When I first called the Monteleone Barber Shop, I made the mistake of asking for Pat. It’s not that Pat wasn’t available, or that Pat’s no good—he’s exceptional, really. It’s just that Pat is the only barber. He also answers the phones. Asking for Pat was like asking if your po’ boy comes with mayonnaise here in New Orleans. Of course it does.
Pat’s shop has four deluxe chairs in a row, each fitted with giant metal footrests and leather the color of a Werther’s Original. As he shakes up a bottle of oil shampoo dating back to the 50’s, two previously separated layers of black and clear liquids miraculously become a pearly white. Nowadays, the only product he stocks is BedHead’s Manipulator, though he speaks highly of vinegar.
“Don’t let anybody kid you: a lot of old wives' tales ring true. Vinegar’s acidity is good for hair. It makes it look very healthy.”
Originally, this barber shop was located in the lobby of the Monteleone Hotel, a French Quarter icon of a bygone era in which wartime oil barons got sheared and spruced before heading out to stake new claims. But 34 years ago, when most hotel barber shops were going the way of the dodo, it was shut down. Of the five Monteleone Hotel barbers, Pat was the only one who decided to take up the mantle. He worked out a deal with the man who ran the hotel garage to let him convert a single unused side street parking space into a barbershop. That’s where this Buick-sized shop still stands today.
“I got the best location in the French Quarter,” proclaims Pat.
I ask him about the moment barbering occurred to him as a chosen profession. He told me a brief tale of wayward youth.
“Being a lazy bum like I was, I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind being a fireman or a barber’ because neither one of them did much. To me, firemen sat around waiting for a fire and barbers sat around playing checkers.”
As I sat around the shop, watching him welcome every new customer, seat them, trim them up, all while answering the phone, it was clear that Pat hardly had any time for checkers.
Photo: Aubrey Edwards