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VOL. 40 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 19, 2016

Retirement means little in Trotter’s shop

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“Retired” barber Joe Trotter gives Bill Jennings the once over. Most days, Trotter gives at least one haircut, sometimes two. The rest of the time he reads, naps and watches the world go by. 

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

A major shearing finished, neck hairs obliterated, retired barber Joe Trotter uses a cotton square to dab Cool Mint Antiseptic on the head of Sean Allen, who has dropped in at the retirement haven that is 1505 Jefferson Street.

“It keeps you (the customer) from having any problem after your haircut,” says Joe, as he pushes the bottle of bright-green fluid back on one of the counters – crowned by a half-wall of mirrors – where he stores the clippers, scissors and other implements of a guy who long ago retired from the life of a barber.

OK, twice now I’ve referred to the 72-year-old Trotter – who lifts 25-pound barbells with each hand during down time ­– as a “retired” barber.

And yet here is Joe, cutting hair after a career spent as an Army Reserve master sergeant (veteran of President Bush Sr.’s Deserts Shield and Storm), as a sheet-metal worker at the old Peterbilt plant in Madison and, of course, as a barber.

“It’s my hobby,” says Joe, settling back into one of his four barber chairs after his customer, a janitorial services worker, leaves, tossing the simple explanation over his shoulder that he came to this shop run by the retired barber “because this is what I choosed.”

“I am retired,” says Joe, who’s made the slick transition of giving up long hours spent cutting hair at Craighead Barber Shop to cutting hair as a retirement hobby that takes up long hours at Craighead Barber Shop.

Joe breaks one of the frequent smiles we share, along with a bit of laughter and philosophizing about growing old, age and racial discrimination and villainous corporate America, as he insists he really is retired.

“But I come in here every day, 8 a.m. and stay until closing time at 6. I need to be here when the people come in here wanting their hair cut. I don’t take no appointments. It’s first-come, first-served.” Pretty much like it was during the 25 or so years he spent as a professional barber at this shop prior to his retirement.

“I have at least one customer in here a day,” he says, as he gathers up his dust pan and broom and sweeps away the thick, black hair of the man who has just stepped down from chair No. 2. That’s the chair people use when they come in here to pay their weekly or bi-weekly visits to the retired barber.

Chair No. 1, nearest Jefferson Street, is Joe’s spot to sit and watch the wheels go ’round and ’round’ – quite literally on many of the pimped-up, spinner-rimmed cars hip-hopping past his lair – during his easygoing retirement years.

“It’s almost where you don’t get enough time to retire,” he says. “I’m just glad I could. I’m at the age where I couldn’t be on my feet all day anymore.”

Joe explains his professional days in this barber shop came after Robert Craighead hired him more than a quarter-century ago. “He took me under his wing, and I been flying ever since,” he says, looking off into the distance. “Flying ever since….”

Joe brings me a 5-by-7 framed photo showing the late Mr. Craighead at work. “He kept working here up to the last year. He was 97. He was here seven days a week.

“He left me the barber shop …. My plan all along was to do this once I retired. I didn’t have no other hobbies. This is a hobby for me.”

Other men of his age take far different retirement paths. They putter around the home, mow the lawn, golf, travel. Meet for coffee at Wendell’s or The Picnic. Chew the fat at Swett’s or Piccadilly.

“I don’t work in no yard,” Joe explains. “It’s too hot. I ain’t a yard man. I did a lot of work outside. But now I been inside in air-conditioning so long the heat makes me sick.”

As for golf, well, that’s simply not his game. “I couldn’t hit a golf ball into the Cumberland River, let alone in that little hole,” he says, eyes twinkling with his laughter.

Course he could stay up in his home “out toward Bordeaux” with his wife of 46 years, Elsie, the mother of his son and daughter.

Probably would be too much shock to both of their systems if Joe was home, getting in the way of the woman who has spent her life taking care of home and family.

