By Charles Sacchetti
In the 1950s, as a kid growing up in my Southwest Philly neighborhood, I like many others knew where I would spend about an hour or so every third Saturday morning. That would be sitting in one of about 10 chairs, while waiting to get a haircut from the one and only Chris Arcadi. Chris owned and operated his barber shop at the corner of 65th Street and Buist Avenue. Back in those days, few 10-old-kids would dare wear their hair long. It was a crew cut or be prepared to suffer the consequences that would start as soon as you left the shop. Three or four of your best crew-cutted pals would stand in ambush to launch an attack, messing up your hair while yelling the dreaded term, “swats.”
It was common for Chris to have the shop full of kids from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday. Our block contained about 70 homes, as did the adjoining streets. Being a mostly Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood, these homes provided lots of youthful mush-filled heads that needed to be pampered. Saturday was the big day. Chris was a master of the automatic clipper. He would attach a plastic crew-cutting gizmo onto the clipper and away he went. Once you made it to the barber chair, he could finish the job in about 15 minutes. He was like an Italian Leonard Bernstein, in full command orchestrating the thing he did best in the world.
Now, Chris was also a skilled hairstylist. Once we all got a little older and realized that girls were not just put on this earth to be the target of snowballs, we availed ourselves of his artistry. And so it was for me, seeing Chris on a regular basis throughout high school, college and beyond. He and I had a special relationship and had some remarkably deep conversations in the 30 minutes or so it took to cut my hair. Once he found out that I was taking Spanish in high school, he would spend 10 of our minutes speaking Spanish to me with the hope that I would benefit from his multi-lingual language skills. Nice try, amigo. Some of us are preordained to struggle with only one language.
As the 1970s rolled around, Chris was elderly and not in the best of health. He decided to take a big step and sell the business he loved for so many years and retire. This would be doubly difficult because his shop was located of the ground floor of his home. His sweet wife, Rose, operated a dress shop that had an adjoining door to the barber shop. So Chris might be “gone” from his business but he wouldn’t be gone. The sale happened and almost immediately he regretted it. I lived right across the street and I would see him on his front step seeing all of his customers entering and exiting the shop. He wasn’t regretful because of the loss of income; he missed the banter with his buddies and seeing all of the new flock of little kids that took our place. Most of all, he was sad that he was deprived from doing the one thing he loved the most.
I had found a new barber whom I visited twice. Not bad, but he only spoke English! I missed Chris, too. As I sat with him on his steps one afternoon, I suggested he become semi-retired and pick up one customer. There was an “understanding” that Chris would not suddenly decide to work again and compete with the new owner. That was fair. This new guy had to protect his investment. However, since Chris was like family, I saw no harm in his cutting my hair in his home. And he did … for about 4 more years and then his health really started to deteriorate.
By now I was out in the working world and I must say that I was a bit concerned about Chris’ health. I was equally concerned with my potential danger given the fact he was getting quite forgetful. It wouldn’t be good if he forgot what that straight razor was for! I had grown to be quite fond of my ears. However, when I would sit down in his kitchen chair for my haircut, it was like an automatic pilot kicked in. He still cut hair flawlessly. The maestro still had his touch.
About a year later, with Chris now well into his 80s and continuing his journey, I became engaged to Luann. When I told Chris the first words out of his mouth was, “I promise, Imma gonna givva you da best haircut you ever had for da wedding.” At that point, given the enormity of this haircut, one may have had second thoughts and seek out a hot-shot center city stylist to assure success. I wasn’t surprised at Chris’ promise and didn’t hesitate at all to tell him I would be honored. In my neighborhood, my friends and I were raised to value loyalty and there was no way anybody else would touch this noggin once Chris made that remark. Anyway, I figured that Luann was so beautiful that no one would be looking at me.
So, on Friday, May 30, 1975, the day before our wedding, I walked up Chris’ front steps and was greeted by a big hug from Rose. We walked into the kitchen, with the fragrance of peppers and eggs in the air. The maestro put on his smock and proceeded to give me a haircut that lasted a good hour. It was flawless. People did notice and I actually received a few “thumbs up” from my buddies.
Not long after, Chris passed away. Thinking of him now, some 40 years later and realizing the blessing he was, I can still see him, clipper in his hand, talking to the kids, unlit cigar in his mouth, keeping that Saturday morning assembly line moving
on and on. IAH
Charlie Sacchetti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.