Time, she can be a mean old wretch.
After 78 years, time has finally caught up to the Duke of Clover. For almost 100 years in this town of about 5,000, one or more somebodies named McCarter has cut hair, told tales and kept the world from spinning off its axis into chaos.
Just by being a stable place of stable men.
Times changed and the McCarters didn’t. Hairstyles changed and the McCarters didn’t.
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McCarter’s Barber Shop has been the place on Main Street where the turntable plays Roy Acuff, the 8-track player has Johnny Cash walking the line, and everybody sings along to “Stand By Your Man” with Tammy Wynette on the radio.
Last week, Duke McCarter gave his last haircut after a half-century of giving haircuts. It cost $7.
A haircut and a shave – with a straight razor sharp enough to cut off a sow’s ear – would cost you $10.
“Fifty-three years ago, I started cuttin’ hair,” said McCarter. “A kid was 50 cents, an adult 75 cents. We hated to go up even a nickel.
“The mill was across the street, these people didn’t have bathrooms in them early days in those mill houses that were so small.”
So on Friday or Saturday, a lot of those folks walked right into the back of McCarter’s to take a bath. Fifty cents for the bath, a penny for soap and a quarter for a towel.
“My grandfather was a barber; my daddy was a barber,” McCarter said. “Had so many mules that we figured we could cut their hair and make it look good, we could cut hair on a person, too. Of the kids, four of us was barbers. A couple a grandkids, too, for good measure.
“You might say heads and hair been mighty good to us.”
But Duke McCarter is the last.
Andy McCarter, Duke’s brother and partner in the business for 50 years, retired three years ago after a lifetime on his feet at chairs installed in 1934. Joe did ladies’ hair in the back for decades, too.
Seems there has always been somebody named McCarter behind the barber pole that still spins and the bottle of Barbicide – the blue-green stuff used to disinfect combs between haircuts.
The only thing nobody ever found at McCarter’s was cussin’. Foul language was tolerated about as far as someone could be thrown out the front door and into the street. The front door of the shop opens so close to the highway – Main Street is also U.S. 321 – you can feel the trucks whoosh as the door rattles open.
Along the side wall sits a stretch of chairs – old moviehouse seats, all in a row. Old Vitalis stains from a million heads still stain the paneling behind those seats.
“I was gonna do women’s hair, but I was so good-lookin’ and I did such a good job, that every woman I would have done their hair, I woulda had to ask them on a date – and I just didn’t have that much time,” McCarter said. “So I kept to the fellas’ heads.”
McCarter has been married to Maxie McCarter for six decades, and any talk about cattin’ around is like so many things in the barbershop – a fib, an amelioration, a stretch, a tall tale.
Or a bald-faced lie.
“I never told anybody they had to tell the truth in this place, I just tell ’em they have to forget what they hear when they walk out the door,” McCarter said. “Like my wife. We went together for two years outta high school. I loved her so much I coulda ate her. Now after so long, I wished I had.”
Into the barbershop one day last week comes man after man, middle aged and older.
While getting his hair cut, Ernest Gee, 80, talks of this barbershop as people talk of church cathedrals. Love and home, grace and fellowship.
“And a good haircut at a fair price,” Gee said.
Some have been coming for a year or a few. Some since man first walked on the moon. In walks a guy named Tony Polk, who is 50. He is asked how long Duke McCarter has cut his hair.
“Forty-nine years,” Polk said. “Since I was 1. All my life.”
The only barber chair being worked now that McCarter has retired is in the hands of Jessica Fore, a true force of nature. She has worked with McCarter for three years – learning and listening, talking and listening, cutting and listening.
Silence is unheard of at McCarter’s Barber Shop.
“This place, places like this, they are dying off,” Fore said. “We have to save them before they go. Won’t ever come back if it’s gone.”
So that is exactly what Fore is doing. She is staying on – and she isn’t even a McCarter – to make sure the shop that has been a part of Clover since the Great Depression does not die like the cotton mills across the street died.
Sure, the barber clients are fewer because death and time has taken a bunch of them. But not all.
Joseph Ward – with the thickest head of hair at 90 since Ronald Reagan – needs his barber haircut, and Fore gives it to him.
Dozens more just like him still go to McCarter’s for a haircut.
So at McCarter’s, the fat lady ain’t yet sung.
“The tradition will remain,” Fore said. “These people, this family, they are Clover. There is no Clover without the McCarters and their barber shop. It isn’t over. I will be here.”
And most days, so will Duke McCarter, in spite of his retirement. His liver gives him so much trouble with cirrhosis – despite never even having tasted alcohol in his life. His legs swell.
“I just don’t have that strength any more,” McCarter said.
But he has the smock with the name “McCarter’s Barber Shop” on it, and he has that wit and that brain. And he still has those big gnarled cotton-pickin’ hands, because, along with being barbers, McCarters come from the toughest farming stock on earth, and all of them worked in the red-clay fields.
In the few days since retiring, McCarter has been at his shop every day. He will be there often, for hours, this week and in the weeks ahead, with his charm and a smile that reaches right up to the sparkle in his eyes.
And people will still call him Duke – the name on all documents, in the phone book and everywhere else is Duke McCarter.
But no woman names her son Duke.
“Here it comes!” called out Fore, who didn’t just learn from McCarter, but cherishes and loves him, too. She’s heard every story a hundred times. She loves them all.
“I was a baby,” says Duke McCarter, “and I couldn’t say ‘toot’ (as in Tootsie Rolls) and it come out soundin’ like ‘Duke,’ so my sister called me Duke.
“Nobody has called me anything else since.”
But, somewhere, there must be a real name.
It is on a few mugs in the shop, and signs, and other stuff, just as it was in Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show,” the 1960s TV sit-com that showed the world the joy and love that was and is the American South.
“My given name is Floyd,” McCarter said. “Floyd the barber.”
Duke McCarter winks.
“But I was first.”