“She’s a great woman,” he adds. “She put up with anything. We been together so long, we are molded together.”

When asked specifically if Elsie minds that her husband is frittering away his retirement years in this old-fashioned, cut-and-clip joint, he just says “I guess she don’t mind.”

Not that he doesn’t like spending time with her. On this night, after our conversation, Joe plans on watching the Olympics with Elsie.

“I think they got gymnastics on tonight,” he says, staring across the shop to a color TV where wild and crazy guys from Lithuania, the Ukraine, wherever, are playing rugby. I don’t know the rules … all I know is that there are a bunch of scrums out on that field.

“I like to watch sports,” Joe says, walking across the shop to grab a giant Tennessee Titans schedule and poster. “You want this? Some boy gave me a big stack,” he says.

He looks out toward Jefferson Street. Fifteen blocks and a river away, this very avenue will take folks to within parking distance of LP Field, home of Mariota and the Titans.

“I’m a Titans fan,” he adds. “I go to games when someone gives me a ticket. Maybe they are going out of town or something and they can’t use it.”

Actually, this man who proudly battles change can’t make it to many games. He and Elsie travel every Sunday morning to worship at Cabin Row Missionary Baptist Church in Southside – a rural section of Montgomery County heavily populated by African-Americans. It was where Aaron and Ester Trotter, the parents of nine children (including Joe), spent their lives. “They’ve passed.”

Sitting in “his” chair, Joe Trotter has a telephone conversation with a friend. He has plenty of time for conversation now that he’s officially/unofficially retired.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The elder Trotters had a 48-acre farm where Joe worked as a youth, harvesting feed corn and staking and stacking tobacco. Sweat-pouring labor. Drudgery for a guy who had his eyes set on distant horizons.

Like Good Old George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he wanted to leave his little settlement outside Clarksville and get off and see the world.

He also didn’t want to be a farmer. “I spent a lot of time on the farm in high school. But when I got out of high school, I cut and ran out on my father and I joined the Army.”

That was 1968, back when the whole world watched as American planes delivered Agent Orange and napalm to support the grunts on the ground. “I joined right in the middle of that, but I didn’t go to Vietnam.”

Instead of getting waist-deep in the Big Muddy, he saw his escape. “I got out of active duty and spent 23 years in the Reserve.”

While he avoided the Vietnam debacle in which 58,000-plus members of our military died in a losing cause (accounts say more than a million of Ho’s “enemy” forces also died), he finally was dispatched to war duty by George Herbert Walker Bush.

Joe’s war-time duty was in the 1990s in Saudi Arabia, where he and the rest of the “the 401st Military Police, out off White Bridge Road,” took care of Saddam’s troops who had been “taken prisoner.”

“You treat them like you treat any soldier,” he says. “Didn’t have no problem with them. They was hungry.

“You saw on TV where the Iraqi soldiers would just give up? You can always beat a soldier when they are hungry.”

After six months in Saudi Arabia, fattening up Iraqi “prisoners,” he went back home, grabbed his clippers and went right back to work on the heads of those who sat in chair No. 2 at Craighead Barber Shop.

The lingering afternoon’s almost pastoral conversation returns to his roots in Southside and his determination to be there most Sundays (even missing his beloved Titans – “I’m real excited. They should be loaded this year. Come out and explode.”)

“My family is all up there and that’s where I’ve always gone (to church). I don’t like change.

“It’s not about a 40-minute drive. And I get to see my brothers, my sisters, people from my school. I enjoy the people a lot. It makes it easier to get up and go when you like the people.

“I was brought up in that church. I was there every Sunday. It’s hard to cut relations. And if you know the Lord, he’ll get you there, too.”

Since I lived in Clarksville for about 15 years on the front end of my doomed career as a profane and proud newspaperman, I’m pretty familiar with Southside.

“I had a friend, Ole Steve Pettus ….” I begin….

