned, weary, every afternoon between 4:30 and 5:00. Some of the men listened to baseball games on the radio, cheering or jeering. I think I learned some of my more colorful vocabulary there.

Virgil did not remember me, but then he had been cutting hair at that same space since 1940. Not at the same chair, though. He was working at one of the two “new” chairs that had been installed in 1950, a year after I was born. They were genuine Koken chairs, invented in 1900 by a German immigrant. The name brand is still around, but it owned by a Japanese company.

The old chairs had been in use since 1927, when Virgil’s dad opened the little shop a few blocks away. Some years later, the Rossi’s had the whole building picked up and moved to its present location. I think I remember hearing that it was hauled by mules or horses, but I’m not sure.

As I said, Virgil didn’t remember me. He asked who my father was.

“Ralph Burger. He played basketball for Sharon High.”

“Oh, Sweet Jesus!” He exclaimed. “Hell yes, I remember him.”

Virgil lives in the house where he grew up. He shares it with memories. Papa and Mamma Rossi are gone, as are his brother and sister.

“I come home after work,” he said. “I look around and I remember where they all sat. I look at the clock and it says 6:30. I say to myself ‘Virg, it’s time to go out to dinner.’”

He played clarinet and alto sax in the Carl Marks Band and the Joe Cann Band, when big bands were still the rage, and there were venues for them.

The bands are gone. He was the soloist in two of them, and for one he is the sole surviving member. The local venues are gone, too; Yankee Lake, Idora Park, and others.

He still performs in concerts for two local concert bands. And he still solos.

And he still works six days a week. He awakens, eats breakfast, packs a lunch, and walks to the shop. He has never taken a vacation. A friend called him from Las Vegas not too long ago, and asked him if he could take a month off and sit in for an ill clarinet player in a show band. He could stay with his friend.

“I had to say no, but it broke my heart,” Virgil said. “It was like a dream come true, but too late. And who would run the shop?”

He finished my hair and trimmed my beard; a little shorter than I had planned, but no matter. It will grow back.

He showed me photos pinned and taped to the walls; family. His first cousin, Carmine Orrico, better known as actor John Saxon, photos of the Mercer Community Band, a gathering of gentlemen of a certain age, including Virgil, arrayed in their chairs in matching white shirts.

Virgil allowed me to take some photos. It was a big day for me, a step back into a time when the world was a lot smaller, and I believed in Heaven, and the angels in the cemetery on the hill watched over me.

It was time to go. I had obligations, and I had already spent more than an hour steeping in my own history.

Virgil would only take 10 bucks for his work.

Trimmed, blown off, and newly-scented, I shook his hand and thanked him for the trip back to my childhood. He grinned and told me to come back any time, even if I didn’t need a haircut. I stepped out into the faded industrial street, part of me still basking in the 50s, when the town was full of jobs and new cars. My ’97 Olds wallowed in potholes as I turned the corner and headed back to the present.