Barber For 56 Years Putting Shears Away

February 22, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

In a narrow shop on an old Annapolis street, Johnny Calabrese packs up his life: a barber pole, wood brushes and bottles of Bay Rum, photographs from nearly a generation of family history.

Then he sits heavily -- and a little wistfully -- in an old-fashioned porcelain barber chair, watching the life of West Street.

"I'm happy inside to retire, but I'm sad -- very, very sad," Calabrese says in a soft, rumbly voice. "So many memories . . . It's hardto put it down in words."

Two generations of Calabreses worked onthis street, cutting hair and making friends.

"I always say, it'stheir time and my chair," says the 62-year-old, massive in a blue embroidered smock and dark trousers. "I'm a slow barber, and I never rushed anybody to get another customer. It's things like that made me."

That, and his family. Not so very long ago, in the early 1920s, five wide-eyed brothers from Sicily walked up West Street from the train station --Rosario, Pietro, Luigi, Guiseppe and Johnny's father, Andrea.

They were barbers, and they had come to seek their fortune.

Luigi had arrived in America first, settling in Pittsburgh. But Andrea, returning from a sightseeing trip to Washington, happened to drive by Annapolis.

"There was only one way into town then, through West Street," recalls Calabrese. "My father went down to the City Dock, where they sold fish and fruits and vegetables, and he liked it because it reminded him of home."

The other three brothers came overa few years later and opened barber shops in Baltimore. Luigi and Andrea opened a shop on West Street, a block from State Circle.

Thirteen people lived in the back of the building -- Louie and his wife and five children, and Andrea and his wife and four children.

The brothers had married sisters, so young Johnny had five double cousins. He also had the life of the barber shop.

"When I started first grade, I went to the shop to show my father my pencils and rulers, andhe said, 'That's real nice. Go home and change your clothes and comeback.' "

His dad shortened the handle of a broom so the 6-year-old could sweep up without hitting customers. So began a 56-year careerin barbering.

By age 10, he was shining shoes and cleaning out the spittoon. At 14, he started his apprenticeship -- cutting hair, slapping on the witch hazel and lilac lotion.

After school, on holidays, during the summer, Johnny helped out in the shop. By the time he'd earned his high school diploma, he'd also earned his barber's license.

The business was open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and until midnighton Saturdays, and it took an hour or two to close up. But even aftergetting home from work at 2 a.m., Calabrese managed to go to early Mass.

"It's all I've ever known, work," muses a man who has taken just one real vacation in his life -- his honeymoon. "There was no choice. I had two brothers and a sister, and I couldn't let the family down."

"I like (barbering)," he says. "But it was not my choice."

A gray rain falls on West Street. But sitting by the window reminiscing, Calabrese is bright with memories.

There was the time his father decided to teach a lesson to a customer who "couldn't keep still for nothin'," Calabrese remembers. So one day Andrea lathered the man's face, then hollered, "Look at that redhead! She's gorgeous!"

And when the unfortunate man hollered, "Where?" and turned to the window, Andrea slipped the lathered brush right in his mouth.

"You never knew what he would do," says Calabrese with a chuckle. Another time, a customer's cigar smoke was choking his father. "He waved his towel and hollered, 'Boss' -- he called everybody boss -- 'Boss, it's hot!' and whacked the cigar right out of the man's hand.

"My fathernever smiled or nothin', and the guy was lookin' and lookin' for hiscigar."

His father retired at 75, and Calabrese, who lives in St.Margaret's with his wife, Jacqueline, reigned in his stead.

"I know a lot of people who work around here," he says. West Street neighbors and patrons used to sit outside on a long bench, until someone tried to steal it and Calabrese took it home. But still people come, for hair trims and talk, or just to say hi to an old friend.

"I knowjust what they want. Summer, they want it shorter. Winter, not as short. I never went in for styling -- just regular old customers," he says.

A little signboard by the door lists Calabrese's No-No's, from flat tops to long hair.

"I never did like flat tops, my brother did all the flat tops, so I was never any good at them," he says. He stopped trimming beards after he hurt his back.

"So we started Joe's No-No sign. 'No new customers. No Body's Perfect. Think More, TalkLess' ," he reads off the sign.

Actually he did take new customers, Calabrese emphasizes. The signs were a shop joke.

But he didn'tadopt the new ways. He kept the price to $7 a haircut, kept the old brushes and powders from the days of hot-lather shaves with straight razors.

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