The Naturalization of Leo Zwillich
By Ben Portnoy
As Benjy Rosenbaum told me, he looked up from his Batman comic book for a second when a tall muscular teenage boy opened the door of the barber shop. The boy was a Negro. (This was the autumn of 1956, and we would never have used the words “Black” or “African-American” back then.) With a swagger in his step, the boy walked in front of one of the chairs and addressed Leo, one of the barbers: “I need a haircut; can you give me one?”
Leo paused a moment from cutting Benjy’s hair. In his slightly Yiddish-accented English he answered, “No, Quenton, I cannot cut your hair.”
Quenton made a sound that was like a soft grunt, then turned and walked out. Later, Benjy told me that nothing else happened, and he went back to reading his comic book. He did remember Leo turning to his partner, Tony, and asking, “What do you think that was about?”
“I dunno,” Tony answered.
They both went back to cutting hair, but Frank, the shoeshine and clean-up man, looked worried. He muttered to himself loud enough for Benjy to hear. Benjy thinks he said something like, “Quenton, my boy, just can’t figure him, just can’t.”
Leo’s Barber Shop was the place to go in the 1950s for all of us Jewish teenage boys. We had been getting our hair cut there for years. The shop was in the South Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, and the neighborhood was largely a Negro one. The Jews had moved from there to North Avondale or suburbs farther away, and the Negroes had moved in. Leo’s was on Forest Avenue. The shop had the usual barber pole, and the green wooden façade had two big windows filled with jars of Butch Wax, Vaseline Hair Tonic, and Brylcreem.
We loved the shop. Negro neighborhood notwithstanding, this was our place to get a haircut. It was a great place to go. There were three barber chairs, but only two were ever used. Leo used one, and Tony used the other. Leo talked and joked with everyone, and Tony just cut hair. If you were in a quiet kind of mood or you wanted to really study Mad Magazine or an Archie comic, then Tony was your man. You could listen to the baseball game or simply stare ahead with no interruptions. Most of the time, though, you wanted Leo to cut your hair. That was a performance. He would make loud comments about the dirt behind you ears, and everyone waiting in the shop would laugh. He might compliment you on how big you were getting. Leo knew all the teachers at the schools, and he would discuss how you were doing in arithmetic or spelling. He would celebrate all your triumphs, and he would announce to all present how many months it would be until your bar mitzvah. On one wall of the shop was a poster with the names of the boys who had gotten an all-A report card. Leo made a happy ritual of adding a new name to the poster, and he would have everyone in the shop applaud the inductee. A haircut from Leo was a haircut, of course, but it was also an event.
Leo was a refugee who had escaped from a small Polish village in 1940 and made his way through Europe and eventually to America. He had learned to cut hair from his uncle back in his village. He’d heard that there was a Polish Jewish community in Cincinnati, so he made his way there. Moishe, a barber in downtown Cincinnati, hired him, and Leo worked there cutting the hair of lawyers and doctors who had their offices nearby. Finally, in 1951, he announced to Moishe that he had enough money saved to open his own shop. That was the start of the Forest Avenue barber shop.
By the time Quenton stepped through the door, Leo was a citizen of the United States. Leo firmly believed that the Unites States had done him a personal favor by letting him live and work in Cincinnati, instead of perishing in one of Hitler’s camps. He was Jewish, and he prayed to God sometimes, but he thanked the United States every day. He kept his naturalization papers wrapped in a silk 48-star American flag in the cash drawer behind his barber chair, where he could glance at it and touch it whenever he deposited any money.
The third barber chair was not really unoccupied. This was Frank’s chair. Frank Dillard was officially the Negro shoeshine man, but he also kept the shop tidy. He swept the hair cuttings from the floor and deposited them in a special yellow can. He straightened up the piles of comic books and magazines, and he made sure the radio was tuned to the Cincinnati Redlegs baseball game during the season. When there was nothing to do, Frank sat in the third chair and read the Cincinnati Enquirer or listened to the radio. He rarely said much to us boys. Quenton was his son.
