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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Longtime Ladera barber Aram Chirkanian, when he retires at the end of May, will, for a change, have a home on dry land, Fridays and weekends free, and far too many miles between him and his loyal band of clients.
"It's very, very sad for me to leave this place," he said.
After 20 years living on a 38-foot yacht in Redwood City and 50 years cutting men's hair in Portola Valley, Woodside and Ladera -- in that order -- Mr. Chirkanian, 80, is moving south to Ontario, just east of Los Angeles.
It's a long way from where he started in 1929, born in a Paris-area hospital to a young refugee mother who, with her new son and daughter, made a life for her family in what was to become occupied France after World War II broke out.
It's not that Mr. Chirkanian wants to move south, but his son, an Ontario resident, insists that his elderly dad live there, too, Mr. Chirkanian told The Almanac while sitting in the sunshine in front of Diane's Beauty, his workplace at the Ladera Country Shopper mall.
Religion is a comfort to some in such circumstances. "I'm not (a religious man) and I don't intend to become one," Mr. Chirkanian said when asked, "even though I'm very, very unhappy now because I have to give up this place here and move to Ontario."
And going from a life on the water at Pete's Harbor to an apartment in the Inland Empire? "I don't know how I'm going to take that," he said.
What about his clients? Will they feel the loss? "God, yes," said David Liddle, a Menlo Park venture capitalist and client for maybe 36 years. "I can't imagine somebody else cutting my hair."
"Aram's actually a very subtle person," Mr. Liddle added. "He has plenty of his own interests. He has a very sort of inquiring mind. It's a lot of fun to spend a few minutes a month with him."
"Oh, yeah," said Portola Valley resident Harry Cohn, a regular since 1964, when asked if he would miss his barber. "We've become buddies," he said. "He's a good barber (and) he stayed in the neighborhood. He went from Portola Valley to Woodside to Ladera. I just kind of followed him."
"He has a good sense of humor and he's the kind of guy you like to talk to," said Portola Valley resident Carl Larson. "We're going to miss him," he added, speaking for his fellow customers. "He has a lot of friends. He's worked (here) a long, long time and he is a fixture to the area."
With Mr. Liddle in the chair, he and his barber will occasionally shift the conversation to French, a language that Mr. Liddle said he speaks passably and that Mr. Chirkanian speaks fluently, having spent his first 20 years in the Paris metropolitan area.
Mr. Chirkanian was born in Romainville, east of Paris, and spent his childhood in Bagneux to the south. His mother was a refugee, first from Armenia at the age of 5 and then from Russia. She married at 13, he said.
Asked how his family fared in occupied France, he replied: "We all got used to doing whatever we had to. We didn't suffer that much."
But they could not subsist on what they got with ration cards, he added. His mother, a widow, turned to the black market. She would travel to rural areas, buy raw meat, pack it into suitcases and take the subway to Paris where, against German rules at the time, she sold it. Sometimes Aram and his older sister would help.
"Meat weighs a lot," Mr. Chirkanian said. Once, lugging a full suitcase, he and his sister got caught at a subway station by a French police officer. The officer escorted them to a room, but left them alone with the door ajar -- a wink and a nod. "We took off," he said.
Though he eventually had regular success with women, particularly on the dance floor, Aram had no girlfriends during the war. He wasn't eating well and probably appeared to be several years younger than he was, he said. "We weren't into serious things like ladies," he added.
His schoolwork included three and a half years studying electrical and mechanical engineering, he said. He also learned, in visits to taverns, that he had a talent for dancing and dancing's way to a woman's heart.
Off to California
Near the end of the 1940s, Mr. Chirkanian and his sister followed their mother to Palo Alto where she had settled after remarrying, to an Armenian-American man she'd met in Paris.
Asked for a reaction to arriving in the States, he replied: "I didn't have time to notice too much. I think they were waiting for me for the (Korean) War. They drafted me right away."
The Army sent him to a base in Germany as a teacher of French. But the base didn't need a French teacher, so he drove a truck for a while, then helped design an airport runway, he said.
After being honorably discharged, he returned to Palo Alto and found work in a lowball-poker card room, first as a shill then as a dealer. It was while he was cleaning a coffee pot and chatting with an older dealer, a former barber, that a career in cutting hair came up, he said.
"Aram, you'd make an excellent barber," he recalled the older dealer saying. A few minutes passed and Mr. Chirkanian asked the dealer why he had said that. "Because you're so f---ing slow," the dealer replied.
While the precise meaning of that remark appears to have eluded Mr. Chirkanian, it was enough. He checked out a barber school in San Francisco, liked it and spent a year there learning the trade, he said.
He was married for five years, had one son and divorced. His dancing sustained him, as did dating. "I know it's bragging," he said, "but that part of my life was good."
He would chaperone kids to museums on Sundays and date their moms, he said. "That was part of why I was single," he said. "Between dancing and being a nice guy to their kids, it was a good deal."
So, a lot of girlfriends? "I'd be bragging if I said I had a different girl for each day of the week, but it was pretty true," he said.
Haircuts, no shaves
Mr. Chirkanian cuts men's hair, as he was trained to do. He tends to hand off young children to women practitioners, in part because women relate to them better, he said.
He will take a 5-year-old. "They have settled down a little," he said, but 2-year-olds "are pretty loud."
He does know how to use a straight razor, but the state licensing board now discourages shaves, he said. A barber in Sharon Heights attributed the caution to the possible spread of AIDS through micro-cuts.
It's not clear whether Mr. Chirkanian is or is not a conversational barber. A first-time customer, he said, will come in, sit down, "and he starts talking and he finds out that I'm not a talker and he quits talking. My job is not to talk, but to cut hair. We're either going to make it or we're not going to make it."
But his regulars said in interviews that they talk with him all the time.
The fact that he came of age in a culture of soccer rather than baseball or basketball doesn't help, Mr. Chirkanian added.
Has a customer ever said he didn't like his haircut? "If he did, he didn't like it loud enough to tell me," he said.