If you liked the first chapter, click on the link above to buy the paperback on line.
Carlos Rangel had been a barber since his late teens, and now twenty-four years later, he was still cutting hair. He had a two chair setup that fronted on Cypress Avenue in Cypress Park. The shop was located in what used to be the garage for the house on the hill behind it. He’d bought the house and shop on the G. I. bill when he got out of the Navy at the end of the war nine years ago. The barber he’d bought it from had moved out to Glendale because he wanted to get out of the city. When he left the neighborhood, he also left a clientele that Carlos kept for about five years, but, through attrition and the usual neighborhood turnover, had disappeared for the most part.
When Carlos bought the shop, a barber named Bob Jones worked the second chair. Jonesy, at that point, hadn’t yet gone completely to hell from drinking, and he had a pretty good clientele. As the troops came home after the war, the shop got busy and stayed that way for quite a few years. Eventually, the bottle caught up with Jonesy and he started missing work and leaving customers, and Carlos, hanging. Finally, one day he didn’t show up at all, but by then business had tapered off for both of them, so it was no problem for Carlos to take Jonesy’s customers. Carlos had been working the shop alone ever since.
Now Carlos was spending a lot of his time sitting on a stool at the back of the shop playing his tenor saxophone. About two years ago, when he first realized that business was slowing down, he decided to use his newfound spare time to learn how to play the instrument. It was something he’d always wanted to do. He didn’t quite understand why business was so slow. He didn’t want to admit that the shop decor was stark and in need of remodeling, and he also didn’t want to quit playing his horn and get up to do a haircut when someone walked through the door. That’s how lost in his music he got sometimes.
He knew there were things he could do to improve the situation, but somehow he just couldn’t bring himself to do them. He could see that the shop looked worn and run down, and that he should get in there and paint and fix it up, but then he wearied of such thoughts quickly, rather retreating to the back of the shop with his saxophone. He also never learned how to cut a good flat top, a style that was popular among the younger crowd of the time. He couldn’t square the corners and flatten out the top. He could do butches and crew cuts, but not flat tops. Thus, over the last few years, he watched as his business dwindled away.
Carlos lived with his wife, Teresa, and nineteen-year-old daughter, Carmela, in the house on the hill above the shop. His widowed mother-in-law, Señora Guevara, who spoke no English, lived in a bungalow a few blocks down the street. He was thirty-five when his own parents died seven years ago. They were both heavy smokers, and they died of smoking related ailments within a year of each other. It was long before that that Carlos himself decided not to smoke. And he never did. From his earliest days he could remember not liking the smell of burned tobacco. The house he grew up in was permeated with it.
Carmela was probably paying the heaviest price for Carlos’ slowdown. He barely stayed busy enough to afford a Catholic education for her. The first years after he got home from the war weren’t too bad because the shop was busy. It was her high school years, the early ’fifties, that were the roughest. She’d started grammar school at Santa Teresita in the old neighborhood eight months after Carlos joined the Navy and went off to war in the Pacific. She finished grade school at Divine Saviour in Cypress Park and went to high school at Sacred Heart in Lincoln Heights. Business started slowing down for Carlos when Carmela was a sophomore at Sacred Heart, and that was when Teresa got a job as a checker at the Gateway market down on Avenue Twenty-six, one block off Figueroa.
It was really because of Teresa’s job that Carmela was able to complete four years at Sacred Heart. Carlos’ business was fading rapidly, and Jonesy was spending more and more time in the beer joint down on San Fernando Road, across the street from the train yard. So Teresa worked hard at the market because she wanted Carmela to go to college, but when the time came, there wasn’t yet enough money to send her, so Carmela got a job as a typist at Occidental Insurance Company downtown not two months after she graduated from Sacred Heart. Her first semester out of high school, she took evening classes at Los Angeles City College.