I was getting a crew cut by Leo one afternoon in December. It was a cold day with a raging snowstorm. My dad didn’t want to drive me to the shop, but I was looking pretty shaggy. Halfway through the haircut, the shop door opened. Cold air and a few flakes of snow blew in. A red-faced man walked in, bundled in a dark overcoat. He took off his felt hat, shook the snow off, stamped more snow off his galoshes, and finally asked, “Which one of you is Mr. Leo Zwillich?”
Leo nodded. The man reached into his overcoat and pulled out an envelope. He handed it to Leo along with a dollar bill.
“What is this?” Leo asked the whole shop.
The stranger politely stated, “This is a lawsuit.” Then he walked out.
Leo opened the envelope, read the contents, then finally addressed Tony and Frank. “Oy, listen to this. It says here that Quenton Dillard is suing me for violating his civil rights because I would not cut his hair. There is a hearing downtown at the courthouse on January 6th.”
Leo started to put the dollar bill he had just received into the cash drawer, but he hesitated and left it on the counter next to the Barbicide jar with all the combs and brushes sterilizing in it. Then he remembered me, and started cutting my hair again. Frank came over, took the envelope, and read the contents for himself.
“Mr. Leo,” Frank said, “my boy Quenton sure aims to stir up some trouble. Don’t you worry. I’ll talk to him.”
But Leo must have been plenty worried. He cut my hair in silence. When he finished me, he started a haircut on another boy, but I can’t remember who it was. I had to wait around the shop for a half-hour or so while my dad was getting some groceries across the street at Kroger’s, so I sat there trying to pay attention to my Superman comic. That was hard. Even I could feel the tension caused by Leo’s silence.
Finally, Tony broke the silence. “Leo, why don’t you call Gene Feinstein? He’s a big lawyer in town, and you used to cut his hair at Moishe’s. He still brings his boy Eddie in here. I’m sure he can help you.”
All Leo could say was “Oy, what am I going to do?”
Then my dad honked for me, and I plunged into the cold and snow to get to the car.
Leo did call Gene Feinstein on Tony’s advice. When he called, Mr. Feinstein’s secretary was very cordial but not eager to connect this immigrant voice with her boss. Suddenly the secretary was replaced on the phone by Mr. Feinstein. “Leo, I heard you voice while Shelly was taking your call. What’s going on?”
Leo explained what had happened. Mr. Feinstein told him, “Don’t you worry. Look, Eddie needs a haircut. I’ll bring him in Saturday after shul, and then we can talk.”
Eugene Feinstein was not just a lawyer; he was a Cincinnati personality. He gave a lot of money to civic organizations, in addition to the usual Jewish charities. He had served for four years on the city council. He was the secretary of the Charter Party, the Cincinnati foil to the Republicans and Democrats. You could hardly pick up a Cincinnati Enquirer or Post without seeing some article that mentioned Gene Feinstein.
Saturday afternoon arrived, and Eddie and his father came into the barber shop after shul, as planned. The shop was unusually quiet. With no special ceremony, Gene Feinstein said, “Tony, you give Eddie a haircut. Leo and I have some talking to do.”
They walked to the back of the shop across from Frank’s chair. Leo gave the lawyer the papers, and Mr. Feinstein read them. He looked up after a few minutes and asked, “Who’s Quenton Dillard?”
Frank answered, “He’s my son. He’s a hothead kid. I tried to talk to him, but he called me an Uncle Tom. He’s some hothead kid.”
“Well, it really doesn’t matter who he is. It says here that Leo violated his civil rights by refusing to give him a haircut. Is that true, Leo?”
“Yeah, sure, it’s true… but, I mean… I refused to cut his hair, but…”
“Well, we have some problems here,” broke in Mr. Feinstein, “but we’ll see. Look, Leo, you’re closed on Mondays, right? So come to my office Monday afternoon. It says the hearing is set for a couple of weeks from now. We can make plans, and then…Hey, Tony, take a little more off the sides. I don’t want to bring Eddie back here till the summer.”
