He came to this country from Europe, in an era that was – in many ways – of greater acceptance than the age we live in today. Barely able to speak the “native” tongue, and still scarred by the horrors of war, he attempted, to the best of his ability, to integrate into the society he found here.
Seriously, imagine the effort: the journey to get to this faraway place is in itself a hellish struggle. And then to arrive, to have to gather your bearings, to learn the language, to assess the social order where almost nobody is like you, and to gauge your place in it.
You don’t know anyone. You have nothing. Nobody is like you, and nobody cares about you.
And after all that, to actually make the effort to insert yourself into that world. To provide for it! With today’s luxuries and privileges, and the world having become a global village, it’s almost impossible to understand that experience.
But he knows.
We’re not talking about an intolerant culture, as we have today. Australia in the post-war era was arrogant, dominant. White Australia, victors of the war in the Pacific, liberator of ‘subordinate’ races found in the occupied island nations.
Today, racial and religious intolerance comes from a place of fear, fear for “our way of life”, fear of the unknown, and a deep-seated, shameful understanding that these ideals are too flimsy to be defended.
But back then, it was an arrogant patronising of these European cultures who had already been brutalised by intolerance beyond understanding. We’ll tolerate your spaghetti and fried rice, fellas.
A people person, he started his career as a hairdresser in the city. Armed with youth, energy, passion, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, he began to network as he plied his trade. The ageing, well-to-do doyennes of Sydney’s east, left alone by their business-minded husbands all day, longed for an outlet for their thoughts, their stories, their plans and their dreams. They found it in him.
And who could blame them? A good-looking, upwardly mobile young man eager to listen while he cuts your hair (all the while learning the intricacies of his new language) would be the perfect ear.
“They were my ladies,” he’d tell me decades later. When I pressed for more, his brow darkened like storm clouds and he shook his head. “Sorry mate, they’re still mine.”
As now, networking paid off. Trust leads to loyalty, and when the young man was ready to move beyond the confines of the department store salon and get his own place, his ladies came with him.
Even though it was out in the wasteland of the south-west, in a tiny suburb few had heard of.
In the mid 1960s, Belfield was still relatively young. We’ve been there before, so there’s no need to go too deeply into the backstory. Catch up first, and then cast our man into the backdrop.
Although it’s the inner-west now, it was truly the outskirts of civilisation for many at the time. Many poor European migrants found themselves in the middle of growing suburbs like Belfield, and often during the worst growing pains. But land was cheap, space was plentiful, and tolerance could be found if you looked past the stares.
He told me the shop had been a deli before he bought it. He’d saved all his income from the city salon, lived hard for years but never let go of the dream to own his own business. The master of his own destiny. We’re content these days to end up wherever life tosses us. Control is too much effort, and believing in fate and destiny means it’s easier to explain away fortune both good and bad. His was a fighter’s generation, and he fought for everything he had. He’d been fighting from the day the Nazis shot his father dead.
His salon fit right into a suburb that had multiculturalised right under the white noses of the residents. An Italian laundry here, a Chinese restaurant (that serves Australian cuisine as well, natch) there, and a Greek hair salon right in the middle.
A friendly, ebullient character, everybody came to know him. The women loved him, the young men respected him, and the old ones still gave him sideways glances. He didn’t care – he’d outlive them.
“I still had my ladies,” he’d recall fifty years later. Some of his city customers had crossed the ditch, but he’d found an all-new community waiting to unload on him. He’d become family as he’d get to know the women, their children, and their children.
I came to this little shop for 25 years to get my hair cut. Always the same style: the Jon Arbuckle. In that time, I went from sitting in the baby chair and chucking a tantrum whenever it was time for a trim, to coming on my own, mainly for the conversation. As the years went on, he revealed more about himself and his life. It fascinated me.
“The hardest part,” he told me the last time I saw him “was that as the years passed, my ladies would…”
He paused. It was difficult.
“They’d stop coming in.”
Very true. Belfield is a very different suburb to what it was even ten years ago, let alone 30. Let alone 50. My grandmother was one of his women, so familiar that it seemed like they’d always be around.
But now she’s gone, and so is he.
“This is it,” he’d said. What? How? Why would you sell?
“I sold years ago,” he confessed. He’d been renting ever since.
I was stunned. Was I destined to never get a haircut again? “You can come to my house if you still want me to cut your hair,” he’d offered, but the look in his eyes suggested we both knew it would never happen. It was a kind gesture, but not the kind you actually take up. No need to be a servant in your own house.
What would he do now? He’d been scaling back the business for a long time. Once, the workload had been heavy enough that he’d hired an assistant, but Toni had long since gone. He’d said he didn’t take new customers anymore, either. It was too hard, pointless to get attached. It was his great strength and his ultimate weakness, that attachment.
So many Saturday mornings I’d spent in that chair, hair down to my shoulders, waiting for my turn. While I waited, he’d chat to me, or Mrs. Braithwaite, or Brett (who’d done time once and it had broken his heart). In all my years of going there I never saw the same “regular” in there twice, such was the expanse of his network.
On that final Saturday, we chatted out the back while he had a smoke. As a kid I’d always wondered about that back area. Turns out it was plastered with pictures of his own kids and grandkids, old salon paraphernalia, photos from his many overseas trips, and a radio constantly blasting ABC 702.
I’d thanked him for the last haircut he’d ever give me, and told him to keep the change. We shook hands, then embraced.
In my youth, I shed many tears in this place in vain attempts to avoid haircuts. As an adult, I shed one more.
The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.