It’s just a haircut, not a matter of life or death.
Still, it is an issue of trust, and relationship, with your barber. Or hair stylist, or coif guru or Mr. Richard or whatever high falootin’ appellation you use that makes you feel better about the king’s ransom you laid out for it.
I’m sticking with barber. Because mine is definitely old school, and he does have that striped pole out front. It’s small and it’s plugged in, but it is a barber pole. He’s proud of it, says he’s the only one around who has one.
So I felt a little uncomfortable recently when I cheated on my regular barber. But things had gotten way too shaggy and he had been MIA, and I was on an island and feeling carefree, and this other guy was also a local institution.
Lolo, in the same place in Avalon, on Catalina Island, for half a century. He’s 84, and shows no signs of slowing down. Everyone knows him, and he knows everybody. His shop is large, for just the one barber, and filled with memorabilia, mostly baseball, mostly Cubs of course (they spring trained there, when Mr. Wrigley owned them and built a diamond for them on his island). Lolo has lots of stories of celebrity encounters over the decades, but forget that: he gives a great haircut, and he charges 15 bucks.
Which of course brings me back to Pete. Pete the Barber, most call him. He gives a great haircut and he charges 15 bucks, and he’s an institution here in Santa Monica. I discovered him only about 15 years ago.
Before that, for two decades, and once or twice a year still, it’s been Michael, in Beverly Hills. He’s up the wide movie-set staircase in a huge fancy salon, and the pre-cut shampoo and head massage is, well, divine. Michael charges in three figures now but bless his big heart, he has kept me at the same price as from long ago. I love seeing him and catching up on his latest travels, and I love how I look when I leave.
But I have to say it, over the years I’ve received more compliments on my haircut when I’m fresh from Pete’s chair. Pete doesn’t shampoo or blow dry or use fancy potions and he gets you out of there in under 15 minutes, quicker if you’re pressed for time.
Pete’s shop on Fourth Street, nestled under the parking structure, is dark now, and has been for almost two weeks. There’s a hand written sign on the door that reads, “Sorry, back next week, Pete.” Same sign as the week before.
Pete’s had a pretty tough time of it lately, first with his wife’s health and now his. I don’t know how old Pete is, because the first time I went in he told me he was 84, and the last time I asked, recently, he said the same thing. But 15 years passed between those two inquiries.
Pete’s a kidder. He loves to pull your leg, and never cracks a smile while doing it. The first time I wandered in to his less-than-tidy shop (but all the good ones are), I heard someone else call him Pete, but I saw the sign that read, “Peter’s Barber Shop,” so I asked him, is it Pete or Peter? And he replied very seriously, “Oh, Peter is the guy who owned the shop before me. I’m not him, of course.”
Conversations in the barber chair can go anywhere, and Pete can follow. You can tell he reads the newspaper a lot. But he always favors flippant over fervent. A good barber has a following of all types, so he’s wise not to display his personal values.
The last time I was in for a cut he had a dapper gentleman in the chair who was the recent U.S. ambassador to Malta, a conservative Republican now running for Congress. As head of the nearest U.S. embassy, he was very much involved in the unrest in Libya, and in particular Benghazi, Pete told me after he left. I noticed a week later that Pete put his campaign brochure up in his window.
Pete told me he had Whitey Bulger in his chair, with a local cop waiting next, “but nobody knew what he looked like, or that he was living in Santa Monica. He was hiding in plain sight.” He pointed at a newspaper clipping on the wall about another customer of his, accused of 19 murders.
Barber to the underworld? Not really, not intentionally. He’d rather talk about his movie star clients. Remember Don Ameche? Of course you don’t, if you’re under 70. But he was huge, a big star. And he apparently was devoted to Pete, had him over to the house for homemade Italian and always came to Pete for that hallmark, slicked-down do of his.
When the time came, late 1980s, for Pete to abandon his shop on Third Street, Ameche showed up with two dollies and helped him move his two barber chairs the couple of blocks to the new location. Pete protested, you can’t do that, you’re a big star, but Ameche insisted, with that irresistible big smile of his. Pete told me he was getting a little nervous as they walked the chairs over, down the street, because they were drawing a crowd, and he finally protested again to the movie star turned moving man.
“Don, everyone’s staring!”
“Of course they are,” Ameche grinned, obviously enjoying himself. “That’s the idea! Now everyone knows where you’ve moved to.”
Pete’s got plenty of stories (not all so dramatic), but I tried and failed over seven or eight visits to the shop to get many facts or stories out of him. Too much going on, and then he wound up in the hospital. But he’s out now, I’ve heard, and planning on turning the lights on again this week. Hooray!
Good luck to you, Pete, a Santa Monica institution. We need more Peter’s Barber Shop, and about an inch off the back, please.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 28 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.