Guys and Boys

The town barber shop looked something like this

As something of a follow up to the post on words meaning things, here’s an example of something along those lines that I remember.

Back where I grew up, the local barber shop was central to the cultural life of the town’s men. There were two in our town, one where a lot of the wealthier men in town went and another where the rest of the men hung out. My Grandfather was one of the “rest of the men.”

There was this big plate-glass window that said “Barber” and below it the alluring sign of ‘Flat Tops Our Specialty.” The door was to the right and the big red and white stripped barber pole was on the curb just in front of the door. You had enough room to open the door, but if the door was open, a passerby had to step into the street, so the door stayed mostly closed. There were two chairs to the left with those big handles that the barber pumped to raise or lower the chair, a strop on the right side (as the barber stood behind the chair), always a blue and white stripped apron slung over one of the arms. Behind were a couple of mirrors, a pair of sinks, a long cabinet top with all sorts of wonderful smelling lotions, razors, scissors, electrical clippers, a shaving mug, and various after shaves and hair creams. The smell was terrific. There was also this big machine that heated towels for those wanting a shave. The opposite wall had a long mirror so the man getting the hair cut could see what was happening, a line of three of four chairs, an old-fashioned end table like the one my Grandmother had at the end of the sofa. Hers held a lamp, this one held a bunch of hunting and fishing magazines, a couple of picture magazines like “Look,” and a ton of comic books that were at least a year old. Then there were more chairs and another end table with more magazines and comic books. Against the back wall was a tall chest that I never saw anyone open, but I supposed held the towels and other linens. On top was a radio and a noisy fan that oscillated back and forth in the summer (and interestingly enough I don’t remember where the heat source in winter was located). Beside it was a door that led to the back of the place. There was a bathroom and a storage place for mops, brooms, and a pail. It was, all in all, a wonderful place to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I got to visit it twice a month, depending on the weather. My grandfather would go down weekly on Saturday, again depending on the weather, and spend most of the afternoon. My grandmother was probably happy to get him out of the house so she could do some cleaning and cooking and complaining to the neighbors. One weekend a month he actually got a haircut. Another one I got a haircut. Those were the two weekends I got to tag along. At least that way he had excuses to head down to the barber shop a couple of weekends a month. I was happy to go along. Initially I got to read all the comic books, but after a while I’d read them all, and all there was to do was listen to the men talk, which was great because suddenly I was one of the men.

Of course during ball season the radio was on. Most of the games were St. Louis Cardinals games, which was fine by the men in the shop, because most were Cards fans. Every so often the Dodgers played the Cards and it’s one of those games I most remember.

Jackie Robinson was playing, got a hit (don’t remember single, double, or what) and the announcer worried he might steal a base.

“That colored boy can sure run, can’t he?” one of the men allowed (all conversations approximated after all these years).

The rest of the crew agreed.

Ultimately Roy Campanella came to the plate which got the following comment, “He sure can swing it hard. Didn’t think a colored boy could swing a bat that hard.”

“Colored boy? I thought he was Italian.”

“Nope, he’s a colored boy too. I guess one of his folks, his dad maybe, was Italian, but he’s colored.”

“Huh. Didn’t know that. Well, is that Furillo colored too? He’s got an Italian name.”

“Nope, he’s a white guy.”

“Oh, so he’s an Italian guy.”

For the better part of twenty or thirty years that conversation stayed with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Just at odd times I’d remember it. Of course if Furillo or Campanella came to the plate it would jump into my mind, but even after both were gone I’d recall it from time to time. It took years, but I finally understood why.

My wife and I were watching some show on television, the Olympics maybe, and she mentioned how the announcers made a big show of pointing out the differences among the participants. One was a natural, another a grinder. And suddenly the above conversation came bubbling up to the front of my mind and back in the back of my brain a light went on. She’d not only triggered the occasionally persistent memory, but had given me the clue why it resonated after 30 or so years.

Listen carefully to the words used to describe Campanella and Furillo. One was a “colored boy” and the other a “white guy.” The difference is striking. Around where I grew up if you were white you were one of the “guys,” but the black men in town were “boys,” unless they were quite old, in which case they were “uncle.” As a kid it was simply normal to hear and think nothing of it. But as I aged I realized the very quiet, very simple, very subtle racism involved in those two simple words: boy and guy. No matter how accomplished the black man he was still a “boy” and the same accomplished white man was a “guy,” as in “one of the guys.” It also worked if the white “guy” wasn’t so accomplished.

A lot of the men in my town would have told you they had no problem with race, but would have used those words as distinguishing between a black and a white man. Others would have had no problem with it because they were pretty open about their opinions of race. I’ve never been quite sure which was the worst.




