March 12, 2010

Barber's job rarely dull

— Q: Do you have a Web site?

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Norman Millette has been cutting hair for fifty years in his barber shop on Congress Street in Portland. On Tuesday, March 10, 2009, Millette gives a hair cut to Charlie Summers.

A: Not yet, but we probably will within a month.

Q: How long have you been a barber?

A: Since 1958.

Q: How did you learn to do it?

A: I went to barber school, in Lewiston. Hanson's Barber School.

Q: Just out of high school?

A: Just about, yeah. In Biddeford, Biddeford High.

Q: How long have you been cutting hair on Congress Street?

A: Since 1960.

Q: How much is a haircut now, compared to then?

A: It's $10. I think it was a dollar and a quarter when I started.

Q: You start the day early --

A: My hours are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. If I opened at 6 there'd be someone here waiting, especially in the summer.

Q: And before 1960 -- ?

A: I worked in Lewiston for a while, for a guy named Gene Blouin, but I didn't like Lewiston. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. A friend was a barber in Portland, and I asked him about a job, and he said, ''There's a guy up on Pine Street.'' I went over there and ended up there working with Jack Barber. His son was Augustus Barber, of Barber Foods.

I bought him out, then moved down here when they turned Pine Street into a one-way, and Jack came down with me. He retired a couple of years after.

Q: He was a barber named Barber?

A: He used to tell me that in the old country, Armenia, his name was Barbarian. People here told him it didn't sound good, so he changed it to Barber. We were 2A Pine Street, where the porno store is now.

Q: You can't get away, now you've got one next door. Does it affect business?

A: Well, there's never been a problem, in all the years it's been there. Increase traffic? It does, yeah. Some people go in there, then come in here, whatnot.

When it opened, people would come by and look all around to see if anybody was watching, then hit the door and dash inside.

I used to think that if the door was ever locked they'd kill themselves. When they came out, shoom! It was almost like they'd been shot out of a cannon.

Now they just walk in as if it was the supermarket. But at first it was funny as hell.

Q: Ever cut any celebrity hair?

A: Gary Merrill. He would park out front in a big old convertible. Bette Davis brought in a couple of little towheads, on Pine Street. I didn't cut his hair, in fact I didn't know who the hell he was until somebody told me, but Arthur Fieldler used to come in. He would go across the street to talk to Joe.

Q: You and Paul (Trusiani) from Paul's Food Center and Joe (Discatio) from the smoke shop across the street must have been on Congress Street longer than anybody.

A: Oh, yeah. Joe. We used to like to rile him up. It doesn't take much. Joe, he's not happy if he's not hollering. He's 94; I sent him a card, in January, for his 100th birthday. He called me up and hollered at me.

Q: In a good way, I'm sure.

A: Oh, yeah. I go to see him, drive over to the house.

Q: What did the shop used to be called?

A: Longfellow Barber Shop. That changed when the hippies came out in the '60s. It was kind of funny, the telephone company called up and asked me, ''What do you want to put in your ad?'' I wanted to say something about senior citizens, but they kept saying you can't do this, you can't do that.

Then finally she said, ''Let's start over. What's the name of the shop again?''

I told her ''Senior Citizen Barber Shop.''

She said, ''When did that change?''

I said, ''About two seconds ago.''

Q: So the new name reflected a change in the clientele?

A: Yeah, it did. It was a big change, and it kept us alive, let's put it that way.

But it's not just older people now. The youngest I've done was a kid about 8 months. He had hair like a gorilla, but he was good.

The oldest customer was Fred Hale from South Portland -- he was 112.

We get women who want short haircuts. Mohawks? I had one last week.

The strangest? When they had initials in the hair 10 or 12 years ago. Stripes. Aw, jeez. One wanted a pattern like a soccer ball. That was interesting. That stuff's a real pain in the butt.

Q: You work with --

A: Dick (Stetson).

Q: OK, he's the guy I remember at the Mill Creek shop way back. Some people would be thinking about retirement at your age

A: I know, but I'd get bored. This is entertaining here.

Q: How entertaining does it get?

A: Well, all kinds of people come in. Different things happen, every day.

Q: Anything exciting this week?

A: Not yet, so far it's been pretty calm, but we've still got a ways to go. The spring will bring 'em out. The good weather.

Q: What's the most exciting thing that's happened?

A: We had a guy who passed away in here a few years ago. Nobody knew it, until it came his turn for a haircut.

Bernie was here, another old guy. I used to go across the street to get him a cheeseburger and coffee. I did that, and came back, and was going to do Sarge, but the recruiter (another customer) said, ''Forget about ol' Sarge, Norman. I think he's dead.''

Then it got busy, people started coming in, and it was kind of ticklish. We knew Sarge was dead -- the recruiter had been a medic in the Army -- and there was nothing we could do to help.

Another customer said, ''I think he's next.''

So I said, ''Oh, he's just taking a nap.''

We didn't want to cover him up, and have people saying, ''What's that?'' Know what I mean?

Sarge looked normal, as if he'd just fallen asleep. His arm was on the sink and he was still holding the newspaper on his lap.

Q: How long did this go on?

A: The recruiter kept saying, ''Norman, we've got to do something. We can't leave him here.'' I called 911, but they said if he was dead, I had to call a different crew. So I said, ''Wait a minute, I think we've got a slight pulse.'' They said they'd be right up.

While they were on the way, a kid about 30 sat down between Bernie and Sarge and started talking. The young guy says, ''(Sarge) needs a haircut.''

Bernie says, ''Don't bother him, he's having a rough day.''

Then the MEDCU came, an ambulance, a fire truck and a police car. The recruiter goes outside and waves them in. They picked up Sarge and the kid's mouth fell open, and I told him, ''That guy you were sitting next to, he's been dead for 15 minutes.''

''Why didn't you tell me he was dead?''

''You didn't ask.''

He opened the door and ran down the street. I haven't seen him since.

The police officer asked me if this happened very often.

I said, ''No. I'm afraid not. Thank God.''

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