On the slow days when he knew it wasn’t going to get any better and he needed a break from his sax, Carlos would cross the street to the little corner grocery store and hang out with his friend Enríque Contreras who wasn’t very busy, either. Carlos could see his own shop from the grocery store, and he kept an eye on it as he wiled away the midday with his friend. Standing at a certain angle near the front door, he could see John’s barber shop two blocks down the street. John had recently put a new sign over his front door. It was a foot high and it stuck out over the sidewalk three feet. It said FLAT TOPS on both sides in bright red letters about eight inches high against a white field. Just when Carlos got relaxed and started enjoying his visit, Señora Guevara came into the store. The minute she laid eyes on him, she said in her perfect idiomatic Spanish,
“Why are you not working, mijito?”
She’d been calling him that since he was fourteen years old. Señora Guevara had always treated him with respect and affection, and had loved him as if he were her own son. Plus, she really didn’t mean to imply anything by the question.
Nevertheless, questions like that, especially when they came from her, always made him feel the pressure.
“’Cause there ain’t no business right now, suegra,” he replied in his own brand of Spanish.
She was a slight little woman, but her size didn’t suggest weakness in any way. Carlos had always been impressed by her strong personality. Her gray hair lent her an air of authority. She wandered off through the narrow aisles of the tiny grocery store, and Carlos and Enríque picked up their conversation as soon as she was gone. She bought a pound bag of pinto beans, a can of Ortega chiles and a half dozen flour tortillas. Then the two men watched as she walked off, back toward Divine Saviour. She made an afternoon visit to the church every day to light a votive candle in memory of her late husband.
Carlos looked over at his shop and saw his wife coming down the stairs from the house on her way to work. Like her mother, Teresa was not a big woman. Señora Guevara wasn’t overweight, but she was a little heavier than her daughter. Teresa still looked quite young with her long, dark hair and petite figure. Carlos went back across the street. They met in front of his shop. Standing together they were a study in opposites when it came to complexion. Carlos was the lightest, Teresa the darkest. Carmela and her grandmother were somewhere between the two. All three women were beauties.
“See you at dinner, Carlitos,” Teresa said.
They kissed and parted. He went up the stairs to the house. From inside he kept an eye on the front door of the shop, although he wasn’t sure why he needed to, since nobody went in during the whole time he was up there.
He went to the kitchen and heated some refried beans in a sauce pan and made himself a salsa of diced Ortega green chiles, tomatoes and onions. Then he heated two flour tortillas over the open flame of the burner on the gas stove. He sat at the dining room table and looked down at the shop while he ate his burritos with whole jalapeño chiles on the side. Two customers had gone into Contreras’ place, and they both came out carrying medium size bags of groceries. Carlos was glad to see that at least Contreras was doing some business.
When he stepped back onto the sidewalk, Jaime, the old retired hod carrier whose wife had died from cancer just last year, approached. Jaime had lived in the neighborhood for thirty years, up the hill on Isabel Street, and he was one of Señor Guevara’s (Carlos’ late father-in-law) cronies. As far as Carlos knew, he’d never gone to any other barber shop as long as he’d lived there.
“You got time for a haircut?” he asked as Carlos came face to face with him.
“Sure. Go ’head on in.”
He stood aside allowing Jaime to enter ahead of him. Customers like Jaime would always come to Carlos no matter what. His shop, with its worn twenty-year-old barber chairs, waiting chairs with cracked vinyl upholstery taped one time too many, and the mirrors spattered with water, was familiar and comfortable territory for the likes of Jaime, and he would go there even when he didn’t need a haircut to hang out in much the same way Carlos had gone across the street before lunch to hang around with Contreras. He’d tell Carlos all about his wife, how wonderful she’d been, how she’d died a slow, painful death. Carlos was getting a little tired of the story, but he listened politely, nevertheless, because he realized that Jaime needed to tell someone. Contreras was a good listener too, and Jaime would sometimes go across the street when he left the barber shop. He’d tell Enríque the same story.
Carlos cut his hair in about twenty minutes and collected a dollar and a quarter for the job. When Jaime left and headed across the street, Carlos swept the floor, picked up a National Geographic from the dusty stack on the end table at the rear of the shop, walked back up front, and sat down in his chair in the front window.
At three-thirty after school got out, Rudy, a fifth grader from Divine Saviour sat down in the chair and asked for a butch. Now, that was one Carlos could do. Fifteen minutes later the boy walked out of the shop running his hand over his newly butched head.