Monday afternoon arrived, and Leo did see Mr. Feinstein in his office downtown. Leo talked with Feinstein for an hour, but all they talked about was Poland before the war. Leo described his village, how he’d learned to be a barber, how life was hard for a Jew in his village even before the Nazis, and how he’d managed to escape and get to this country. Briefly, Mr. Feinstein told Leo that he had an idea and explained it a little, but he was not very specific about the details. Leo wondered why he had even spent his time with the lawyer that afternoon. When Leo showed up at his shop on Tuesday morning, there were no customers. He sat down in his barber chair and was silent. Tony waited for a bit and then gently asked, “Leo, so what did Feinstein have to say?”
Leo sighed and said, “Well, Mr. Feinstein thinks he has a way to help me out of this. But I’m not sure. He wasn’t very clear about his plan, but what I understood… It just doesn’t seem like…well… Oy, what should I do?”
Frank jumped in with his advice. “Mr. Leo, you do whatever that lawyer tells you to do.”
Leo said nothing, but he got out of his chair, opened his cash drawer, and glanced at the American flag for a moment. He sat down again in his chair, crossed his legs, and spoke to no one in particular. “Oy, America. What a place! Well, I guess I just have to…. Hmmm.”
Leo’s voice trailed off and no one interrupted him. Christmas vacation had started that week, and soon the shop was crowded with boys of all ages waiting for haircuts. Nothing more was said about the hearing or the lawsuit.
Christmas was not a holiday for Leo or Tony, but they celebrated it in their own way. The two barbers saved up part of their tips all year to give Frank a bonus. Just before Christmas, the two barbers would march across the street to Kroger’s and buy the biggest turkey they could find to present to Frank along with his bonus. They felt very American participating in Christmas this way at least.
As Leo gave the envelope with the Christmas money to Frank, he said, “Mr. Dillard, please accept this from Tony and me. Merry Christmas to you and to all your family. I know I’ve got some tsuris, some trouble, now with Quenton, but you have a nice Christmas. And Quenton should, too.”
Frank took the envelope and the turkey. He shook hands with both barbers, and he said solemnly, “Mr. Leo, you are a good man. You have a nice few days off, too, and you listen to what that lawyer tells you. Hear?”
At last, the new year came, and January 6th arrived. Leo left the shop early to get to the hearing. On the trolley car he wondered how Quenton could get out of school for the hearing. Leo got off the trolley, walked the three blocks to the courthouse, found the hearing room, and sat down on a hard bench in the hallway to wait. Soon Quenton and his mother arrived. Leo greeted them with a polite, “Good afternoon.” Quenton only nodded. His mother looked away, too embarrassed to answer.
The tense moment passed when Mr. Feinstein appeared. He took Leo by the arm and escorted him into the courtroom. “Now, Leo, you sit over here at this table. Remember what we talked about in the office. I am going to ask you questions, and you answer only what I ask. Don’t give me any extra information. That may hurt you. Okay?”
Leo did not answer. He sat down, draped his coat over the back of his chair, and stared ahead.
The judge was announced by the bailiff. Everyone stood, and Leo marveled at the courtesy of the proceedings. The judge almost looked hurt that anyone would stand on his account and quietly ordered, “Please be seated.”
The judge introduced the lawyers, the plaintiff, and Leo the defendant. The judge read the plaintiff’s plea and explained, “This is a hearing, not a trial. I shall hear brief comments from both sides, and then I shall decide on how, and when, to proceed.”
Quenton went first. He gave an accurate account of the afternoon when he had asked Leo to cut his hair. Quenton’s lawyer interrupted infrequently, and soon the story was told. Mr. Feinstein had no questions.
It was then Leo’s turn. The judge asked Leo to come forward and sit in the witness chair that Quenton had just vacated. The hearing was so informal that Leo began to relax.
