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Monday
Oct152012

MY BARBER DIED: AN UNUSUAL LIFE

Walter Czyzyk
Was More Than
Just a Barber

By Lew Marcus

NEPAtoday Magazine Editor

My barber died. For most people, it's just a matter of finding a new barber. But not for
NEPATODAY MAGAZINE Editor Lew Marcus
 me. Oh, I've already found someone to cut my hair. But that's all they are doing. I'll never replace my barber. Walter Czyzyk was far, far more than someone who cut hair. He was a barber in the ancient definition of the word; when barbers cured you of your illnesses; when they were held with the same esteem as surgeons. Walter is rolling around in his freshly dug grave because I am calling him a barber. He hated it when I called him that. He was a
stylist. But that is such a limiting word. Walter was a man without limits.

   Walter was the only person who cut my hair and my wife's hair for the last 35 years. He was the only person toever cut my children's hair. The bond between Walter and the entire family was so strong that our oldest two children, long ensconced in New York City, would make special dawn trips into Scranton for a haircut. But it was more than wanting thatMy Barber, WALTER CZYZYKperfect haircut. Going for a haircut was like trekking to the top of the mountain to ask questions of the guru. You didn't have to ask the guru the question. He knew why you were there. No matter what they wanted to talk to Walter about, it was Walter who set the agenda of the conversation. And my children, as did my wife and myself, would inhale his every word.

   Now don't let me fantasize Walter into someone he was not. He was just as flawed as all of us, perhaps even more than most of us. We met in those heady days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. When I arrived back in Scranton from my days in New York and Boston, the cultural scene was orchestrated by the premier stylist of those days: Lenny Fox. A fragile man of some talent, Lenny presided over a weird menagerie of artistic types and those enthralled by the artsy-fartsy. The apex of that culture was when Lenny bought what is now the Women's Resource Center, turning the first floor into his salon; the second floor into a few shops, like the primoral head shop, Hardly Normal, and the huge formal ballroom as a theatrical and dance space. Lenny, as the doyenne of society, was eventually replaced by Bobby Henkle, whose Henkle and Company was the destination for great stylists and the Who's Who of Scranton in the late 70s and early 80s. If you were someone, Bobby cut your hair.

   After Lenny burnt himself out, Bobby started cutting my hair until he weeded out the barber business and just went for the high rollers. I was passed down to the second chair, Bobby's boy friend, Dennis. When Dennis checked into rehab I slid down to the third chair. "Walter," I said, "do your magic and don't forget to trim the beard." "Oh I don't do beards," he retorted.

   Walter not only did my beard that day but he did it brilliantly and continued for the next subsequent 35 years until he contracted cancer and retired. We followed him out of Henkle's to Salon 222 and eventually to his last home at The Hair Loft in Green Ridge.

   I was nervous the first time he cut my hair after shaving himself bald. He said he was just speeding up the inevitable. I knew he took out his moods, in those years, on the hair he cut. Some years he liked cutting long; others short. For me, it was verboten to express a desire for a certain cut or length. I just sat in the chair and hoped for the best. He rarely disappointed. And I actually never, ever got a bad haircut. His genius was that not only did you look great hopping out of the chair but you looked even better as it started to grow in.

   The haircut, the perfect haircut, seemed to be a byproduct of the hour spent in his chair. Classical music would fill the air at 6:30 in the morning. Walter would be on his third cigarette of the morning and his second cup of coffee. The ashtray was still filled from the day before but the flowers in the giant vase were fresh and elegant. Some days the flowers were replaced with bare branches. It didn't matter to Walter. It wasn't the flowers that mattered. It was the shape and the form that appealed to him.

   Then, slowly and almost reluctantly, Walter let on that he was dabbling in art; that he was creating. He admitted to me how he was totally captivated by shape and form. But I already knew that from his floral and non-floral arrangements. He told me how he would be enchanted by small figures and pieces of wood. Again form and shape with Walter contributing design. On his counter were countless art books, those huge coffee table collections of great reproductions. It was in one of those books I showed him Louise Nevelson. She, too, was enraptured with shapeWALTER'S MUSE: LOUISE NEVELSON AND HER WALL OF BOXES and form and created boxes. Before long, Walter was containing his art in little boxes, a laLouise. Weird little bald-headed dolls and exotically colored cats-eye marbles. I was happy he had yet another outlet for his creativity. I was happy he was finding pleasure in his own existence. Up to now he had been a silent spectator of life, cataloging all of humankind's emotions and travails in his endless appetite for foreign films. Then, the breakthrough. He sold a few pieces. Then there was the show at a gallery in California. Walter was now a sought-after artist. Still, he cut hair, ever my barber.