As Carlos was sweeping the floor, he saw the guy from the Herald Express deliver the Eight Star edition to Contreras’ store. He put the broom away in the back and crossed the street. He pulled one of the papers out of the metal rack as he entered the store.
Contreras sat like Buddha behind his counter. Carlos grabbed the extra stool and sat down, handing Contreras the front page as he kept the sports section. For the next half hour they read, exchanging sections as they finished reading them. Carlos glanced at his front door from time to time, but no one entered. The OPEN sign in the window glared in the afternoon sun.
“¡Híjola!” Carlos said. “Art Aragón wants to get in the ring with Carmine Basilio.”
“Really? Pinchi Metsican’s go’n’a get his ass kicked, eh. Ain’t no way Golden Boy’s go’n’a beat Basilio.”
“Es verdad, eh. What the hell, if he thinks he can beat ’im, why not just go ’head on and fight ’im?”
“I guess, but what’s in it for Basilio? Ain’t no title on the line. How big could the purse be?”
When they finished reading the paper, Contreras put it back together and Carlos walked it outside and put it in the rack. As he re-entered the store, a fifty-three Chevy convertible with four teenagers in it passed by.
“Look at that, eh. Kids, and they got a new car! I ain’t got a car. You got a car?” asked the portly grocer, rhetorically.
“Yuh know I ain’t got one,” Carlos replied. “Can’t afford it, eh.”
“I can’t believe it. Me and you got’a take the streetcar, and they got their own car. Ain’t no justice.”
“Rich gavachos from Eagle Rock. Prob’ly their father’s car.”
Carlos stayed and talked with Enríque until almost five o’clock when a young man he’d never seen around the neighborhood before approached his front door. He said so long to the grocer and crossed the street. The stranger had entered on his own, and Carlos arrived at the door right after it closed. He opened it and went in to find the stranger standing in the middle of the shop looking around.
“Hi, need a haircut?”
“Have a seat right here.”
Carlos picked up the haircloth and indicated with his open right hand for the young man to sit.
“How yuh want it?” he asked.
“Longer in back so I can have a duck tail. Square it on the neck?”
“How yuh want the sideburns?”
“Leave ’em long. And just trim the top.”
“You live around here?” Carlos asked as he began cutting the hair. “Ain’t never seen yuh before.”
“I live up in Glassell Park near Saint Bernard’s. I go by here every day on the streetcar on my way to work and back home.”
“Really? Where yuh work?”
“Clifton’s cafeteria on Broadway. I see your shop all the time from the streetcar. Wanted to stop for a haircut, but never had time.”
“What’s your name?”
“Peter. You Carlos?”
“That’s right. How long yuh been working at Clifton’s?”
“Couple years but it’s only temporary. I’m lookin’ for somethin’ better.”
“Pay pretty good?”
“Nah. Best parta’ the job, y’r meals’er included, and the food’s good.”
And so the conversation went for twenty minutes. Barber shop small talk, Carlos called it. When he finished the haircut and got his dollar and a quarter, he did his last clean-up for the day, and got ready to close up.
He fooled around with his horn till a quarter to six. That was when Carmela got off the streetcar and poked her head in the front door. She was a younger version of her mother and grandmother small, dark (but not quite as dark as Teresa), and beautiful. Carlos thought his daughter looked a little like Rita Moreno. On those nights when she didn’t have a class at City, her arrival home was Carlos’ signal to turn the sign around, lock the front door and count the money in the till. He only made seven dollars and twenty-five cents that day. Five haircuts for a dollar and a quarter, and one, the boy because he was under twelve, for a dollar. No tips.
He stood over the sink and splashed warm water on his face. As he blotted himself dry with the hand towel, he looked in the mirror. His dark brown eyes looked weary, incipient crow’s feet at the corners. He’d always thought the slow days made him more tired than the busy ones. His black hair was still thick and full on top, but it was getting gray at the temples. His mustache was getting gray, too.
He took his saxophone upstairs. As he entered the living room, he could see Carmela through the kitchen door starting dinner. After he got his slippers on, he sat at the dining room table, and talked to his daughter.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Pretty hectic, but not boring for that reason. I typed correspondence all day. I bet I’m typing sixty to eighty words a minute.”
