Grover Kohl The Barber

Travelers driving through the upper reaches of the  Hudson  Valley  will find that Old Route 22 runs right through the center of Amenia.   Like so many of the small villages that fill the map of Upstate New York, Amenia today offers the casual motorist few hints of its once lively past.

Its  Main Street has no clothing store, no pharmacy, no shoemaker, no liquor store,   no movie theater.    But it was not always so.   I can remember when it had all those things and boasted two barbershops – Al Moore’s and Grover Kohl’s.

I used to get my hair cut in Grover Kohl’s shop.   That is, I did until “the incident.”   Then, I switched to Al Moore – I had no choice.

AHS Kohl
A rare moment. Grover Kohl dines out instead of eating his slow-setting supper in his barbershop.

It all took place on a grey winter day.   I was nine years old and needed a haircut.   So, naturally, I went to see Grover.

Grover Kohl was a portly, taciturn bachelor who was well into his sixties.    Because he worked in the very same shop that his father had opened nearly eighty years earlier, the LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstadt, had done a photo essay about Grover and made him into a sort of local celebrity.    They even put his picture in a school textbook.    But that one touch of fame had certainly not affected him.     He continued to live quietly and unobtrusively in the back of his small barbershop, his professional life separated from his private world by a skimpy black curtain.

It was about  4:30 on a January afternoon when I walked in.   Grover was seated in one of the customer’s chairs, his feet resting on the top of the potbellied stove.    In a chair alongside of him was a dinner plate containing the remains of a just-eaten meal.   I took off my coat, sat down in the large barber chair and waited for him to start my haircut.

After nearly ten minutes of silence – not a word had passed between us since I entered the shop – I turned to him and politely said, “Mr. Kohl, I want a haircut.”   Without moving his folded hands from his ample stomach or his feet from atop the stove, without expression or emotion of any sort, Grover quietly replied, “Supper’s gotta set, sonny.”

And that ended our conversation.    As I recall the incident, I waited a bit longer for this momentous event of supper setting to take place but it soon became obvious that Grover had eaten one of those heavy, slow-setting kinds of suppers and that my haircut was not to be.

Wordlessly, I got out of the barber chair, put on my coat and departed leaving behind an equally silent Grover Kohl with his feet still warming on the stove and his supper still setting in his stomach, the perfect picture of a philosopher who had discovered the exquisite balance between duty and digestion.

I never returned to Grover’s barbershop.   I guess it was because nine-year  old boys cannot risk affronts to their fragile dignity any more than they can recognize chance encounters with true wisdom.

It was not many years later that I left rural Amenia and jumped enthusiastically into the middle of modern suburban  America.   And that’s where I’ve spent most of my adult life.     It’s certainly been an stimulating and rewarding place – much of the time.    But it does possess its own peculiar painful frenzy – a frenzy that unfortunately seems to be normal for a culture that is in constant motion and continual turmoil.

In recent years, when events move too fast and the plate of life becomes too full, my thoughts often turn to those simpler childhood days in the village of Amenia.    Sometimes this daydream reaches the point where I actually see Grover Kohl and , if I really concentrate, I can hear him mumbling that haunting phrase – “Supper’s gotta set, sonny.”  It’s then that I know the time has come to find me a warm pot-bellied stove to rest my feet on.

A note of condolence to Mary Ellen Downey of Leedsville, after the death of her husband Tom,  led to an exchange of letters with an  Amenia  High School   friend, Gerry Holzman, Class of 1950.  Gerry, who moved away some 50 years ago, sent along several delightful vignettes of the Amenia of his youth.     After a career in education, Gerry has taken his talent for wood carving to the  Empire  State  Carousel  Museum  in  Islip,  Long Island as its director.