Saturday, November 6, 2010

An Emotional Visit with Al the Barber

Al's Barber Shop in Los Altos, California, painted by artist Patricia Howard in 1999.

It took me eight months to gather my courage to go see my father's friend, Al Galedridge, or "Al the Barber" as he is known hereabouts. It is difficult for me to believe it has been eight months since I lost my Dad.

I was afraid I would cry when I saw Al. And I did anyway. But Al didn't seem to mind.

Robin, Al Galedridge, and Ashley Chapman, about 2004.

My Dad was Al's customer for 64 years, ever before there was an Al's barbershop. The two World War II veterans met when my father was living in Palo Alto and Al was working for another barber on University Avenue, not far from Stanford University. The two men moved with their families to nearby Los Altos at about the same time and the friendship continued. I was born after the move and remember Al so well, looking up at him from the vantage point of a tiny child.

The lawn is mowed and Dad isn't wearing a tie, so he and Robin (she's the little one) may be getting ready to go see Al the barber.

On Saturdays, when my mother was tired of my sister and me, Dad would take us with him to the barbershop. To me it was an exotic place filled with the scent of hair oil, the sounds of men laughing and (in those days) smoking, and with strange-looking men's specialty magazines scattered about. There were cars on the cover of these magazine, and guns, and other such male-type things.

I was a little intimidated by the place, but Al was kind to children and always kept Tootsie Rolls around, which he gave to my sister and me when he had finished up with our father. Later, I went to high school with Al's daughter.

Over the years, Dad and Al talked politics and investing during my Dad's weekly visits for a trim. The story goes that Louie, one of Al's barbers, was able to retire early on all the investments he made based on the gossip he heard in this prime shop in Silicon Valley--with HP, IBM, Lockheed, Intel, Cisco, Google, and eBay all nearby, and each one with executives who needed frequent haircuts.

Dad and Al did okay too, though both kept working. Al, six years younger than my father, continues to work on Friday and Saturday. The two men knew each other such a long time, I wrote a story about their friendship for the local newspaper in 2009 in what turned out to be the last year of my father's life.

Al cutting my father's hair in a photo from a story I wrote for the Los Altos Town Crier in 2009.

Dad's hair had gone this gorgeous color of white over the years, and Al's hair had disappeared entirely. "Does that every bother you?" I asked for the story I was writing. "Oh, only every day," Al said and laughed.

Today, I stopped by, finally, eight months after Dad's funeral, with a box of donuts for Al and his customers. I talked to Al about Dad and I cried a little, though I tried not to show it. Al always asks me when I'm going to go back into television because he was one of my fans when I worked at nearby KRON-TV in San Francisco. I guess he assumes the world of television news is still clamoring for my talent. I told him I thought I might do some free-lancing, which actually is one of my plans, and that made Al happy.

Al didn't come to Dad's funeral and I know why he didn't. He is old enough to have lost a lot of customers and, at age 84, he tries to live in the present. I understand.

When Dad was near the end, I called Al and he came up to my Dad's nursing home to give Dad what turned out to be his last haircut. Al always treated my father as if he was as fit and well as he was when they first met, and my father truly enjoyed having Al cut his hair. It was a familiar star in Dad's universe and it felt good. It felt familiar. It is difficult for me to recall that last time they were together, just a few weeks before my Dad died.

But I finally sucked it up and went to see Al. Al who has known me since I was a baby. I'm glad I made the visit. It was like going to see family. And that felt so good.

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