Mr. Feinstein asked Leo first if he had any disagreement with Quenton’s description of the events of that afternoon. Leo had none. Mr. Feinstein then extracted a biography from Leo. Leo told the judge that he had been born in Poland in a small village. Although the village residents were mostly Jews, there were plenty of Christians who treated the Jews as if they were not Polish. Leo had learned to cut hair from his uncle Yankel, a barber, and Leo worked as a barber in Poland for seven years before coming to America. He wondered, as he spoke, what all this had to do with Quenton Dillard. He went on to describe his small barber shop on Forest Avenue, and then Mr. Feinstein was done.
The judge announced a brief recess for some reason. Leo thought that this was cruel at such an important moment. He reflected, however, that to the judge this was just a routine hearing. He imagined that the judge could hold a pretty good hearing while listening to the baseball game. After all, Leo cut hair that way all summer long.
The judge returned to the courtroom after a few minutes, and the hearing resumed. Quenton’s attorney demanded a sum of money for violating Quenton’s civil rights. Quenton looked triumphant, and Leo shivered. Although he was frightened, Leo marveled at the fact that in America an eighteen-year-old boy could force a grown working man to face him in a court of law. Nevertheless, Leo was frightened at the demand for money over such a matter. He felt guilty and beaten. After all, Mr. Feinstein had not defended him. He had not even addressed the question of the haircut. He simply had permitted Leo to talk on and on about his life in Poland and his escape to Cincinnati. But soon it was time for Leo to answer the demand for a monetary judgement, and Mr. Feinstein stood up to address the court.
“Judge, I’d like to speak on behalf of my client in a funny kind of way. Permit me to stray a little from what appears to be the case of Quenton Dillard v. Leo Zwillich. Judge, we have known each other for a long time. I respect your legal abilities. If I asked you to prepare a will for me, would you do it?”
The judge smiled, “Why, I don’t think I remember much about wills, Gene. You’d be a damned fool to ask me, anyhow.”
“Okay, now you play bridge with Dr. Al Snow, don’t you? You certainly would agree with me that he is a fine and competent doctor. If your daughter, Marilyn, were having a baby, would you take her to Dr. Snow?”
The judge seemed to sense the drift of the lawyer’s illustrations. He eagerly answered, “Hell no, Gene, you know that Snow is an orthopedic surgeon.”
“Yes, but he is a licensed doctor, and he went to medical school,” Mr. Feinstein observed. “The fact is, Mr. Zwillich is a barber, but he does not know how to do everything. He has violated no one’s civil rights. He gives good haircuts, but he has never cut a Negro’s hair. Just as you have never prepared a will, but you are a lawyer, and just as Dr. Snow does not deliver babies, but he is a doctor…”
“I get the point,” the judge interrupted.
It was silent in the courtroom for a moment. Then the judge spoke. “I am not persuaded that Mr. Dillard has enough merit to his allegations to proceed to trial with this case. If Mr. Dillard demands a jury trial, of course, I shall have to schedule one, but I advise against it. I’ll give Mr. Dillard and his attorney some time to discuss their wishes.”
Leo stared ahead while Quenton and his lawyer whispered together. After a few minutes, Quenton’s lawyer stood and addressed the judge. “Your honor, Mr. Dillard wishes to drop this suit.”
And just like that, the hearing was over. Quenton Dillard got up abruptly, turned away from the judge, and, without waiting for his mother, stormed out of the courtroom. His mother followed him, but she stopped for a moment to wish Leo a good day. Leo stood there frozen while Eugene Feinstein thanked the judge. The lawyer then took Leo’s arm and escorted him out of the courtroom.
“So, congratulations, Leo. You’re off the hook. Now you can quit worrying about that schvartza kid.”
Leo was jarred out of his silence. He understood that the lawyer only meant goodwill by this comment, but there was something troubling Leo about the hearing, this comment, and maybe the way Quenton had left the courtroom. He stammered, “Oh, thanks Mr. Feinstein, thanks for all you’ve done for me. I was just thinking, well, I don’t know… I just think, well… I guess I better get back to the shop. So, uh, thanks for helping me.”