   If you asked about art, he'd discuss art for the hour. If it was music, so be it. But I think Walter took the greatest delight in talking about people. As the barber to a great cross section of Scranton, he knew everything about everything. I might start the session with, "Walter, tell me what's going on with Mr. X. I see that he closed his business." He knew the story Mr. X was telling. He knew the back story. He knew the undercurrent and then he'd give you his opinion, all the time pulling out of you what you knew. Often, between the two of us we'd solve many a riddle. We just knew too much about too many people.

   It wasn't that Walter was into gossip, as are many people in the barbering trade. It was something deeper than that. As in his art, Walter sought truth. He wanted the whole story. And, for him, it wasn't enough getting the story from the horse's mouth. He wanted to understand motivation, history, circumstance. He wanted to understand what created that shape and form. And he was all for connecting shape and form -- even in conversation. Walter wasn't about talking about people. He was about connecting people.

   Walter was truly a character, driven by his desire to connect people yet by an equally compelling drive to live a very private and insulated life. He didn't drive so he got around in taxi cabs. He rarely answered the telephone. If he wanted something, he'd call you. He lived and died in the house in which he was born. He dutifully took care of his aging and deteriorating mother, agonizing for months and months about placing her in a home when he just couldn't leave her alone to go to work. He only worked from Wednesday to Saturday and never after 2 o'clock in the afternoon. He was in the habit of taking a month off each year and hiding out somewhere, like Italy. "Oh, Walter's away this month," the receptionist would say, and you'd just wait for his return to get a haircut. You had no choice.

   Walter died like he liked to live: quietly and secretly. When the obituary was printed in the newspaper this morning, he had already been buried. He hated crowds. He detested scenes. His motto might have been, "Don't Bother." But for me, Walter was never a bother. I hope I was never a bother to him. He was my barber. I'll never have another one.

Thursday
Nov172011

PSU: THE BACKSTORY

SOMEONE ALWAYS

COMES OUT ON TOP

IN THE WORST

OF SITUATIONS.

By Lew Marcus

NEPAtoday Magazine Editor

There is a secret agenda behind the child abuse scandal at Penn State. The realNEPAtoday Magazine Editor Lew Marcus story was hinted at a few days ago but speculation in that direction all but disappeared. There are more than a few bizarre elements in this ongoing tragedy and I am not going to dwell on the actual events. I am just going to try to explain the back story.

   Before I start let me agree with my dear friend, Dr. Tiffany Griffiths, a psychologist with a special expertise in human sexuality. Reducing her position to a few sentences, she and I agree that child abuse cases are often hidden away in dark corners of society, where everyone just hopes it will miraculously go away. What is needed, and Tiffany points this out so well, is the glaring spotlight of truth. We certainly have not seen that spotlight in this situation.

   Writing about this Penn State scandal has become a front page obsession in every newspaper in the country and as the lead story on countless news programs. I don't want to talk about the whole sordid affair and how badly my alma mater bungled just about every aspect of this. There is hardly anything good to be said about anyone involved and all who were touched by this painful ordeal.

   My cardinal rule in dealing with any information that I come across is that if I follow the money I will get to the real story. I distilled the concept of following the money from Charles Austin Beard, once the most prominent historian in the country who ruined his career in opposing America's entry into World War II. Forget his politics.What is interesting is that he taught me that to understand what is happening, look beneath the surface to see who benefits. Usually that benefit is a financial one. I think the benefit in the Penn State story is a political one.

   Let's set the stage first so we understand the answer to the question, "Who is benefiting?"

JOE PATERNO   It is no secret that there is an element in the Penn State Board of Trustees who had not been thrilled with Coach Joe Paterno. As I recall, a handful of years ago there was a quiet movement to ease Paterno out of his position. Some on the board wanted to do what most boards do when faced with a popular figure they can no longer tolerate: kick him upstairs never to be heard from again. Others just wanted to give him the boot. In either case, Paterno's considerable power prevailed and he survived with another multi-year contract.

   Another icon in Pennsylvania is Tom Ridge, who served two terms as governor and then became the country's first Secretary of Homeland Security under his friend, President George W. Bush. Bush wanted Ridge as his Secretary of Defense, but that ran into a buzz saw ostensibly because Ridge lacked experience in that realm. Ironically, the man that ran Bush's search committee for the Defense position got the job: Dick Cheney.

