Thomas Johnson

I saw a statement the other day that a debating society in Syracuse has been disscussing the question “how much quicker can a land-lady’s daughter find out if her mother’s new lodger is married or single, than a colored barber can learn the name of a new patron.” I am satisfied to leave this momentous question with the Syracusans for decision, but I beg to offer a remark or two which will show in an indirect way that I am in favor of the barber as against the landlady’s daughter, confessing, however, that I know very little about the latter’s methods or fertility of device in gaining information.

Some years ago, when a resident of an eastern city, where the colored barber is the rule instead of the exception, as in New York, where the German tonsor seems to have things pretty much his own way, I had many old experiences, the history of one of which will give a sufficient idea of the many. I was a very young man in those days, and my beard existed chiefly in my imagination. However, I sought my barber with a great degree of punctuality, and paid out more money for razors, shaving cups, soap, etc., than I think of doing now that I have more hair on my face than is comfortable or consistent with a clean appearance. But I believe it is a rule that an interest in shaving implements, particularly in gaudy cups, bay rum and the like, obtains in inverse order to our need for them, and that the young spring—may I not say spring of green—who had a private cup, a bottle of bay rum, a puff box, and a razor at half the principal shops in town at eighteen, generally ends by shaving around promiscuously in any cup that is handy, at thirty. How does your own experience compare with mine?

During that period of adolescence it was one of my greatest grievances, being naturally sensitive, and always feeling when I visited the shrine of lather and palaver as if I had about as much need for a barber’s services as a cow has for a side-pocket, that I could not pass incognito. I transferred my patronage from one side of the town to the other with what would have been charming fickleness in a young lady, did that quintessence incarnate of all that is lovable avail herself of the offices of the tonsorial artist—and truth to tell she might do so and not be less rational than many of the youths who sit and wait a half hour for some particular barber in whom they have especial faith to “get around” to them and struggle with their incipient beards. What troubled me was that by the time I made two visits to the same shop I was greeted, despite my reticence, by name, and the man and brother would immediately inquire, “How am de business down dar to de telegruf orfis,” and make me so conspicuous that I sighed to take him kindly by the hand to some retired spot and kick the stuffing out of him. Of course, my cognomen boldly appearing on the cup was the means of my ebony friends’ easy access to my name. But I could never divine, unless colored barbers learn the uses of the city directory from figuring out gigs and saddles on the fly leaves, how they get one’s occupation down so fine in so short a time.

After I had shifted about a good deal, an idea struck me: I would get one more new cup, have some nonsensical thing painted on it, try a new shop, and see if I couldn’t obtain a little rest from the uncomfortable notoriety I had thus far gained wherever I had appeared. Plantation bitters were all the rage at that time, and the seductive “S. T. 1860 X.” was painted on all the dead walls, board fences, shelving rocks, and bill-boards in New England. In an evil moment I selected that as my future “sig,” and had it inscribed on a china shaving mug that was altogether too gorgeous for me to half describe at this remote day. I took the cup to the newly-selected saloon, a rather natty place on a suburban, though fruitful, street for hair dressers—Orange Street, in fact—and Saturday evening I put on a sub for an hour and sneaked up there. The shop was full, as is usual on the night preceding the peaceful New England Sabbath, when the click of the scissors and the jingle of the razor on the hone are hushed in the land. Among the many congregated were several personal friends who nodded “good evening,” and I sat down in a retired nook to wait my turn.

I finally fell into the hands of one Thomas Johnson, Esq; a negro whose make-up exceeded in point of gaudy exquisiteness anything that I have ever seen on the minstrel or any other stage. Tom was a great dandy, one of your swell chaps in dove-colored pantaloons, red satin vest and purple velvet coat, the latter adorned with bugle trimming, who fancied he was not only the apple of every dusky maiden’s eye who beheld him, but the bright particular star worshiped by all the white women who had once looked upon his wondrous mold of figure and sublime luxuriousness of “get up.” He was original, too, and when he spoke people always listened, for they were sure to hear something instructive. He

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