“Hey, Leo,” the jubilant Feinstein said, clapping Leo on the back, “the kids won’t be out of school for another hour or so, and you have some free time. Come on, let’s go over to Moishe’s and tell him about the hearing. He’s been asking about you when I get my weekly trim. He’ll be delighted, and he always has a bottle of schnapps ready for a celebration like this.”
Leo looked down at his feet. Then he looked up as if he had just awakened. “Oh, no, Mr. Feinstein. I’ll call Moishe tomorrow. I need a little time to think about this thing.”
Feinstein clapped Leo on the back again. “Okay, well I’ll go over to Moishe’s on the way back to my office. Call him tomorrow, though. And Leo, it’s okay. This is the way things go.”
Leo walked to the bus stop on Fountain Square a lot more slowly than he needed to, so that he could think about the hearing. He caught the #47 back to South Avondale, and on the bus he tried to figure things out, but he could not stay focused on what had just happened. Thoughts filtered into his mind involuntarily. As the bus made its way up Reading Road hill, he recalled the first time he’d seen the big Baldwin factory on the right side of that street. Then he thought about the time he’d painted the walls in his shop a few years ago. He smiled at a mental image of the new electric hair clippers he had bought two weeks before. He tried to remember how he was treated in his village in Poland, but then the bus stopped on the corner of Forest Avenue, and he got out.
A moment later, Leo opened the door to his barber shop and walked in. There were no customers, and he walked over to his chair, glanced at his cash drawer, then stood there. He grimaced a little, and Tony asked, “So, Leo, what happened?”
“Nothin’,” came the answer. But then Leo felt guilty. He knew that Tony and Frank deserved a more detailed account of the hearing. As quickly as possible, he explained how Mr. Feinstein had defended him, how the judge had responded, and how Quenton had withdrawn his suit.
Frank looked relieved. Tony was jubilant. “Mazel tov, Leo! Now we can forget about this crazy suit. Oy, Leo, this is a relief. What a relief.”
“Yeah,” answered Leo as he put on his smock. He sat in his chair and was silent. Tony and Frank knew to leave him alone. No one talked.
In his own barber chair, in his own shop, Leo could think more clearly. Maybe Quenton was right, after all. Maybe he had violated the boy’s civil rights. Why should he refuse to cut Quenton’s hair? Isn’t Quenton as entitled to a haircut as any of the other boys? True, he had never cut a Negro’s hair, but he thought that it ought to be pretty much the same as any other head of hair.
Leo wondered if the hearing that had just taken place was really justice for Quenton. Where was the jury that he had learned about so many years ago in citizenship classes? The entire hearing seemed like a bunch of adults agreeing on an excuse to help Leo escape the wrath of this teenage boy. Worse, it seemed like a conspiracy of white men against a Negro boy.
The bell on the door tinkled as the first of the boys came in after school for a haircut. Leo’s brooding ended abruptly, and the garrulous Leo went into action. He joked with the boys, chatted about their schoolwork, and complimented them in his usual style on how nice they looked after their haircuts. Tony went back to his work in his usual quiet way, but he glanced at Leo from time to time. Frank showed no emotion at all. He just went on sweeping up the trimmings and depositing them in the yellow can. And so the barber shop returned to its usual rhythm.
That day ended, and the following days and weeks went by pretty much the same as always. Frank swept the floor and kept the shop tidy. Tony cut hair but said little. Leo chatted and laughed as usual. But when there were no customers, Leo sat in his chair and did nothing. One time Tony asked him what he was doing. “Thinking” was the answer. Tony never asked again.
Then, Opening Day arrived in Cincinnati, and there was great hope that the Redlegs could put together a team good enough for the pennant. Spring was in the air. One day Gene Feinstein came in with his son, Eddie. The boy climbed into Leo’s chair, and the two talked about Ted Kluszewski’s home run on Opening Day. They laughed about how the Redlegs had finally won three games in a row. Leo finished Eddie’s haircut and presented him to his father with a flourish. Mr. Feinstein looked up from reading Time Magazine and smiled.