“Steve had that barbecue stand out there,” Joe interrupts. “Pettus family’s all good people.”

Craighead Barber Shop on Jefferson Street gives retired barber Joe Trotter the perfect place to pursue his hobby at a leisurely pace.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Momentarily my mind treks the quarter-century or so back to my nights standing with Steve and his brother Euless, helping smoke pork shoulders back in the pit to the rear of “Ole Steve’s,” where wooden picnic tables greeted diners like me. (Most white folks just picked it up to take home.)

“Adopted” by the Pettus family, once a year I’d go out to Southside for the family reunion. If memory serves, Pettus’ cousin, Wilma Rudolph, was there, too, helping lay out the tables filled with food, while Steve and Euless had T-bones flying off the grill in well-done, assembly-line fashion.

Wilma was among the most beautiful – physically and in spirit – human beings it’s been my pleasure to know, and I thought of her often while watching the track and field portions of the recent Olympic games. It was through her that I met Muhammad Ali at a screening one night of her made-for-TV life story at the old Belle Meade Theatre, a gala event attended by Clarksville’s two best sports writers at the time, Max Moss and me.

My momentary lapse of reason dissolves when Bill Jennings climbs into chair No. 2.

“I come here about every two weeks,” says Bill, 67, who is retired from manufacturing but who still continues dabbling in real estate “on the side.”

The two old friends swap stories about several things, including the human stupidity or perhaps just plain old meanness that led to the heat-stroke death of a Labrador retriever in Bill’s neighborhood.

“They filled up the kiddy pool with water, but by then it was too late,” Bill explains.

“I came today because I had to get it trimmed around my ears,” Bill says as Joe begins working the clippers. “Going to my 50th high school reunion down in Georgia,” he says. “We probably lost about a third of them now.”

The retired barber nods.

“I like the job he does,” says Bill, talking about why he keeps coming to this retiree’s hair-cutting lair. “And I like him as a person. I know I’m getting a good, fair job.”

When I comment “that’s a good haircut,” the retired barber watches his customer leave the shop into the stale, sticky-hot, urban Nashville afternoon.

“I can give you a good haircut if you want,” he says, sort of joking as he eyes my almost foot-long, mostly white pony-tail. (I’ve always worn my hair long, ever since John Lennon and the boys came to America. But when I was “retired” from corporate newspapering, I made one promise to myself: I’d never get my hair cut again, although there have been slight around-the-ears trims for things like my daughter’s wedding.)

So I just kind of joke off the offer of a haircut, although I know it would be a good one.

And, since he has only one or two customers during the course of the day, the retired barber would, obviously, give my cut plenty of attention.

Sure, sometimes Joe thinks of giving up the hobby that’s really a fragment, a pleasant remainder and reminder, of his work life.

Fact is, the retired barber hopes he’s cutting hair at 97, just like Mr. Craighead did, almost until the day he died.

“As long as my health is good, I’m going to keep at it. If I set down, I won’t be able to get back up. So, I keep rolling. That make sense to you?”

Then the guy who retired from the hair-cutting trade critiques some of the younger barbers of today.

“A lot of the young barbers want to have big clientele right away. I tell them ‘wherever you go, you got to wait. You can be the best barber in town, but when you first come in a new place, they treat you as a rookie until you break through.’”

His own rookie days, of course, are out of sight, even of life’s rear-view mirror.

Then he smiles. “I got a pretty regular clientele. I pretty much know what day they’ll come in and what time.

“I got to be here when they get here,” he adds.

That does sometimes mean long and lonely days, sitting in chair No. 1 and looking out the plate-glass window onto Jefferson Street.

“I like to listen to music. And I read newspapers and magazines,” he says. “Pretty soon I’ll watch the 4 o’clock news. I like to know what’s going on in the world around me.”

He smiles and leans back in chair No. 1. “Sometimes I might take me a little nap.”

Might as well.

He is retired, after all.

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