Joe Pete Ringler, the always-asking "need-a-shave?" barber, told me one time that the company that made most of America's barber poles went out of business because they made them "too by-God good". They simply didn't wear out, and there weren't enough new shops coming on to warrant continuing the little factory. "It's hell to think that your business depends on some vandal over in Toodle-Doo, West Virginia or somewhere tearing up a candy-cane pole in order for your factory to crank up the line again," he said. "I read something about quality being the thing that made the Japanese catch up with us in the car wars." Joe added. "Hell, that wasn't a good lesson for the barber pole people, now was it?" "I believe I could have rigged those things up where that motor burned out after 20,000 revolutions, caught that little plastic spinner-roll on fire, and maybe burned the whole damn shop down." "The pole business would still be here today," he sighed, looking up to check on his own candy-striper, happily turning for probably its 357,000th time.
Marshall, Texas had at least six barbershops when Joe Pete was still cutting hair, but he had the best catch- "Haircuts Free-Conversation $5 Bucks" the sign said, and he set about to prove it. If he had a trademark, it was as Andy Clemmons like to say, "Joe is the original Tower of Babble."
He knew as much abut his customers as they knew about themselves, and in some cases he knew more. Like the time he noticed the little fuzzy gray-brown mole behind Brewster Cox's ear---a pre-cancerous discovery. He said, "I know my customers and their ears---and ears are like fingerprints, no two alike, not even on the same noodle."
Joe could wring conversation out of a rock. No haircut patient ever survived the chair without giving up part of his life. And it all had a soap-opera production quality. When the hair grew back, he would resume his dialogue where it left off, getting filled in on the three-week blank spaces. He was confessor, advisor, lawyer, doctor, and most of all, friend.
JellyRoll Rogers, his drawing-card and side-man combination, was a black shoe-shiner who would "fresh-coat" your shoes and pop his shine rag in perfect timing to the smacks of Joe's razor on the leather strap. It was almost musical, and if you closed your eyes, it was like a competition in snare-drum symmetry---until one of them just quit, or the customer shouted down the noise with a plea to continue on with the previously arranged simple haircut and shine.
In his late sixties, he had that wonderful Rockwell calendar contrast---his black skin versus his cotton-white hair---always neat in his pressed overalls and blue work shirt, with the collar buttoned tight. His shoes were trademarks of his talent, forever sporting a mirror gloss, with soles and heels painted like they were as important as the uppers. With all of his shines came complimentary shoe wear physicals---a professional inspection for loosening stitches or unevenly worn heels.
He would give long and tedious rail about the demise of shoe taps. "Best and cheapest shoe protection a man could buy," he lamented, "and the clicks made a man walk a little prouder." "It would quicken your step and give you the confidence to talk straight on to the pin-ball eyes of your banker-man, who would surely see you thought enough of your shoes to protect them---just like you would do with his car money you were a borrying."
The bicycle that JellyRoll traveled to work on from his little house behind the basket factory was built for two, but it never carried but him. It had been brush-painted a loud lime green on the front half, and left to rust on the second half. "Me and my forever-for-life-bride used to take this sickle all the way out to Abraham's Market," he said, "the only place in Marshall that had fresh ground corn meal and good acid tomatoes all year long."
His wife, who he called by her full name, Miss Eve Lee Rogers must have been all the stuff of his life. She taught math and science at Pemberton, the all-black high school up through the late fifties, and retired when the two high schools broke up segregation and "bellied-up to one another" as Jelly called it. Giving up teaching was hard on her, and in time, her mind decayed "from lack of children wringin' the water out of it," he would say, and she took to spending her days out in the yard with a house broom, just sweeping the dirt that never went away. "The grass shore did, though," Jelly said, punctuating the statement with one clap of his hands, and adding, "there wasn't anything green anywhere around that house but them magnolia leaves too high up to reach."
She died in 1970, and the day of the funeral, Jelly tied a cleaning bag around her bicycle seat, and he kept it covered that way from then on. "I don't let a pigeon or even a dirt dauber rest on there," he would say, and his stern look just then seemed to back that up.
JellyRoll joined up again with Miss Eve Lee on July 4, 1980, and the cleaning bag was still in place when they put the bike in his work shed and locked it up for the last time.
If Jack VanNorden told this once, he must have told it every time he was in the shop and someone new came in. We called new customers "fresh paint," which was simply put, an open license for Jack to unload his non-validated stories on somebody that was too polite not to hear them through. The thing was, there was no way to check them out without a lot of trouble, and it didn't really matter, because you didn't have to pay him like a coin-operated TV in an airport waiting room. It was free audio-video, and the volume knob seemed to be stuck on setting number five.
His favorite was about swimming out at T&P Lake one hot afternoon back in 1960 and somehow losing his billfold. He went back to make a thorough search the next day, but never found it. Three or four months later, two FBI agents came to his house, and asked to see his ID. They wouldn't explain what they wanted until after they asked him to write his signature twenty-five straight times on a legal pad, in certain prescribed variations of his true name.
Well, it seems as though someone had his identification, and took over his personage and became the alias- Jack VanNorden that was buying cars and living high in Las Vegas. The agents came back at least four more times in the next few months, and each time had more news to give him. It was a continuing spree---the fake Jack had run up some huge bills in Vegas and now in Reno, and had also begun to drop some counterfeit money into bank accounts bearing his name. He would then promptly withdraw the funds, thereby getting his money laundered by the bank itself.
