Born on this date in 1918, his real name was Joe Messineo but he grew up to become “Joe Mason the barber,” one of the kindest men it has ever been my pleasure to know, He gave me my first haircut at his barbershop located on the corner of Division and Guy Streets and just about every two weeks after that milestone event, me and my two older brothers would make the three block walk to his shop from our home on Leonard Street and “get our ears lowered.”
Joe was an active member of the Knights of Columbus. I still distinctly remember the mass at St. Michaels Church about 60 years ago, when I was sitting next to my Dad and the honor guard of Knights walked down the center aisle of that beautiful sanctuary. Each guy in the procession wore a feathered hat and carried a sword. All of a sudden one of them winked at me. It was my barber, Joe Mason. Man I thought that was neat.
Joe was also the host of an all Italian radio show broadcast by Amsterdam’s WCSS radio station. He spoke fluent Italian and lots of homes on the City’s West End and Southside had their radios tuned to 1490 when his show came on.
Joe was a lifelong resident of Amsterdam. He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served a three-year hitch. He also worked at General Electric for ten years. But he was born to stand behind that classic barber chair wearing his white smock and use his scissors, combs and razors to make hundreds of male heads look a heck of a lot better walking out of his shop than they did walking in.
For quite a while, the other chair in Joe’s shop was manned on Saturday mornings by a young Ralph Fedullo, the son of another West End barber and a schoolteacher. Back then, Amsterdam’s barbers, like our bartenders doubled as the town’s psychiatrists. As they snipped away at your hair, you would tell them about every problem you had during the two-week periods since they last cut your hair. Joe was an expert listener. He’d nod his head and sympathize with you. Young Ralph on the other hand would actually dispense advice, some of it rather bold if I remember correctly.
I used to love sitting there in Joe’s shop and listening to all that grown up conversation about everything imaginable. When a subject got sensitive, the grown ups all started speaking Italian because they didn’t want us kids to hear. I can still see the combs sitting in the blue-colored disinfectant in the Barbisol container on Joe’s counter. I can still feel the hot shaving cream he’d apply to the back of my neck and the prickly scrape of his straight edge razor along my hairline and the instant relief I’d feel when he’d apply the Pinaud Talc to my just-shaved skin.
Joe was such a well-liked member of our community. Back then the car and foot traffic past his corner was about 1,000 times heavier than it is now and all those people knew Joe Mason. Drivers of cars would beep their horns, walkers would wave to him and on many occasions, Joe would walk over to the window and click his scissors against the plate glass to acknowledge them.
I think it was the Beatles in the mid sixties that changed the way young men got their haircuts. We all let our hair get longer and suddenly every two weeks became every two months and “barbers” were slowly replaced by “hair stylists.” Joe eventually retired and then devoted the rest of his life to helping others. He was a fixture in our local hospitals and nursing home’s, visiting the sick and elderly, cutting their hair and just sitting and talking to them. His marriage to his lovely Louise was certainly the highlight of his life. It lasted 65 years and produced their beloved daughter Janice and two grandchildren who Joe absolutely adored. In 1983, my Dad had a massive stroke at the age of just 57. Joe Mason went to visit him in the hospital and was talking to him when he suddenly died. Knowing his good friend Joe was there with him has always been a comfort to our family.
Joe’s time to rejoin his beloved Louise came in May of 2009, when he had reached the age of 90. Whenever I drive pass his old shop I think of him, standing there clicking his scissors against that window.
My old barber shares his July 12 birthday with a former West End neighbor of mine, who went through a harrowing experience at the tail end of WWII.