Commentary: A Philly neighborhood of friendship and loyalty

3 x 2 Charlie Sacchetti Chris Arcadi
Chris Arcadi works his magic on the writer.

By Charlie Sacchetti

In the '50s, growing up in my Southwest Philly neighborhood, I knew where I would spend about an hour or so every third Saturday morning. Sitting in a chair, waiting for a haircut from the one and only Chris Arcadi.

Chris operated his barber shop at the corner of 65th and Buist Avenue. Back then, few 10-year-olds would dare wear his hair long. You got a crew cut or suffered the consequences as soon as you left the shop. Three or four of your best pals would stand in ambush, messing up your hair while calling you names.

Chris' shop was full of kids from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday. Each nearby street contained about 70 row homes. Being a mostly Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood, these homes provided many mush-filled heads that needed to be pampered.

Chris was a master of the electric clipper, and using his plastic crewcut attachment, away he went. A perfect crewcut took about 15 minutes. He was like Leonard Bernstein, in full command, orchestrating the thing he did best in the world.

Chris was also a skilled hair stylist. As we grew and realized that girls were not just put on this earth to be snowball targets, we availed ourselves of his artistry. So I saw Chris regularly through high school, college, and beyond. He and I had a special relationship, engaging in interesting conversations as he worked his magic. After he learned I was studying Spanish, he would spend five minutes conversing only in Spanish, hoping that I would benefit from his language skills.

By the 1970s, Chris was elderly and in declining health. He finally retired and sold the business he loved for so many years, a doubly difficult decision since his shop was located on the ground floor of his home. His sweet wife, Rose, operated a dress shop that had an adjoining door to the barber shop.

He regretted his decision almost immediately. I lived across the street and would see him on his front step wistfully watching his customers entering and exiting the shop. It wasn't the income he missed, it was the banter and interaction with the new crop of little kids. And, of course, he missed doing the one thing he loved the most.

I had visited a new barber twice. Not bad, but he wasn't Chris. And one afternoon as I sat with him on his steps, I suggested he become semiretired and pick up one customer.

There was an understanding that Chris would not compete with the new owner. The guy had to protect his investment. However, since Chris was like family, I saw no harm in him cutting my hair in his home. He did - for about four more years. But then his health worsened.

By now, I was out in the working world. And while I was concerned about Chris' health, I was equally concerned about potential danger. He was getting quite forgetful, and it wouldn't be good if he forgot what that straight razor was for. I was quite fond of my ears. However, when I sat down in his kitchen chair for my haircut, it was as if automatic pilot kicked in. The Maestro still had his touch.

When Chris was well into his 80s, I became engaged to Luann. When I told Chris, his first words were, "I promise, I'm gonna give you the best haircut you ever had for the wedding." Given the enormity of this occasion, one might have sought out a hotshot Center City stylist. But I just told Chris I'd be honored. In my neighborhood, we were raised to value loyalty, and there was no way anybody else would touch this noggin once Chris made that remark. Anyway, Luann was so beautiful that no one would be looking at me.

So, on Friday, May 30, 1975, the day before our wedding, I walked up Chris' front steps and was greeted by a big hug from Rose. We walked into the kitchen, with the fragrance of peppers and eggs in the air. The Maestro put on his smock and proceeded to give me a haircut that lasted a good hour. It was flawless. People did notice, and I actually received a few "thumbs up" from my buddies.

Not long after, Chris passed away. Thinking of him now, some 40 years later, and realizing the blessing he was, I can still see him, clipper in hand, talking to the kids, unlit cigar in his mouth, keeping that Saturday morning assembly line moving on and on.

Charlie Sacchetti is a writer in Cinnaminson.