Next came the episodes of "deposit-slip raising" as the Feds described it. In these cases, VanNorden's nemesis would go into a bank, open up an account, then go to the counter-check kiosk and pre-number the deposit slips and put them back in the slots. Innocents then would come in and instead of the deposit funds going into their own accounts, the pre-numbered slips channeled them into his bogus account.
Always, the real VanNorden was able to convincingly clear himself with his local alibis, but they continued to ask for handwriting samples. As Jack said, "they weren't never smilin'." He especially liked to describe them--- "Them G-men fellas in their Elvis sunglasses had them black Fords with blackwall tires and extra tiny hubcaps---them was the real Joe Fridays." Finally the make-alike man got caught, and this is where the story would raise an eyebrow. It seems that on a counterfeit money-spending spree, then VanNorden alias took on a partner, and he gave the man a $20 counterfeit bill to cash at a McDonald's Restaurant. The not-so-bright sidekick returned to the car with over seventeen dollars worth of burgers, drinks, and pies. The ringleader of course only wanted him to bust the twenty by buying a thirty-cent drink, and bring back the rest in change.
He was sent back in, this time with a bogus $50, and told to only buy a couple of milk shakes and bring back the rest.
You guessed it---the change he got back included the first fake $20. An alert McDonald's burger-boy felt it was suspicious behavior--(it could not have possibly been the garbled non-English-speaking tenor that mumbles rows of never-rhyming verbs on the drive-through speaker)---called the highway patrol, and in pretty short order, the real VanNorden finally got his identity back.
Well, we all supposed that it could have happened that way, but then again, I was pretty sure I had seen that story in an old Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon---The Little Acme Counterfeit Kit episode.
In the way that it went in East Texas, Little Rufus Munson got saddled with the "Little" part of his name for life, to separate him from the memory of his departed father of the same name. He had to endure how it was that elder Rufus did this and that, and how old senior Rufus would "be turning over in his grave" that his son spent his money on a Damn Dodge pickup. Rayford, out at the repair garage, would push it even further, allowing that he had made a scientific poll of his wrecker calls, and the only ones that came close to the Damn Dodge retrieval levels were the AMC Gremlins, followed closely by the Nash Ramblers.
Little Rufus had to live in the Rufus-Original shadow for eternity, and said right out that if his children hadn't all turned out to be girls, he would have named his firstborn Albert Clifford Malcolm Maurice Munson the First and Last.
But Rufus made his own bed that he had to lie in. He was entirely too serious and too honest for Joe Pete's climate, and should have instead favored Kirkpatrick Men's Barbershop, where the coffee always had grounds in it and you had to listen to replays of the Louisiana Hayride, from tapes made from that fifties' radio show.
Yes, Rufus would have been much safer there. Kirkpatrick didn't like conversation, and the walls were ignorant of modern hairstyle signs that might stimulate a question. All you saw displayed was the now-brown Wildroot Cream Oil ad. To further thwart commentary, he only maintained a selectively-limited range of four to five-year old Redbooks and Family Circles on his waiting benches, all with covers and backs missing, and most of which had the cross-word puzzles filled out in triplicate.
People always laughed at his advertised special, "The South-Pacific Carrier-Deck Kirkpatrick Flattop." Then Joe Pete would say in defense, "now he ain't so bad, boys, that's where I get my hair cut." It was shocking---but his own words---and the only time I ever heard a barber give up the myth of having cut his own locks.
But Little Rufus Munson kept coming back to Joe's, and putting up with all the horseplay and abuse at his expense. JellyRoll once said, "one day that boy is gonna find out how good it feels when he stops hitting himself in the head."
Little Rufus worked at the funeral home, and that job earned him those repeated references to his father turning over in his grave, among other things. He also had the misfortune of living on North Fulton Street, where two other funeral people coincidentally lived, giving the street its subculture name, "Death Row."
He had come to the funeral business and to Death Row by default, having tried other businesses before. There was the small-and-major appliance shop he opened and called "Porcelain Heaven", a name that almost became self-fulfilling. It seems that a man moved into a new house and wanted his refrigerator icemaker installed. Rufus sent his new helper Oleb Abney over in the service truck to do the job, and in the course of the work, Oleb used a pinch-and-pierce connector on the 3/8" copper line under the kitchen sink. He then turned on the valve, and waited for the icemaker to electrically signal for water. There was no immediate sound, so Oleb went outside and got an R.C. Cola and sat in the cool pine-tree shade for thirty or forty minutes. As he started back to the house to check for the formation of fresh ice, a sudden fireball explosion rocked the house, and the refrigerator was hurled through the kitchen wall and into the back yard. All lives in the vicinity were spared, except for the Frigidaire.
Turned out that it had been a 3/8"natural gas line that Oleb had favored with his pliers that day.
Then he had that pot-bellied stove shop, with accessory lines of wood storage racks, folding fire screens, and seventeen varieties of fireplace tools and stands. Marshall promptly followed with six consecutive years of humid and warm winters, where lawns were still being mowed after Christmas, and the Dogwoods broke out in white splendor before Lincoln's birthday. He ended that venture with a going-out-of-business sacrifice, aptly advertised in the paper as the Final Fire Sale.
Misadventures like those, that most people would rather not reveal, were usually just blurted-out confessions for Rufus. The spontaneous act of telling on himself was what kept the others always going at him.
JellyRoll had it right---he would shake his head in disbelief and whisper, "Damn. I don't believe I'da told that."