Buckhead Tales: Family Finances

Growing up in a middle-class area of Buckhead I never had a handle on my family’s finances. We didn’t have a swimming pool and never went on glorious vacations, but I guess we were “comfortable.” Whatever that means. My dad did track expenses and I knew there was a budget somewhere, but I usually wasn’t exposed to too much of it. The only time I ever saw my parents fight about money was when dad found out about mom’s secret charge account at a dress shop at Lenox Square. She was always loose with cash and liked to have small bundles of it stashed all over the house. She believed “cash was king” and was therefore always handing out “outlet money” or “walking around money.” Even late in life she was always stuffing folding money in our pockets when dad looked the other way. She called it “quiet money.”

OK, so back to my dad and the budget. Every year or two he would come up with some wild idea that he was convinced would save money. I’m not sure where these ideas came from, but it might have been the Reader’s Digest which in those times was mandatory reading for every middle-class household. Every month we would look forward to our favorite recycled articles. There was “Points to Ponder.” “Quotable Quotes,” and “Increase Your Word Power.” There would always be at least one medical article along the line of “I Am Joe’s Kidney.” I’m betting the Digest was the source of dad’s money saving tips.

He became convinced we were spending way too much of the monthly budget on milk. That’s right, the excess consumption of milk was somehow threatening our very existence. His solution appeared one day when he came back from the local Kroger with two jumbo boxes of Carnation powdered milk. His working theory was that by mixing the granular concoction with ice water some type of alchemical process would occur that would fool our adolescent taste buds. He was wrong and within days mom decreed that “enough is enough.” Beaten but not defeated he retreated to his study to cook up another plan to keep the wolf from our door. Soon he emerged with a gleam in his eye, a skip in his step, and a plan he was only too happy to share with us. He announced that from now on he would be cutting the hair of my brother and myself. It was in the late 1950s and he became convinced that our family budget could no longer afford our trips to the barber shop every two weeks. I guess shelling out that $1.25 every few weeks was breaking the bank, so he came up with a solution. I remember him coming home from work one day with a green box. The box contained an electric clipper, combs, various attachments, oil for the blades, and a booklet entitled “Clip Your Way to Savings.”

The next Saturday we were marched out to the backyard of our house on Wieuca Terrace. We had no idea what was about to transpire, and thankfully bushes obscured the view of our neighbors so no witness would be able to testify as to the events that were about to unfold. Steve, my brother, was older and therefore chosen as the first guinea pig. A terry cloth towel was wrapped about his shoulders.

“Just like a real barber shop,” dad said.

Then the horror commenced. The plan was to “neaten up” Steve’s already short hair. In a spasmodic flurry of motion, the assault began. One side would be hacked at and then there would be a feeble attempt to match the other side. Sometimes dad’s hand would slip and a totally bald spot would suddenly appear. It was a terrible thing to witness and I averted my shocked gaze until the onslaught was over. Mom came out to check on the progress and immediately burst into tears. My brother looked like he had been attacked by a madman with a weed eater. Actually, that was not too far from the truth. Mom insisted that Steve needed immediate professional help to try and minimize the damage that had been done to his appearance.

I should have known dad had one more card up his sleeve. Back in those days, the late 1950s, there was a so-called “Barber College” just around the corner from the Ida Williams Library in Buckhead. The business model was simple. The “Dean” of the school scooped up all local unemployed and borderline personalities with a promise of a glorious career in hair care. These unwitting participants would pay $200 for the month-long course. That’s right, the owner got paid by both the barbers and the public. You could get a haircut for 25 cents from one of the junior barbers with less than 2 weeks experience. If you wanted to step up to someone with another week or two of chopping under their belt you had to shell out 50 cents. In one of the most generous actions I ever witnessed dad proudly placed 2 quarters on the counter and Steve was escorted to the inner sanctum where a dignified expert in hair art promptly removed Steve’s remaining hair. I’m sure my brother does not remember that day, it was simply too traumatic. For myself, I only wish I could forget.

Dad knew he had crossed the line of acceptable family behavior and penitence had to be paid. He took us over to the soda fountain at the Northside Pharmacy and told us we could order anything we wanted. You bet we did. Burgers, fries, onion rings and those chocolate milkshakes so thick your eyes would bulge when you tried to suck that vital fluid up the straw. I bet the whole feast set him back 7 or 8 bucks. Sweet revenge for us. That would have paid for months of haircuts.


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Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales
jimtate@charter.net