Loss erases joy as barber ends 30 years on the job
For Nurney Mason, life behind the congressional barber’s chair was an education.
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Nurney Mason cut Tip O’Neill’s thick, white head of hair. For decades, he’s been giving Charlie Rangel a trim. John Conyers Jr. would sometimes come by twice in a day just to fix anything that wasn’t quite right.
On Friday, after three decades tidying up the titans of Congress and their underlings, Mason stood behind his barber’s chair in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building for a final few customers: Capitol police Sgt. George McCree got a Temple Taper. Shoeshine man Al Bolden had an Even All Over. Simon Baugher, an assistant to Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., got the sides short.
“People come and go through these offices and the Hill,” Baugher said. But the barbers “are the ones that have the staying power.”
Mason’s first day on the job was May 3, 1983, which made Friday his 30th anniversary. It was supposed to be the perfect moment for a goodbye celebration. But one of Mason’s twin daughters, Faye, died unexpectedly Wednesday after being hospitalized Sunday with pneumonia. When his wife called with the news of Faye’s death, Mason kept driving toward Capitol Hill and showed up for work in Room B323 — just as he always had.
“I felt I’d be better around people, you know, being here where I’m used to being,” said Mason, who rose from a life of labor on a Virginia peanut farm to a job that last year had him sharing an early Father’s Day soul-food lunch with President Obama.
Members of Congress and their staffs have been stepping into the Washington, D.C., institution for decades. For $15, they can drop by between votes and within earshot of the buzzing House clock. The walls are filled with signed power portraits. And the men who run the place nurture a family feel, so they’ve all been touched by the death of Mason’s daughter, who was in her late 50s.
“We got to help him through,” said Keith Miller, a friend and minister who operates video cameras for the House and who for years has shared Bible verses and life stories with Mason in the shop.
Mason came from a family of barbers. His brother Curlie, who had a shop in Baltimore, taught him the craft. Mason opened a shop in D.C. in the early 1960s for $500.
When the riots hit, the shop wasn’t physically damaged, but things were changing. After James Brown’s “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” people no longer wanted the same old cut, and business tanked. Mason started offering alternatives, including “blowouts” meant to bulk things up rather than cut them down.
By the early 1980s, after business had largely returned, a friend told him a barbershop on Capitol Hill was looking for a replacement. Mason took that job, and he would work at the old shop at nights.
“I was used to hard work,” Mason said. “I came off the farm, working for nothing. I was glad to work and get paid.”
Life behind the congressional barber’s chair was an education. When Mason started, “I knew very little about cutting white hair,” he said. His customers were about 75 percent white then, he said, although now it’s about 50-50.
“The first nervous haircut I had was Tip O’Neill,” Mason said. But he relied on what Curlie had taught him: “If you can cut hair, you can cut hair.”
“I just told myself, I’ve got the clippers. I’m in charge,” Mason said. O’Neill proved easy to connect with.
Occasionally, the shop was not such a warm place. The high wooden barriers between barbers’ chairs gave an illusion of privacy that allowed Mason to hear what some customers really thought — about politics and about race.
“They would use the word then, the N-word.” Sometimes even a congressman. “They didn’t bite their tongues,” Mason said.
His reaction? No reaction.
“If you want your job, what are you going to say? I’m not going to walk out of my booth and challenge a congressman,” Mason said. “Being from the South, I had pretty thick skin with that kind of stuff anyway.”
His fellow barbers initially postponed plans for a party Friday for Mason, who plans to still cut hair for a few regulars at his shop. But after talking with him, they decided to do a little something after all. They brought in wings and mumbo sauce. Some basement neighbors and friends stopped by for a bite and congratulations.
Mason was gracious in taking the congratulations, but he spent stretches of Friday afternoon staring at the television, even after the sound had been turned off.
His daughter Faye, the cook of the family, knew that baby lima bean, corn and tomato succotash was one of his favorites.
Her brother, Robbie Mason, who started cutting hair at 13 and runs his father’s shop, knows his father is hurting: “My sister was not just his daughter, that was his friend.”
The family will gather for the funeral Thursday.
For now, Nurney Mason’s thinking about Faye on a day they were both looking forward to.
“She was so happy when I told her I was retiring,” Mason recalled. “She said, ‘Finally, Daddy. Finally.’ ”