I can still vividly remember getting a haircut at Marty’s Barbershop in Sag Harbor.
There was indeed a Marty, and he was of Italian descent, so he spoke in broken English. Once every summer I would go for a haircut, accompanied by my grandfather, Enrico.
Marty would go about his business with Papa a few feet away. He wouldn’t interject verbally, but he would relentlessly stare as the razor went through my hair. Sometimes he’d adjust his eyeglasses and lean in ever so slightly as to make an unsaid point.
When he was done, Marty would say to me in broken English, “that’sa all, boy.”
Papa would then make a great show of taking out his wallet to ceremoniously squeeze out a bill. Marty would then ring up the cash register, like a conductor might signal the symphony orchestra, and extract the change. Then, Papa would peruse the change in his hand, take a long pause, and hand Marty his tip.
Every haircut played out the exact same way until Papa died. Marty, of course, went on for decades after papa passed, and every time he finished my haircut he said, “that’sa all boy,” and every time I gave him a nickel just like Papa did. He must have really liked me.
Marty is almost as well known for his jade plant as he is for his haircuts. From as long as I can remember, it graced the front window of his shop on Main Street. Marty began cutting hair there in 1939, so as legend has it, the plant was there for more than 60 years. Needless to say, it grew quite a bit and had a following all its own — people would call it “Audrey” after the killer plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Little boys were told if they cried during the haircut, they would be fed to the plant.
In 1994, Marty and Audrey hit the big time. The Emporium Hardware store just a couple storefronts down from Marty burst into flames on the morning of April 3. With the wind blowing, the fire spread down the entire street, engulfing the village center in flames.
Local firefighters raced from door to door, realizing unsuspecting merchants might be overcome by smoke before they could escape. According to legend one volunteer, realizing the historic significance of the jade plant, wrapped his arms around the bulging flower pot. With a tremendous heave reminiscent of an Olympic weight lifter he raised the monster off the ground, stumbling into the street to safety, collapsing afterwards from the effort.
Inside, Marty was in the back room preparing for his first customer. In his zeal to save Audrey, the firefighter failed to check the back room. The barber, 73 at the time, probably inhaled more smoke than his fragile body could tolerate. Bravely, he headed for the door and freedom. A searing red blast of killer fire broke through the north retaining wall and felled Marty. He tried to drag himself to safety, but was losing consciousness. He then noticed the jade plant had been rescued ahead of him. His last words were, “I always hated dat a freakin’ thing.”
Naw, I made that all up. Marty calmly walked out the front door and was still in business 12 years later when Mary Cummings profiled him in the New York Times. He was still going strong, but there was no mention of the plant.
I keep the legend alive, however. It used to be OK to ask Marty for a little snippet of the thing but it got to be annoying. We had a jade plant in our Howard Street house that was said to be a descendent of Audrey.
I soon realized there was a certain cache there. I could give someone a modest jade plant as a housewarming gift, or a birthday present, or even wedding gift. What would transcend it would be its heritage: “I don’t know if you know the story but this is a cutting from the jade plant that was in Marty’s Barber Shop.”
I would then recount the entire story. Perhaps I embellished it along the way. Ok, sometimes I say the firefighter that saved the plant suffered a heart attack and was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by John Steinbeck, one of Sag Harbor’s most illustrious citizens. He was, of course, quite dead at the time but little matter: it adds to the legend.
All I know is Whalers would take little clippings of Marty’s plant and take them all over the world and replant them. According to lore, more than half of all the earth’s jade plantings derive from the Mother Root, the very one that used to be in the barber shop.
I only have a few left if anyone’s interested.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.