A little off the topFeb 22nd, 2012 | By Terri Sercovich | Category: top story
James Jeanfreau sits in one of the padded chairs lining the narrow waiting area at the front of his barbershop, surrounded by Saints bobble head dolls, posters, and a shimmering silver ticket stub from a Super Bowl he never attended. His tanned arms are folded contentedly over the golden “9” of his well-worn Drew Brees jersey, which bulges just slightly over a small, pillowy paunch. After 50 years of cutting hair, you’d expect Jeanfreau to approach the question of retirement with a little hesitation, to consider the many unfinished projects that even a full life is littered with, and to try his steady hands at something new. Maybe some more golf. But Jeanfreau sees no reason to hang up the clippers.
“Why retire?” he asks, his ink-colored eyes suddenly dancing behind his glasses, the creases around his mouth and forehead rippling up and out as if his entire face were ringed by little smiles. “I’m having too much fun. I get paid to BS with customers all day and find out what’s goin’ on.”
“That’s what happens when you love what you do,” says fellow barber Anne Brown, not looking up from the newspaper she flips through more, it seems, out of habit than interest. Sitting in the waiting room at Jeanfreau’s Barbershop, — a fixture in Belle Chasse since he and his brother Raymond bought the lot and built their own shop in 1978 — a visitor gets a sense of timelessness, as if even at the end of the world, Jeanfreau and Brown will be sitting calmly at the front of the barbershop, waiting for the next customer to drop by while they flip through old newspapers and magazines.
“You don’t know what the real world’s like,” says Jeanfreau, leaning forward in his chair a little and lowering his voice to a confidential whisper, as if to indicate that what he will say next is his most precious gem of wisdom, “until you sit in a barbershop for a week. I’m not just a barber — I’m a counselor…a, what d’ya call it?”
“Psychiatrist,” says, Brown, turning another page.
“That’s it. I like to keep up with things, but you know, at my age it’s a little harder. The customers help me keep up. They tell me what’s goin’ on in the world.”
In 1963, just a year out of New Orleans Barber and Beauty College and working for the Family Barbershop in New Orleans, Jeanfreau figured that he wanted to see a little more of that world and joined the U.S. Navy, where he served on the USS Ruchamkin until he was discharged in July of 1965. When he came home, he went to work with his brother Raymond, who had a small shop in Belle Chasse. The brothers moved their shop to the side of Balestra’s new supermarket when it opened in 1966 and would move again when Flores Gardens opened in 1972.
He describes cutting hair as a family tradition, stemming from his mother’s Italian side of the family. Jeanfreau, tanned and angular, a sharp, inquisitive nose holding up his glasses and close-cropped coxcomb of marbled hair slicing from his forehead to his crown, looks and behaves every bit the Conigilo, drawing little circles next to his head when he talks or spinning them out towards his listener as if inviting them to mangia. It’s not difficult to imagine him brandishing a pair of scissors, deftly trimming bangs or taking just a little off the top of a crew cut, and his fingers, twitching and spinning all their own, seem restless without the barber’s faithful tool. This is a man who knows everything about cutting hair, an expertise he’s acquired over a lifetime of adjusting and re-adjusting to the fickle hairstyle trends customers have requested since the early days of his business.
“In the 70’s,” Jeanfreau explains, rolling his eyes just a little, “everybody wanted long hair, so nobody was getting their hair cut.” To keep pace with the European-inspired trend that was making its way slowly to America, the Jeanfreau brothers adopted a “California Concept,” and transformed themselves from barbers to hair stylists. Jeanfreau describes this willingness to adapt to ever-changing styles in terms of a survival instinct – though business dropped off slightly with the long-hair trend, he and Raymond rode the California wave until it petered out in 1981. By then, he says, his was one of the last shops in the area, a fact he credits partly to his intuition and partly, he says, flashing a sage smile, to good fortune.
“We were very fortunate,” he says of the turns his business took in its earlier years. When Raymond Jeanfreau retired in 2005 just before Hurricane Katrina, James experienced another stroke of luck when he found his building virtually untouched by floodwater and instead inundated with hoards of new customers – relief workers and national guardsmen who came to his shop for a single, simply haircut. “They all wanted a buzz cut,” he chuckles, “because they couldn’t deal with the heat.”
Jeanfreau hasn’t taken new female customers since 2006, but he urges anyone else in need of a good trim to “come on down,” where he, Jan Savoie, Anne Brown, and Dave Gardette are diligently cutting hair daily (though don’t expect to see Jeanfreau unless you visit on Monday, Friday, or Saturday as he’ll be out on the golf course giving the fairways a close shave). He’s met a lot of people during his years in business, including who he describes as one of his most interesting customers, Judge Leander Perez, whose hair Jeanfreau cut until Perez’s death in 1969.
“He was just a regular guy,” says Jeanfreau, his voice hitting a reverent note. “He was smart and he’d come in and just talk to me about what was going on with which cases…we closed the shop the day he died.”
Jeanfreau continued a friendship with Perez’s son Chalin, with whom he’d go fishing in the Ollie Canal and often joke that, before Chalin died, he had to make sure and give Jeanfreau a key. When Chalin died in 2003, his wife, Lynn Perkins Perez called Jeanfreau to tell him that, as one of his last orders of business, Chalin had insisted that Jeanfreau get a key, a gift that ensured Jeanfreau’s enduring place in the Belle Chasse community.
Though he describes himself as an old man, Jeanfreau has the vigor of a man in the prime of his life and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him back behind the wheel of the 1957 Chevy he used to drag race in Harahan and Laplace, his hands, so used to the precision and delicacy of cutting hair, tensed for the start of a race. He and his wife Janice LeBouef, married since 1966, raised their two sons in the area, moving them from Algiers to Belle Chasse when his son Jason was killed in a car wreck in 1992. His son James Jeanfreau Jr. lives in Belle Chasse with his children Alexis and Justin.
Though Jeanfreau doesn’t do any exotic styles anymore, – even just the words “Brazilian blowout” make his entire body shudder – he remembers trying to give every woman who walked in his shop a cascading mane of blonde hair that would make them look just that much more like Farah Fawcett.
Basking in the soft, blue light from the muted weather forecast playing on the TV in the waiting area, Jeanfreau seems like a man who knows precisely what he’s about, who’s seen enough change to appreciate that his place in Belle Chasse might one day go the way of his long-extinct competitors. “They got this thing that sucks your hair up,” he says, his eyes tumbling from the ceiling to towards the floor in dismay, “and cuts it for you. Who knows what’ll happen?” He wonders if in a distant future, long after he’s gone, where everything is streamlined and automated, people won’t relegate the barber to a relic of the past by shaving all their hair off for the sake of ease and efficiency.
“Some people,” he says, now standing in the narrow hall between rooms carpeted with freshly shorn hair, “look good with a skin, but some people, like me…I’m all ears.” He holds his hands up and wiggles his fingers as a soft chirping rises out of his throat. “I’d fly away.”