October 4, 2015

Something I Couldn’t Get At Home


As with most things in this world, it was a chaotic series of accidents that landed me in Philly in the summer of 1987. I never considered moving to Philly prior to that, and the week before my scheduled arrival, through a series of frantic phone calls and FedEx exchanges, I had to rent an apartment sight unseen so I’d have a place to go when I got there. It turned out to be in a crumbling, ill-maintained three-story limestone row house that had been cut up into seven crumbling apartments, but I had no complaints and stayed there for the next three and a half years.

            Can’t speak for Philly today—it’s been years since I’ve been down there—but at the time Center City was the most urbane and desirable part of town, full of little shops and corner grocery stores, restaurants, bars, clubs and art galleries. It was still grubby and dangerous and smelly and mean as all hell—Center City, I always argued, was where whites from South Philly and blacks from North Philly met every day to kill each other—but it was at least convenient.

            I can no longer remember, and this is just kind of sad, but sums up my years there, whether I lived on Nineteenth, Twentieth, or Twenty-first street. One of them, that much I know because I used to have a stolen Twenty-second Street sign and recall that was just a block or two west. Whatever street it was, my apartment was just south of Chestnut Street, one of the area’s main commercial arteries. I saw a lot of ugly shit go down on that block, from muggings and drug deals to garbage trucks splitting in half. A very busy dealer lived right across the hall, a hooker lived in the apartment above me, and the elderly man on the first floor had the shit kicked out of him on three separate occasions after he let strangers into the building. I considered all that local color and little more, in fact found it all pretty entertaining. For my money it was as perfect a location as I could’ve hoped for, especially considering its accidental nature. I likely could’ve existed quite comfortably in Philly without ever leaving the confines of that block.

            Directly across the narrow street out front (whichever street it was), the block consisted of (from right to left), a Korean greengrocer, a copy shop and stationary store, my bank (still with a built-in ATM on the sidewalk for convenience), an amazing fried food takeout joint called Lee’s Fish and Steak (I still have one of their official t-shirts around here someplace), a hair salon, and a little hole in the wall video store run by a generally snotty obese gay man. On the corner right across Chestnut was a bodega where I got my beer and smokes. At the opposite end of that block was an awful twenty-four hour diner with a twenty-four hour bar tucked in the back. If I walked around the corner from my apartment but didn’t cross Chestnut, there was a great Chinese takeout joint called The Happy Buddha and a little Wawa grocery store. And above Happy Buddha was a slick, bright and plastic mob bar that always denied it was a mob bar. If I walked around the corner from my apartment in the opposite direction, there was the Roxy, an art house and rep movie theater where I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mondo New York, and the GG Allin documentary, and where they still showed Rocky Horror every weekend at midnight. Across the street from the theater was a soul food place with no name, and the mind-bogglingly great TLA video store. I mean, what the hell else did I need? I had groceries, a couple of bars, greasy take out, beer and smokes, ink and paper, movies aplenty, and a place to get the money to pay for it all. If I’d been independently wealthy (or wealthy in any other way) and so didn’t need the day job, I may well have, yes, found little reason to ever leave that block.

            But back to that hair salon for a moment.

            I don’t know why I tend to be so obsessed with barbers. I’ve never given a good goddamn about hair, and in fact generally try to postpone trips to the barber as long as possible. Still, maybe given the nature of their business, most of the barbers I’ve known throughout my life have turned out to be unexpected characters.

            The hair salon was aimed almost exclusively at older women, so much so that the staff of frumpy middle aged South Philly types in cat’s eye glasses always seemed to get awfully nervous and uncomfortable whenever I stepped through the door. To be honest, so did I. But downstairs in the dank, windowless, cement-walled basement lurked Caesar, and Caesar cut men’s hair. At least I’m assuming the plural is applicable here, even though I never saw another man down there.

            There was a small waiting area at the bottom of the rickety and poorly-lit stairs with two ratty armchairs. It was the first barber shop (as I preferred to think of it) I’d ever been in that came complete with a fully stocked bar where I could down whatever I wanted gratis before, during, and after the haircut. The real attraction though, was Caesar himself. He was a cartoon limp-wristed swish, who bounced around on the balls of his feet and spoke with an almost defiant sing-song lisp. He was a tiny, spry man in his twenties who insisted on wearing jeans just a shade too tight and flouncy silk blouses. He was an hilariously exaggerated version of what the cloistered straight world imagined a gay man to be. First time I made my way down the treacherous stairs and saw him I nearly made some excuse about walking through the wrong door and bolted back up the stairs and outside to search for another barber. Someone named “Mac” or “Lenny” or something. But for some reason I stayed. Laziness, probably.

            Because I opted to stay, I learned that Caesar’s (I mean, what the hell did I expect when I learned his name was Caesar?) flamboyant homosexual exterior masked something I would never have expected, and something much more interesting.

            As he was cutting my hair that first time (and doing a fine job of it too) he mentioned quite casually, just as a way of making conversation, “So I went to see Leatherface last night.”

            I very nearly spilled my Wild Turkey. For those who don’t keep up with such things, Leatherface wasn’t some notorious bit of local rough trade or the latest S&M gay porn epic (though thinking of it now, it could’ve been either). No, it was the second sequel to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Having seen the first two, I was more than a little anxious to see this one, though I wasn’t getting my hopes up about it. There had been a special sneak preview in Philly the night before, and though I’d been tempted to go myself, I ended up skipping it. Caesar, who really didn’t seem the type in the least, wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When he realized I knew what he was talking about, he excitedly went on to describe the opening sequence (and several others) in detail before offering his final critical analysis.

            You never would’ve guessed it from looking at him—he seemed fully embedded in the Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland camp—but he was an obsessive horror movie junkie whose encyclopedic knowledge of the genre’s history and minutiae put me to shame.

            From that point on whenever I stopped to get my hair cut, we ended up talking for an hour or more about Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero and William Castle, zombies and axe-wielding Santas, early eighties scream queens, Hammer Films, and our favorite onscreen dismemberments.

            My wife at the time started cracking wise and giving me the business when she noticed the increasing frequency of my haircuts, but what she didn’t understand was that this fey, lisping hairdresser was the only other person I knew at the time who I could talk to about these things. At home I was forced to watch these films in secret, and so Caesar was a blessed outlet, and I ended up learning a great deal from our conversations. Plus he gave a good haircut, and the booze was free.


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