   Since leaving Homeland Security, Ridge has been doing ok for himself. He started RidgeTOM RIDGE Global and wound up on the boards of Home Depot, where he makes $100,000 a year; SaviTech, which holds lucrative Defense Department contracts; Exelon, an electrical utility that pays him $35,000 a year in cash and $60,000 in stock options, and The Hersey Corporation. He's a paid advisor to TechRadium, PURE Bioscience and Deloitte & Touche. Nice day's work, if you can get it.

   The current governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, traces a connection to Ridge in having served as an advisor to Ridge's first gubernatorial campaign. As a favor for his services, Ridge named Corbett to the unexpired term of Ernie Preate when Ernie was convicted of election irregularities and ousted as the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Corbett also is connected to the Bush family, having been named a United States Attorney by George H.W. Bush.

GOVERNOR TOM CORBETT   Ready for me to start bringing it all together? Corbett is now the governor and a de facto member of the Penn State Board of Trustees by virtue of his office. Ridge is making big money and is connected to a good number of powerful businesses in America. But something is missing from his life. Money doesn't give you power and fame, both of which he had as governor and as Homeland Security Secretary. I see Ridge as a man who would love to be President. He's not the only former governor of Pennsylvania with his eye on Pennsylvania Avenue. If anything, Ridge is a patient man. He turned down a run for the U.S. Senate, sensing a run against Rick Santorum in the Republican primary and then Bob Casey in the General Election was not in his best interest. And it wasn't.

   Now I am moving into the realm of fantasy here. For all I know this never happened. But it could have. Tom Ridge bumps into Tom Corbett one day. It could have been at the Pennsylvania Society Dinner last Christmas at the Waldorf Astoria. And as one Tom to WALDORF ASTORIAanother, Tom Corbett mentions that he is sitting on one hell of a scandal -- the scandal that will take down Joe Paterno. And the light goes off in Tom Ridge's head. "This is my opportunity here," he might have said.

   How does the opportunity work. Follow this. Knowing how boards work and how Penn State's trustees have not been too happy with Paterno of late, Ridge sees the shit storm brewing. He knows that Penn State and Pennsylvania will be thrown into chaos. He sees that not only could Paterno be toppled from his Ivory Tower but PSU President Graham Spanier is going to catch the pie right in the face.

   Being a smarty, Ridge also figures that football, which propelled Penn State into the upper reaches of fame, will be its undoing. He could see how the students would riot. He could see how the state, even the nation, would take the side of Paterno, but to no avail. He certainly could see Spanier leaving Penn State in a real funk.

   Ridge also could see that the only way to save Penn State would be for a national figure --a man of integrity and honesty, a man who got things done on a statewide level and on a national scale against formidable odds-- to assume the presidency of Penn State. It would fall to Tom Ridge to save Penn State. It would fall to Tom Ridge to heal the nation, like he did once before. And once he does his work here, what better position could he assume than to heal the nation, again, after President Obama's second term.

   The Republican Party is on a death slide in this pre-election season with their disastrous and even torturous primary debate among the 14 candidates. They will devour their young and move on, leaving the national GOP in shreds with no front runner and no one left to wave the banner. Ridge figures they will look for a fresh face. And what is better than a fresh face? It is the face of someone whom you know and trust. Like Ivory Snow, Ridge is 99 and 44/100 percent pure.

   Well, pure might be a big stretch, considering the two Toms seem to be tied into the mammothly wealthy natural gas cabal. Corbett took big bucks from Big Gas to fuel is campaign. Ridge took big bucks from Big Gas to show them how to rape and pillage Pennsylvania. But, so what, that's just business as usual. Big Gas' big money will help Ridge capture the White House, along with Ridge's other corporate friends, and their friends.

   Rod Erickson, Penn State's replacement president, is just a placeholder. He has academic credential but he is as plain as white bread. Penn State needs charisma. It needs pizzazz. After JoePa we need BigPa; someone to wipe our tears and help us on with our boots.

   OK, I'm a cynical, hard-assed, paranoid conspiracy theorist. But I learned my lessons watching Kennedy, Kennedy and King shot out from under me. I watched Nixon turn my paranoia into reality. I watched Bush & Bush sell America to Big Petroleum. And now I watched them lynch JoePa, stampede Spanier, crucify McQueary and disappoint all those young boys. How do you want me to feel. I know there is a deal to be cut in the backroom. My deal sounds like it could fly. Let's watch and see.

   Forty years ago, when I walked into the Pattee Library at Penn State, I would gaze up over the columns and read the inscription: May no act of ours bring shame. Penn Staters believed those words. We lived by them. What happened?