When I got to San Jose, CA, to go to college, I didn’t know anyone and had never been to California. I landed at the San Francisco International Airport and took a Greyhound bus down to San Jose, and that first night took a room at the nearest hotel to the Greyhound station, since the dorms didn’t open until the next day. I had flown in from Germany, so until a box shipped by my parents arrived, everything I would have with me at the dorms was in my suitcases.
In retrospect, picking the nearest hotel was a bad idea. Don’t do that if you have a choice. Yes, it was cheap, but it was scary. So was going outside the next morning, in search of some kind of breakfast, and seeing workers hosing off the chalk body outline that had been drawn the night before. This was the early 1970s in big-city America, after all, and the crime rate in such places was staggering.
One of the first businesses I discovered as I explored my new home—after Bob Sidebottom’s legendary Comic Collector Shop (one of the first comics shops on the West Coast, opened in 1968, with a logo, shown below, designed for Bob by R. Crumb) and Recycled Books, a used book store across the street—was Jim’s Barber Shop.
Jim's was just across from campus, so when I needed to get my hair cut, that’s where I went. Turned out, Jim Garcia had been cutting hair there for a long time, and had cut the hair of the Smothers Brothers during their time at San Jose State, before they launched their comedy career. His clientele was varied, including not just students and staff of the university, but others from throughout the community. One of his regulars was a high-level member of the “Mexican Mafia,” who came in daily for a trim, accompanied by a couple of bodyguards. One of his helpers at the shop, who mostly swept the floor and fetched beer, was a guy who wasn’t around when I went in one day. When I inquired after him, Jim told me that he had been found dead in his bullet-riddled VW bug.
The shop was a kind of community center. When you needed a haircut, you showed up. Jim or someone else put a beer in your hand, or if you’d been going there for a while, you were granted refrigerator privileges and you got your own. You waited, but never for too long. Jim was an efficient barber unless he got to talking too much. He wasn’t good at talking and cutting, so if he went off on a tangent he would lay off the scissors and focus on his story.
And he was an immensely charitable man. I was surprised when I first heard about his Christmas tradition, but in later years I realized it had been a regular thing for a long time and would continue. He couldn’t stand that there were kids in San Jose’s barrios who wouldn’t have new shoes for the new year, so every December he went out to shoe stores and stocked up on shoes in every children’s size. Then he drove out to the barrios and handed out the shoes, making sure every kid’s feet were covered.
He had grown up poor, and hadn’t always had shoes of his own, and that had made a strong impact on him. He told me stories of his Yaqui roots, his childhood, the people he had met at the shop.
I haven’t seen Jim in more than 30 years. I doubt that he’s still alive. But out of all the people who have cut my hair during my lifetime, he’s the one whose name, stories, and acts of generosity stay with me today.
The reason I’m writing about these things today is that I saw a remarkable documentary film over the weekend called Hollywood Hair. It was produced and directed by the extremely talented screenwriter (and producer/director, obviously) Juliet Snowden, and shot in crisp, vivid black-and-white by Stiles White. It’s having a private friends and family screening on Monday, and Juliet kindly invited me, but I can’t make that so she provided me with a screener.
From what Juliet tells me of her experience with Tony Morales, the owner of Hollywood Hair and "star" of the movie, it very much resembles mine with Jim. She got to L.A. from Louisiana in the mid-90s with no money and no car. The "$3 haircut sign" Tony put out on Hollywood Boulevard was what she could afford, so she went in. And like me, she became a regular.
The film shows how easy that can be. Like Jim’s place, Hollywood Hair was a hub and its owner was a man of extraordinary generosity, grace, and kindness. The characters who inhabit the film seem, at first, like society’s dregs—the ex-prostitute raising her daughter’s baby, the drug dealer, the aging actor whose most shining moment was a bit part in a feature, the ex-chef who cooked for Ronald Reagan, and more. These people don’t represent the glitz and glamour we typically associate with Hollywood, but they are that city’s real denizens. And in the course of the movie, they become real people—not the summation of a handful of character bits and clichés, but fully rounded human beings. Their triumphs and tragedies are not earth-shattering in modern Hollywood-movie style, but they’re human-scaled, like yours and mine. The people we see on screen become, as Juliet tells me, a “family, and Tony was the kind, patient, and unjudging father—something he never had in his childhood.”
Juliet and Stiles shot the footage a decade ago, working on weekends in between trying to get their screenwriting careers launched. When that happened, the footage was set aside until Juliet was drawn back to it, realized how to put it together, and then spent three years editing it until it became the gem it is today.
Documentaries rarely get wide release these days, but Hollywood Hair is showing at film festivals, and one of these days it’ll be for sale on DVD. Either way, when you get a chance to see it, don’t think twice. You won’t regret an instant of it, and you’ll come away impressed with the courage it takes to live a hard life—and the courage it takes to capture several such lives on film in an uncompromising way, knowing that these are the people many of us try to look away from, to pretend don’t exist, and knowing also that there’s value in recognizing how much even those more fortunate among us share with them.
Hollywood Hair is a brilliant and unforgettable piece of work. I’m indebted to Juliet for letting me see it, for introducing me to Tony and his family, and for helping me remember Jim Garcia and his.
On a barely related note—in wider release right now is the fictional but based-on-reality Argo. It’s set a few years later than my early-70s landing in San Jose, and it captures the period perfectly, in an intensely powerful and suspenseful film. Check it out when you can.