Two longs, 3 shorts -- steady barber's snip code

JACQUES KELLY

October 18, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

John R. DeVos was the barber known throughout Waverly as having the steadiest pair of hands in the neighborhood.

A short, almost studious-looking fellow who wore tortoise-shell glasses, he cut hair while attired in a shirt and tie. Never would he be seen in a white uniform top.

Nor did he engage in much small talk, at most maybe a little chatter about the Orioles. He had a very steady hand and preferred scissors to an electric trimmer. There was a distinct sound to his scissor motion -- two long cuts followed by three short snips.

The shop was at 2942 Greenmount Ave. in an unobtrusive rowhouse. Its front steps were marble; a pair of narrow windows overlooked the street. The barbering room had a linoleum floor. The waiting chairs were fairly battered. The magazines were outdated and the selection leaned to literature of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Never was there an appointment book. You just crossed the threshold, took a seat and waited your turn. There weren't many choices, either. There was a basic haircut. In the summer, there was a whiffle, too. In other places, it was known as a crew cut. Johnnie used to shave customers, but the safety razor had done in this trade. He might shave an old customer if he wasn't too busy.

There was no other choice about what barber I would have. Johnnie opened his parlor before World War I, about the time my great-grandfather moved his family to the 2800 block of Guilford Ave. He cut that gentleman's hair, that of his son-in-law, my grandfather, my father and mine. In the 1920s, when the women in the house had their hair bobbed, they went to Johnnie as well. When my grandfather died in 1963, Johnnie made a reverential condolence call at the funeral parlor.

Occasionally this happened. To a 5-year-old, watching some senior member of the neighborhood get a shave in a barber shop was no ordinary Greenmount Avenue event. With the hot towels, the razor strap, the hand razor and the soap from a mug, it was like the times when Miss Godman (a 30th and Guilford neighbor) got her 1929 Ford out for a spin.

There was no pretense of decoration, just a framed barber's license and one photograph. It was taken just outside Johnnie's shop during the early hours of July 4, 1944. It was that morning that old Oriole Park burned. The barber shop abutted the ball park property approximately at right field.

Many of the aging Orioles came back to Johnnie for their trims, but there were only two I can recall, both because they were such gentlemen. One was Mike Schofield, the groundskeeper. He was a fairly big fellow who seemed to be a friend to the whole world.

The other was Tommy Thomas, the International League manager, who was also as loyal as he was a great guy. Even though he'd moved to York, Pa., Tommy never forgot the old neighborhood. He always came back for a trim. This time of year, his white Cadillac would be filled with bushel baskets of York Imperial apples, which he liberally distributed around Waverly and Charles Village.

It was bad news if I put off a haircut until Saturday. The shop would be filled with men and boys waiting their turn. There was a way you could calculate how much time you sat there. The No. 8 streetcars ranpast the shop. They ran frequently -- maybe as quickly as one every five or eight minutes. If six or seven yellow cars passed, you had a long wait, even though the shop had two chairs, one for his son, whom I called Young Johnnie, who practiced alongside his father.

The barbers did have some tonsorial competition nearby. Just a block away was Mrs. Alva Shields, who in the early 1950s made the cover of the Sunday Sun Magazine because she was a female barber who had a male clientele.

I think I was dragged to her haircutting parlor just once but I didn't like it. Her shop was far more neat and orderly but I never quite got along with this celebrity.

But Johnnie had the edge. His hand was always even. His cuts were his trade mark. I never saw the hand waver but once, when his son died unexpectedly.

While I was in college, I got word that Johnnie too had died. Male hair stylists and other pretenders were just beginning to come in. Long and shaggy hair was also being accepted. I'm glad he never had to put up with these indignities.

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