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7 Responses to “Guys and Boys”

  1. Miller Says:

    I don’t want to pass by the beautiful writing in this post, but I think the message is far, far more important. Thank you for sharing.

    By the way, almost this exact type of -ism still exists today, and we think nothing of it. Adult females are all-too-often called “girls”. It diminishes them in the same way v so articulately explains.

    Again, thank you for the wonderful imagery and the thoughtful discussion of a delicate issue.

    • verdun2 Says:

      I agree. More than once I’ve heard myself refer to some 30 year old woman as “a pretty girl.” Still working on fixing that; but getting there.
      Thanks for the kind words.

  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    It was the same thing in the north, V. My parents were both teachers and they knew better, but I think that my grandfather (who I cherished) probably said the word “boy” to refer to blacks. If he did, I never heard it. Maybe before I was born. We’re all creatures of the era in which we were born.

    I do remember that Grandpa, recalling his time as a foreman in a box factory in the Bronx, told me how he was a supervisor of black “girls”, and he said how hard it was to get them to work and stop talking. “Wow, how they could talk! Yap, yap, yap, yap!” When I say this, I’m not incriminating my grandfather; I never would. Grandpa was my hero. I think that this is minor stuff, nothing to get upset about. And we’re ALL guilty of being prejudiced, whether we want to admit it or no. Even BIGOTED, at times. My grandfather was never a RACIST, though, at least I hope not. If he was, he never showed it. I NEVER heard him use the word “nigger”. Never. And I spent a lot of time with my grandfather.

    I think that more than anything else, Grandpa had a problem with Italians. It was years later, but thinking back on it, the Yankees that Grandpa seemed to have the most problem with were Italians. This is probably because of the youth gangs in those days. He was born in the early 1900s, and the gangs were separated into ethnic groups in the ultra-tough Brownsville area of Brooklyn (where my cousin, the boxer Bummy Davis grew up as well.) Grandpa told me that the gangs were the Irish versus the Italians versus the Germans versus the Jews. But I read in “Bummy Davis vs. Murder Inc”, the book about my cousin Bummy that was written by Ron Ross, that the most heated battle was between the Italians, coming in from East New York (there were a lot of Jews there, too) and Ocean Hill, and the Jews. And both groups fought dirty. He told me how his gang used to go up to the roofs of tenements and throw cinder blocks and bricks at the Italian gang. They didn’t have guns. Thank God.

    Looking back, I realized that the Yankees that he was the most vocal about while we were watching the Yankee games on TV (and he despised the Yankees more than anyone else I’ve ever known) were Italian, or at least guys who he THOUGHT were Italian. Phil Rizzutto, who by this time was an announcer, was who he despised the most. Lou Piniella (who, I think, a LOT of people thought was Italian. I certainly did until fairly recently. Billy Martin. And others.

    But not so much the blacks. He liked Bill White (who was black) as a Yankee announcer, but despised Rizzuto and Frank Messer. His favorite Yankee? Reggie Jackson! (of all people. I couldn’t stand Reggie). But he couldn’t stand Willie Randolph. He wasn’t an educated man, and he had high regard for those who were articulate, and, looking back, I think that was the reason that he liked Reggie. Reggie was articulate, Randolph was not, and he mocked the way Randolph talked while being interviewed. When my father graduated from not only high school, but college as well, and became a TEACHER, Grandpa was more than proud. Grandpa, a blue collar guy, had the highest admiration for those who were educated, PARTICULARLY teachers.

    But grandpa never used the derogatory words for Italians or blacks or Germans or Irish, although he did use the word “Polack” (who could blame him? His family escaped from Poland) and “That Russian bastard upstairs!”

    Again, we’re all products of our environment and of our era.

    By the way, V, I truly enjoyed your piece. I loved the imagery of the barber shop. And it was interesting how Campanella instantly became a “boy” instead of a “guy” when the barber shop folks realized that he was not full-blooded Italian but actually half-black!

    Nice writing, V.


  3. Allan G. Smorra Says:

    Your beautifully written story does a great job of walking a fine line and brings back a lot of memories of my childhood growing up in the South. You’re right, words have meanings both subtle and overt. I had more problems with the subtle racists than I did with the open ones.

    Someone once told me, “If you spot it, you’ve got it,” and with that in mind I think that we have a fighting chance to change our choice of words & outlookonce we recognize what influenced us to begin with.

  4. wkkortas Says:

    When it comes to writing, you ain’t no grinder.

  5. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    I love everything about this … I can SEE that barbershop, I can HEAR those men talking. And, my heart got tight when, as I read, I realized where you were taking us and the words that you remembered and you wanted us to hear. Just brilliant.

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