Do not ask Jack Mitchell for waves. For sure, do not ask Clifford Mitchell for waves.
"Oceans got waves," you will hear. "Not heads."
Do not ask Jack or Clifford Mitchell for shampoos.
Just sit, and listen.
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"Short?" is the only question Clifford asks because he already knows the answer. The answer is always a nod yes. It is the only question Clifford has ever asked. All other Clifford conversation is statement of fact, or facts as he knows them, which is the only kind of facts that Clifford cares about.
Ask not for a spiky cut straight from the pages of Gentleman's Quarterly. Because at Mitchell's Barbershop, inside a concrete block building with a brick facade that is truly a veneer hiding nothing but men and man talk, you shall be escorted off the premises -- possibly amidst a cascade of jeers.
That's ff you are not tossed out.
This is a place where on two recent afternoons I watched 27 men come in for haircuts. I saw two cops, two National Guardsmen, 14 retirees, a trucker, five guys who said not a single word from the time they sat in waiting chairs to the time they paid their few bucks with tip. Three older men crossed legs and said immortal barbershop words, "Mmm, hmm," at least a dozen times.
Not a single customer was asked, "What style you want?" Not a single one had to say a word other than "Jack, Clifford, How're you?" as each customer sat in one of two barber chairs.
Every customer was a regular whose head was a familiar roadway for the Barbering Brothers Mitchell to do their work. That is their team name now -- because I gave it to them. From above those heads came an endless stream of conversation from the two Barbering Brothers Mitchell.
Mitchell's on Mount Gallant Road is as old-time as the two barbers. The chairs came over on the Mayflower. The Coke machine costs 75 cents now but has been rigged for so long as costs went up that it clearly took nickels in its first life. The place is clean but in that man-clean way that includes clutter, coffee cups, combs, clippers, snapshots, pieces of paper and suspenders. A lone air-conditioner keeps the place colder than Alaska. I have no doubt there is a receipt on the old shelf behind the chairs dating to 1978.
There is no appointment book anywhere, and there never has been one. The door is open. The pictures on the wall date back as far as the middle of the last century when a dairy was across the street and the street outside was dirt. Yes, one picture is of that dairy.
Jack is the senior statesman, celebrating his 50th year barbering.
"A milestone," he said. "Guess that makes me special."
"Doubt it," Clifford said.
Jack and Clifford have cut the hair of congressmen and judges, sheriffs and constables, patrolmen, soldiers, tow-headed boys with unruly hair that could not be tamed and every other kind of head shape ever invented.
"Started at 16, working for my daddy," said Jack, 66, over a man's head that was getting a flattop. Yes, a flattop like the 1950s. Jack uses a comb to make it straight as a tabletop. Brick masons seeking level would be envious.
Jack and Clifford's late father was a legendary barber himself, working downtown and other times close to the old textile mills around the city when the mills employed real men who went for real haircuts that cost maybe a dollar.
"I started myself when I turned 16," Clifford said. "I only been at it 49 years. I'm just a kid. I'm 64. Jack's the old one."
Talk in this place is politics and potholes, religion and racin.' Body parts cut out by doctors is a big topic. Jokes are great -- except the dirty kind. Concern over customers and their kids and grandkids is a biggie. Both Mitchells have some customers spanning three generations: Grandfather, father, son.
Cut a man's hair long enough, you get to know about his manner, his way. Might ask about the daughter in college, the wife fighting "the sugar."
"Customers are family in the barbering business," Jack said.
He winked and pointed at Clifford for all to hear: "And we know how family is."
Everything is fair game at Mitchell's, except for cussin.' Doesn't matter that no woman has ever gotten a hair cut in the place. Rules, fellas, is rules.
"Not having it in here," said Jack. He was shaving the back of a neck, probably the millionth neck he has shaved. His hand was steady, still.
But just because there's no bad language doesn't mean this is a beauty salon.
"The words 'beauty' and 'salon' have never been said together in this place," Jack said.
The television in a corner blares nonstop news, of which Clifford is expert, judge, jury and executioner. I saw Clifford give a man a haircut, the next guy got a flat-top, and in that expanse of those 15 or 20 minutes Clifford stopped talking to breathe maybe once. And that was to tug on his suspenders.
"He knows everything about everything, an expert," Jack said of Clifford. "'Cept getting up early. If I had to count on Clifford for early morning haircuts I'da been outta business long ago."
"Ain't easy at the top," Clifford said. "I have always been of the opinion that hair needs some time in the morning to stand up and get ready to be cut. Might say I'm pacing myself."
After 99 years between the two of them, nobody is complaining about the pace of the Barbering Brothers Mitchell. The Barbering Brothers Mitchell haircuts, and the talk, and the pace that slows down to where life is really manageable and worth savoring, is what brings 'em in, and keeps 'em coming.
I know because all 27 customers said as each walked out, one variation or another, "Jack, Clifford, see you next time."