“’Sounds like you’re gettin’ good.”
He felt guilty when he heard how hard she worked. It made him feel like he wasn’t holding up his end. But it also motivated him temporarily. Once again, he thought briefly about remodeling the shop.
Teresa arrived at six-fifteen. She went to the bathroom and cleaned up for dinner. When she came out, the shrimp salad Carmela had been fixing was ready.
As they ate dinner, Carlos said to Teresa, “Store busy?”
“Real busy. How ’bout your shop?”
“Just the opposite. Real slow.”
“I did pick up a new customer at the end of the day. A young kid from over in Glassell Park. Says he’s go’n’a come back next time. Who knows? Maybe my luck’s changing, and I’m go’n’a start getting busy again. Oh, by the way, I saw your mother over Enríque’s store earlier, just before you left for work.”
“Oh, how is Grandma?” Carmela asked. “I haven’t seen her since Sunday Mass.”
“She’s doing good.”
“She came by the Gateway after her church visit,” Teresa said. “I was too busy to talk to her. She left when she saw I couldn’t talk. You comeen to walk home with me tonight?”
It was October, and the days were getting shorter, the time of year when Carlos began taking his late night walks to the Gateway to meet Teresa and walk her home.
“I’ll be there. Wan’a go, Carmela?”
They finished eating in silence, and then Teresa headed back to work. As Carmela studied in her room, Carlos sat next to his radio in the living room and tuned in to his favorite jazz station out of South Central. After a while he turned the radio off and practiced on his horn. At nine-thirty he and Carmela were out the door.
Teresa’s night had been just as busy as her afternoon, and she was talking a mile a minute, telling them about it on the walk home.
“I’m so tiredt,” she said. “Better to be busy ’cause it goes by quick.”
“Always said that about my job.”
“The big news today was we’re getteen a new manager. They’re transferreen Mister Delbert to another store. It’s been a rumor for a while, but they made it official today. I hope the new manager is as goodt as Mister Delbert.”
They got back home at ten-fifteen. They listened to the last few minutes (mostly sports and weather) of the late news on the radio. Teresa and Carmela turned in at ten-thirty. Carlos wasn’t sleepy, so he decided to go out for a walk before going to bed.
He headed down Cypress, and when he got to John’s shop, he stopped and looked in. It was clean as a pin. John had recently painted and put down a new floor. His sinks and chairs were old, but cleaned-up and in good shape, and they looked good in the re-decorated setting. His and Bob’s licenses hung above their backbars in glass frames with their names engraved on them in old English lettering. His magazines were stacked neatly on the table next to his waiting chairs. Carlos stepped back and looked at the new sign hanging over John’s door.
“Got’a learn how to do flat tops,”he mumbled to himself.
He turned and headed back home. It was eleven-thirty when he re-entered the quiet house. He went into the bathroom, washed his face and brushed his teeth. Then he went into the bedroom and stood in the darkness, listening to Teresa’s even sleep-breathing for a couple of minutes before climbing into the bed next to her. As he did so, he disturbed her into consciousness, and she said,
“Where didt you go?”
“Took a walk. Went down and looked at John’s shop. He’s fixed it up. Looks real nice. Got’a start thinking about redecorating.”
“Yes, you shouldt, and I couldt halp.”
“Only problem is where’m I go’n’a get the cash? Ain’t got it. Damn sure ain’t making it.”
“I can halp,” Teresa said.
“Don’t wan’a spend your money. You’re a real sweetheart for offering, but you should use your money for yourself and for Carmela.”
“Listen, we been together too long to start divideen our money up now. It’s not my money; it’s our money.”
“But it would make me too dependent on you.”
“We’re dependent on each other. We’re in this together, and right now I think we got’a get your barber shop goeen again. Only way to do it is together. After we fix it up, you’ll be busy again.”
“Makes sense. I still don’t like the idea of not doin’ it all myself. Guess I ain’t got a choice. Right?”
“Carlitos, mi querido, we got’a get you busy again, and this is the only way.”
He knew she was right, but he still resisted in his heart. He couldn’t resist out loud anymore, so he was silent, and after a little while they both drifted off to sleep.
The Journeyman and the Apprentice