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Reflections of haircuts, over several decades

Mike Balsom as a youngster, when his hair was kept short, as a young teenager, when he let it grow and did nothing to tame it, and in a current photograph.
Mike Balsom as a youngster, when his hair was kept short, as a young teenager, when he let it grow and did nothing to tame it, and in a current photograph.  (Photos supplied)

The passing of Angelo DelVecchio last week prompted me to reflect on my love/hate relationship with haircuts for so much of my 59 years. 

My earliest memories go back to my mother taking me to Alex Vitez’ barber shop in St. Catharines’ Western Hill neighbourhood, where I grew up. Invariably, I left the place with a brush cut. You might call it a buzz cut, or even a butch cut, but man, it was short. 

This was the late 1960s. My brother, 11 years my senior, was wearing his hair past his shoulders. All I wanted was to be like him. He teased me once about my haircut, and after every subsequent cut I would hide under my twin bed in the room we shared to avoid becoming fodder for his teasing. I could stay there for hours on end.

When I started school at St. Anthony’s, my extremely short hair and the first syllable of my last name earned me the nickname The Bald Eagle. I despised that name.  

Those experiences with my brother and the unwanted moniker must have seriously traumatized and confused me. 

There’s a school photo, maybe from Grade 1 or 2, where you can clearly see I had taken a pair of scissors to my hair. You would think someone who was embarrassed about his short hair wouldn’t cut it himself, but I did. Twice! Both times just before school photo day. My mother talked about that repeatedly, up until the day she died. 

As a young teenager I started making my own decisions, and wore my hair long like my brother’s. I remember riding my bike to a barber shop on Queenston Street beside the Tasti-Treat ice cream store, not because I got a good haircut there, but because I wanted to stop for ice cream when I was done. 

It took me until Grade 13 to finally settle on letting my hair do what it did back then. Before that I would comb it and blow-dry it and try to make it look stylish, but in hindsight, the absolute only year it looked good was the year I stopped doing all that. 

In my 20s, I started dating a hairdresser, and my hair got shorter. Maybe a bit more serious-looking. I became her experiment. Shorter on the sides, longer on the top - not a mullet, but almost. I started my fascination with using ‘product,’ which sticks with me, literally and figuratively, today. A willing participant in bringing her ideas to life, I stopped short of letting her use me as a model for hair competitions.

After that relationship ended, I was left looking for somewhere to go for my tonsorial treatments, continuing to eschew the barber shop for the hair salon. For a few years, as a customer at Salon Alessandro on Ontario Street, my lasting memory is the day supermodel Linda Evangelista walked in with her mother. It was an afternoon appointment, so I’m not sure if anyone paid her the $10,000 she once famously said it would take to get her out of bed in the morning. 

At 30 years old, I got my first teaching job in Gananoque, Ont. In a strange town, I struggled to find a barber shop to tame my unruly mop, and often let it grow out of control. Around this time, the Chia Pet was being heavily promoted on television. 

A couple of cheeky students noticed some similarities between my out-of-control pate and the terracotta novelty. Soon, chants of “ch-ch-ch-chia” greeted the new teacher as he walked down the hallways between classes. It wasn’t as stinging as Bald Eagle, so I took it in stride and let it go. 

I found a hair salon in town that was on the bottom floor in this old factory building next to a ravine. I can’t remember my hairdresser’s name, but I do remember the musty scent of the entire building. They say smell is the most potent sense in evoking memories, and I think of that salon every time I am confronted by a similar odour. 

I moved back to Niagara in 1998, and to Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1999. My first haircuts were at Fernando’s in the Old Town and at Trendz Salon with Joe Agnotti, in Virgil. But, perhaps influenced by watching the Ice Cube movie Barbershop, I knew it was time to leave the salon in favour of the shop. 

I remember walking into Angelo’s Barber Shop for the first time and sitting down at the back next to a table strewn with newspaper sections from various dates. A quick scan of the room showed a time capsule of sorts, tables and shelves lined with bottles of Alberto Balsam (no relation) shampoo and Barbasol shaving cream coated in a centimetre of dust. 

Angelo DelVecchio

I had noticed the team photo of the Detroit Red Wings while waiting, and when it was my turn in the chair we struck up a conversation about hockey, and the fact that Angelo shared a last name with Gordie Howe’s longtime linemate. 

I continued to go to Angelo’s up until he retired, not so much for the haircuts, as I often would ask my wife to help me with some finishing touches when I got home. The drawing cards were the atmosphere, the conversation and the experience. I never went for a shave, but Angelo always slathered on the hot shaving cream and wielded the straight razor on my neckline with precision. What a great feeling!

The last few years were interesting. Angelo’s hearing was failing, and I felt I couldn’t hold a conversation with him without almost yelling. That made things a bit dangerous when that straight razor was involved. And every visit involved him asking “trim, or regular?” but it seemed I received the same cut no matter which option I chose. 

Walking into Angelo’s was like walking into the past. When his barber shop closed about six years ago, it marked the end of an era in NOTL, and somehow seemed to spark a renewal of the Virgil business area, as if Angelo’s retirement gave approval for the changes that followed.

Lately, I vacillate between asking my wife to cut my hair and visiting a trendy, modern barber shop in St. Catharines, where a former student of mine cuts my hair. 

But nothing compares to the experience of sitting in Angelo’s chair in that authentic environment. He will be missed greatly.