I probably would not have been seen as a model child by any stretch of the imagination in my youth, and I was OK with that. I didn’t care what other kids were doing, or what the “proper” behavior for someone my age was, I did what I felt was right.
It was the summer of 1961 and I had been ordered to get a haircut, which was a weekly thing during the school year, but I hardly felt that it mattered in the summer. Of course I did NOT have a vote in the matter, no kid did in those days. Dad said get a haircut, and off to the barbershop I went. There were consequences for not doing as I was told and I knew them well.
The barber we used was the same guy that had been cutting my hair since before I started first grade, which granted wasn’t all that long, but we had a “history.” The guy was two-faced and hated kids, but kept his smiley face on when adults were there.
When I was five years old I had to sit on a board that the barber put across the arms of his chair, so that I would be above the back of the chair and he could get to my neck, etc. One side of the board had a red padded leather cushion on it, the other, bare board. He made a show of placing the cushion side up for the adults to see, but flipped the board over once the child blocked their view.
Jack did subtle things like that, things that he could get away with and the adults would not see. He would do things like; wipe cut hair inside the cloth he tied around your neck (it itched like crazy), or put the hot clippers against your neck to make you flinch. Anything that he could do to make you squirm on that seat which he could then call attention to and he felt supported his point of view that kids were brats and needed more “razor strap discipline”.
When I was six he nicked my ear with his razor while doing my “white walls” around the ear, you guys will know what I mean. That was bad and made me angry, I had already had over a year of his tormenting. His comment (directed towards my father), was “that’s what you get when you squirm around!” I promise you that I never move a muscle when someone has a razor next to my skin. My dad gave me the “look” and told me to keep still or else.
Jack grinned at his success and then put alcohol on the cut. It must have upset him when I didn’t move or make sound from the burning pain of the alcohol, because he made a funny grunt sound and switched sides. The creep cut me again on the other side! I knew that he had shaved lots of people without cutting them, I had watched him, so I figured that it had to be on purpose and I lost my six year old cool.
When I yelled in pain he forgot himself, or at least his phony act, and got in front of me and taunted me with, “What’s a matter, is the baby gonna cry?”
That was another mistake, because he put himself within reach. Without thinking about what I was doing, I nailed him on his big nose with a right fist full of rage. Jack went backwards into the lap of a lady waiting for her husband to get his turn, bleeding between his fingers and cussing like a sailor. My dad jumped just as fast and had me off of the chair and his belt in his hand before I could even focus my eyes I was so mad. He hit me a couple of times on the legs before the big man sitting next to him (the lady’s husband) blocked his arm and said, “I think the barber cut him on purpose.”
In a testimony to the way things were back then, no law suits were filed. It was declared a “misunderstanding” (on my part) and an “accident” (on Jack’s part) and we apologized to each other and life went on. Dad tipped him something ridiculous and he was happy. I would rather have drunk poison than apologize but I had two cut ears and my legs were on fire from my dad’s belt and didn’t want any more, so I did as I was told.
Jack did stop tormenting me with his subtle tricks. I am not sure if it was the punch in the nose, or the whispered comments from the big man in his ear that changed him. He was not a nice man.
In 1961 it cost $1.50 for an adult and $.75 for a kid to get a haircut and I was sent with a dollar to cover it. I always hated giving Jack that extra quarter for his tip. If I had tried to “forget” and skip his tip he would tell my father for sure, because he was in there every week.
This barbershop was in a row of businesses which include the convenience store (like a 7-11), the drugstore where I got my comic books, and the barbershop on the end. Cars pulled up to the front shared sidewalk and behind the building was a dirt alley and residential property facing a street on the other side, so it was their backyard property line.
So here I was, sitting in the shop waiting for my turn, which without my dad along, was always after every adult man who came in. It didn’t matter if I was first, I ended up last. If I went outside I lost my turn.
It was a typical hot and muggy south Florida day and the shop had no air conditioning, just a poor excuse for a fan running, so the back door of the shop was open. I was restless and had read both of the magazines already. Jack didn’t waste money on such things, preferring to talk relentlessly about whatever he had on his mind. Children however, were not allowed to have opinions, or even speak unless spoken to in his shop. So unable to leave, read, or speak, I walked around.
Looking out the back door I spotted the first cool thing that I ever associated with that barbershop. A cage with a spider monkey peering back at me sat just across the dirt alley. Since the plywood top said “ack’s B”, I figured that it was his old sign, and with his two metal trash cans sitting next to it with “JB” painted on them, it was a pretty sure bet that it was his.
Briefly, very briefly, I thought “how cool of Jack to have a spider monkey.”
But the more I looked and watched the monkey, the worse his conditions appeared to be. He was full grown and was in a wire cage that was about 4 feet wide and 4 feet high and maybe 3 feet deep. When he stood up he had his hands and feet at all four corners at the same time. The ground around him was picked clean of everything that he could reach through the wire and he had a bucket in the bottom corner of his cage for water that I couldn’t see any water in. There was a wooden box next to the cage with a hasp and padlock on it, and the cage door also had a padlock on it.
I was yelled at by Jack that it was my turn, and I had to get in the chair or miss my turn, just that quick. I thought that was funny, as there were grown men in the seats waiting. Why didn’t I get bumped?
I debated whether or not to ask Jack about the monkey as he was always so grouchy when I asked him anything. My curiosity won out and I asked him if that was his Geoffroy’s spider monkey in the cage out behind the shop. You could have heard a pin drop in that barber shop. I was not sure if it was because I spoke, or what I said. Jack said, “That’s none of your business boy” and started running his clippers up my neck. The discussion was obviously closed on the matter.