“He looks great, Leo. You’re a master,” laughed Mr. Feinstein.
Feinstein took out his wallet to pay Leo, but Leo refused. Feinstein gently took Leo by the arm, shoved the money for the haircut and a tip into the pocket of Leo’s smock, and said in a whisper, “Leo, you don’t understand. That hearing over the Dillard boy was nothing. I was glad to help you, but I did it for my own reasons, too. In this country, things are happening. These Negroes think they can live in our neighborhoods, overrun our schools, join our clubs. I don’t want to punish anyone, but I believe that Negroes ought to have their own clubs, schools, neighborhoods, and… yes, their own barber shops. So that’s why I did it. I did it for me.”
Leo looked at Mr. Feinstein with a blank expression, but he nodded as if to say he understood. Eddie and his father left. Leo took the money and put it in his cash drawer, but he lingered for a moment as he felt the silk of the American flag over his papers. He closed the drawer and went back to work. The rest of the day he was not talkative. He discussed school and baseball with the boys, but he was not as bubbly as usual. At the end of the day, he asked Frank to stay a minute after Tony left.
“Frank, your boy, Quenton…. Will you ask him to come here? I want to see him.”
“Sure, Mr. Leo, but I don’t think he’s gonna come,” Frank honestly answered.
“That I can understand,” Leo said, “but I would appreciate it if you would ask him anyhow.”
Frank nodded and said that he would relay the message to his son. Then they both left for the day. After that, nothing more was said about Quenton. Quenton did not come to the shop. The haircuts, the baseball games, and the chatter continued as always. Tony noticed from time to time that Leo seemed to glance at his cash drawer, but Tony wasn’t sure. Leo might have been looking at the Wexcide jar or his clippers. In the shop, nothing really changed, and the Cincinnati Redlegs lost seven games in a row.
I wasn’t there when it happened, but Elliot Rosen told me about the event. He was at the barber shop getting his first crew cut one afternoon. Leo had finished the haircut and was applying a little pink Butch Wax when Leo suddenly stopped and stammered, “Just a minute, Elliot. I’ll be right back.”
Leo ran out the door. From the corner of his eye, Elliot saw a tall Negro boy walking down Forest Avenue. Leo headed in that direction, but both Leo and the boy were quickly out of view through the shop window. Frank got up and handed Elliot a comic book to look at while he waited for Leo’s finishing touches.
Elliot said it felt like a long time before Leo returned with Quenton. The two were talking in a very animated fashion, but as soon as they entered the shop they stopped talking. Frank held the door for them.
Leo firmly addressed the boy, “Now, Quenton, you sit down right there.” He pointed to a chair near the radio. Quenton looked at his father, and Frank nodded that it was okay.
Leo returned to Elliot, whisked a few hairs off the back of his neck, smeared some Butch Wax on the front, and chased him off the barber chair. Elliot sat down to wait for Tony to finish his brother’s haircut.
“Okay, Quenton, your turn,” Leo announced.
Once again, Frank gave his son an encouraging nod, but Quenton hesitated.
“Quenton, you come now,” Leo coaxed in a soft and kindly manner. “What am I gonna do? Let the son of my friend Frank walk around like a shaggy dog?”
It worked. Quenton got up, stood proudly for a moment, and then sat down in Leo’s chair. Elliot says there was an uneasy hush in the shop as Leo draped the cloth around Quenton to catch the hair trimmings. The buzz of the electric clippers seemed unusually loud. After a few minutes, Leo started a conversation with Quenton about South Avondale High School. Little by little, Quenton answered him. Soon they were discussing the pitching for the Cubs game the next day. The haircut finished and Quenton got out of the chair. He shook hands with Leo and took out his wallet to pay. Leo started to wave him off with an “it’s on the house” gesture, but he checked his swing. He took the money from Quenton. Quenton smiled, waved a salute to his father, and left.
Leo opened his cash drawer. Elliot says Leo put his hand in the drawer with the money, held it there for a moment, then slammed the drawer shut, and yelled, “Next.”