Tag Archives: Charleston WV

Why My Father the Baker Never Paid for a Haircut

This is no because-he-was-bald joke. The man knew how to swing a deal. It took a Dumpster-diving bum to solve the mystery for me.

by Bakery Boy

My well-coiffed dad

Next door to my family’s original bakery in Charleston, West Virginia, was a small barbershop run by a good-natured man called Doc Baker. Despite the name, he was neither a doctor nor a baker, just an old-fashioned no-frills hair cutter. As a small child I often tagged along to play in the rarely used second barber chair while my father got his hair cut, like clockwork, every other week.

Doc Baker, the Barber

Other than the requisite buzz cut of his Army days during WWII, my dad kept a thick, handsome wave of dark hair (later a brilliant shade of shiny gray) until he died at age 79. Every time he got up from that chair, he’d glance in the mirror and tell the barber, “Pretty good job, Doc. If you ever get it right, I’ll pay you.” They’d both chuckle and we’d walk out.

I always wondered why no money changed hands. It took a homeless man (less-charitably called bums or winos back then) to clear up the matter for me.

From about the age of 10, one of my tasks as a Bakery Boy was to drag flour sacks, emptied of flour and filled with trash and with damaged or stale baked goods, out to the back alley and pitch them into a big Dumpster. I’d been doing this for years without incident, until one day I heard muffled complaints coming from inside the big bin.

“Hey, watch out,” yelled a scraggly man who poked up from the hinged top door, his long hair a tangled greasy mess and his hands filthy claws.

“What are you doing in there?” I asked naively.

“Looking for lunch, of course,” he answered. “It’s Monday!”

“What’s Monday got to do with it?” I said, confused.

“No hair on the cakes and donuts, on account of the barbershop is closed on Sunday,” he growled, jerking a thumb toward the Doc’s back door.

“Huh?” I said, but he disappeared from sight and continued his rummaging.

Later that day, as I disposed of one last flour sack full of trash, old Doc the barber meandered out carrying a single paper grocery bag, tossed it up and over, and clapped his hands to brush off stray strands of hair.

“What gives?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a deal I’ve had with your dad and his dad before him for many years,” Doc explained. “I don’t have but maybe a small bag of hair to get rid of every day, so instead of paying for garbage service I just piggyback on your trash bin and give your father free haircuts in exchange. Works out well for both of us.”

So that was it. They bartered haircuts for trash disposal. Worked out well for everyone but the hungry homeless people, I guess. Except on Mondays, when enterprising Dumpster-divers feasted on a sweet and hair-free buffet.

Raised by (Wild) Bakers

Growing up in a bakery inhabited by flour-dusted men and icing-flecked women.

by Bakery Boy

When I tell people I was “raised by bakers,” they always seem to hear “raised by wild bakers.” Somehow the phrase conjures images of a feral child living with wolves (Mogli in The Jungle Book) or apes (Tarzan in deepest Africa) or sheep (the mysterious Sheep Boy of Ireland). Despite the shock factor, it is a pretty good conversation starter.

Working dough by hand builds muscles.

I was indeed raised by bakers in my family’s place, known as the Dutchess Bakery in Charleston, West Virginia. The men all had Mark McGuire arms, their biceps bulging not from steroids or athletic training but from endlessly working dough into loaves at long wooden workbenches. The women always seemed to have smudged rainbows of cake decorating icing on their aprons and under their fingernails.

Some were actual family members—my grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles and cousins. Others seemed like family because several generations of employees worked with several generations of shop owners. I was a teenager before I realized otherwise.

For years my clan lived in a cramped apartment upstairs from the original bakery, which has since been razed to make room for a hospital expansion. Later they made the jump to suburban living and “commuting” more than a down a flight of stairs to get to work. There was a high school across the street and an elementary a few blocks away, so we were never far from home and hearth.

Four generations of my family have used this giant oven, which can hold hundreds of loaves of bread on six rotating shelves.

I mean hearth literally: A giant Ferris wheel-style Middleby-Marshall oven with six long rotating shelves radiated intense heat at the heart of our bakeshop. Before I was tall enough to see inside, I learned to flip a lever and stop those spinning shelves on a dime for bakers loading goodies in and out—a 5-year-old following in the family tradition. In winter that oven was a comfort. In summer it provided incentive to arrive early, finish quickly, and head to some shady swimming hole by noon.

As for whether the bakers who raised me were “wild” or not, that’s a subject for future posts. Certainly not wolf-boy or ape-man wild, though I did grow up hearing plenty of hair-raising stories about Depression-era survival, World War II-era brawling, and Cold War-era worries from the men and women who shaped my worldview. As a relatively wild young man myself, I did my share of sleeping off Friday nights by crashing on hard flour sacks in the storage room in order to be on hand for work Saturday morning.

I launched this blog to share stories of growing up as a bakery boy and as an excuse to continue visiting bakeries every chance I get. In my extensive travels (I’m a journalist and travel writer by profession), my bakery fascination has led me to hundreds of them, where I often meet others who were raised by bakers, and we start swapping stories. If you like bakeries too, feel free to share your favorites here…wild or otherwise.