The men were discussing Kennedy, Castro and Cuba and the opinions were heated and loud and I didn’t dare try to speak again.
After I begrudgingly gave up my dollar bill I tried to leave through the back door and was stopped as soon as I started moving in that direction. Jack said, “customers must use the front door”, so I did an about-face and walked out the front door. Instead of turning right towards home, I turned left and went around the end of the building to the back alley.
The monkey started to hoot and bark when he saw me coming and moved his face muscles all up and down showing his nervousness. I had read a lot of information about monkeys and was again sure in my categorization of this cute fellow as a Geoffroy’s Spider monkey. They had been in the news about a relocation effort in Panama and I saw photos of them.
The cage smelled bad due to the pile of poop and rotted fruit under the floor and it was obvious to me that the creature had been there a while. I found a hose behind the cage and filled the water bucket until it overflowed, which made the monkey squeal. (I was just beginning to hear a long list of noises this boy could make.) I attempted to blast the debris under the cage away but it was very difficult with the small diameter garden hose with no metal end or nozzle on it. I got some of it out of there, but it agitated the monkey until he screamed every time that I squirted the hose towards the cage. He was bouncing off the sides like he was losing his mind, so I stopped and shut the water off.
Spider monkeys have very long arms and legs and an even longer tail. They are arboreal and cover a large amount of territory as they feed during the day. This poor monkey could barely even stretch his body to full range. I was upset and sickened by the poor conditions this creature was in. I don’t think that I was so much in “environmentalist” mode as I was distressed by his living conditions. I didn’t feel that it was wrong for anyone to have a pet monkey, I just hated to see it badly treated.
I marched myself back around the building and inside the barbershop to confront Jack. I should have expected the reception I got. “Mind your own business boy!” Jack snarled at me, and the men in the shop all nodded in agreement with him. I was a troublemaker he explained to the men who again nodded their heads. So I left. I was not going to get anywhere with him.
I made it my business to watch that monkey and check on him every single day, including in the evening when Jack would close up his shop. You can learn all kinds of things by observing and listening.
Jack had won the monkey in a bet with a guy who went back and forth to Central America with an import business and brought the little guy back to Florida with him. I also learned why we never saw a car parked there for the barber. He lived the house directly behind his shop and his wife had the car to go to church every day. She was as religious, as he was mean. And he was afraid of her. She barked at him and he said, “Yes Dear” and he never barked back.
The monkey was afraid of the water because Jack regularly blasted him with the hose and made the poor frightened creature scream. The food that the creature got was what fruit the store at the other end of the building threw out, mostly bananas that had already turned brown or black. I thought that Jack kept food in that locked box next to the cage but he never got any out of it, even though he opened the box every time he went out there and stood there for a long time looking inside.
I tried reporting the neglect and abuse to a police officer who stopped at the drugstore for a coffee or a coke sometimes, but he said that it wasn’t illegal for the barber to own the monkey and as long as it was in a cage he couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to get permission to call the Crandon Park Zoo and ask them to help but it was long distance and neither my mother or father would allow it. They told me that it was not my business, and to stay out of it. My brother said, “Shoot the monkey, it will be better off.” Well, I didn’t think so, I thought that it was too drastic, but it did give me an idea.
If no one would help me force Jack to take better care of the spider monkey, and it wasn’t illegal for him to have it, then I had no other choice but to take drastic action.
Sunday morning, while Jack and his wife were gone to church, I took some tools from home and went to the cage. I had tried cutting the hasp with wire cutting pliers previously and that wasn’t ever going to work. So I took a hammer and pounded a big screwdriver under the latch and ripped the hasp and all off of the wooden framework.
I did something that I have since learned better than to do, but I was desperate. I set that Geoffroy’s Spider monkey loose into the Florida environment. I also ripped the hasp off of the box next to the cage thinking that I could provide some food for it to survive on while it got used to where to forage.
But there was no monkey food in that locked box. Some monkey “shines” as an old saying goes, but no food. It had a whole stack of porno magazines hidden inside. Naked women of all shapes and sizes in living color and not Playboys, these were raunchy. Even at that young age I knew that I had Jack by his tender boy parts.
I recruited an older friend to see what was in the box, (so I wouldn’t be on my own in this) and he told Jack that if he made a fuss about the monkey we would tell his wife what he was up to in the backyard. We also told Jack that he had to keep getting fruit from the store and putting it on top of the cage for the monkey to get if he needed it. That was a wasted effort, understandably the creature never got near that cage again.
That spider monkey lived in the neighborhood trees and ate fruit from the trees (hey, it’s Florida) and raided the trash behind the convenience store when he wanted more. He was also seen sneaking dog and cat food out of dishes and occasionally raiding bird feeders. The neighbors all knew where it came from and never complained to the police, so it was not chased or shot at. Even when it would sit on a window sill and stare at people in their houses. They were all older in that area and they didn’t mind, they had compassion for it. In the winter he would be seen on the roof of a house next to vent pipes or sunning himself on the tiles.
When I left Florida nine years later it was still living in the neighborhood as far as I knew. And the barber was still a jerk and still cutting hair. Him, I would like to put in a cage.
I do not recommend, nor do I condone turning animals loose. It was the wrong thing to do then, and even more so today. But it was all I had left in my arsenal and I had to do something.
There are other, better ways to deal with such problems and what I lacked then was a concerned adult who would help me make this right. Remember this story and when your time comes, BE that concerned adult, help some kid make a difference, and prevent them from having to do the wrong thing to solve an injustice.