Patrick Corbett -- perched atop a booster on a barber's chair -- sat wide-eyed and solemn for a few placid minutes. Then as the barber clipped, moving nimbly and steadily in a race against a crying jag, the huffing started, almost like a car gunning. By the time small clumps of dirty-blond hair had collected on his shoulders, Patrick was yowling: "Ow, ow, ow, ow!"
Lee Corbett swooped in to hold her son on her lap, which quieted him -- but only until the scissors started snipping just north of his nose. He held up an arm as if he were blocking a tackle and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Almost done! Almost done!" his mother said, but the wisps of hair falling into his mouth were simply too much. Patrick, who is not quite 2, rubbed his eyes, his mouth widened into an O and the tears flowed.
When the humidity lifts and the air outside stiffens, parents don't like to take their child to any old salon for their end-of-summer haircut. They need someone who can handle the odd screamer or the unfortunate biter, kicker or clawer. They need someone with booster chairs and lollipops. Someone who won't overdo it on the sticky hair products. Someone who won't make their babies grow up too fast.
That's precisely why a steady flow of parents with shaggy-haired children in tow have been making their annual pilgrimage -- between stops for new shoes and school supplies -- to Gennuso's barbershop in Towson.
The main draws here -- besides the singing fish affixed to the wall, the box of toys, the baskets of lollipops and the $14 price -- are Mr. Garry and Miss Annette, who preside over the skinned-knee set in owner Chuck Gennuso's no-appointment, no-frills, pole outside, old-school barbershop on York Road.
Since starting out in 1963, Garry Oster and Annette Jones -- both alumni of the late, lamented Hess Shoes stores, where kids could buy shoes and get haircuts -- have clipped their way through the pompadour, the pixie, the wedge, the cat cut and the Dorothy Hamill. They survived the drought of 1972, the year Oster's clippers remained untouched in his drawer because all those young rock star wannabes insisted on long hair.
Now the most frequently requested 'do is what they call "the little boy's regular haircut medium" -- tight around the ears, shaped to the head, bangs above the eyebrows. Usually with the smallest children, the last step is dampening the hair, parting it and combing it to the side, for that old-fashioned, scrubbed, Norman Rockwell zip.
"I can't find a nice little-boy haircut anywhere else," said Denise Zumwalt, 47, who was there with two of her kids for their annual fall haircut-new shoes-lunch ritual. "Salons want to do fancy this and that. ... Here, there are no bells and whistles, but you know that your child will look clean-cut." She started taking her kids to Jones when the barber worked at Hess Shoes and her eldest, now 20, was a child.
Children are moving targets as a rule, Jones will say, but these two experts have the lightest touch. They comb out tangles gingerly and gently squeeze cheeks with fingertips to position heads just so. They ooh and ahh at the little ones and always, always hand out lollipops at the end.
"Climb aboard, honey," Jones said Wednesday to Patrick's 6-year-old brother, Jack, in the gentle Southern drawl that decades in Baltimore haven't erased.
"Isn't that pretty? That shine?" she said to Jack, about his "gold and fire" copper hair. "Swimming pools and sunlight do miracles on children's hair, and you don't have to pay for it."
She swiveled the chair, her face creasing into a grin.
"Let's see what we have here," she said. "Oh! Oh! How's that? ... That feel better?"
Across the aisle, 15-year-old Emma Reisinger was getting a trim -- only a trim! -- from Oster. In the course of a decade of haircuts, Oster has had dinner with Emma's family and they've gone horseback riding with him.
"It's simple. I don't have to worry about, 'What style do you want?' It's just, 'How many inches?'" said Emma, who wants to grow her hair to her ankles, would never go to an upscale salon and considers her chestnut locks definitely brown, though they border on blond. "I'm sort of a puritan that way," she said.
When Oster was done, her hair had a slight wave at the ends. She immediately swept it into a ponytail.
"I still like the lollipops," she said.
Hardin Pantle likes his son's hair short, his wife likes it longer, and Oster is the only one who knows how to find the right balance, Pantle insists.
Tyler Pantle, 9, settled into the chair. His flip-flops dangled just above the foot rest.
"Good to see you, young man," Oster said. "A regular haircut?"
As he cut, the only sounds were the scissors snipping and the low hum of a radio in the back. Tufts of shiny brown hair floated down. Oster pulled out electric clippers for final touches, finished up the bangs, then dusted the hair off Tyler's neck with an old-fashioned, wood-handled brush. He turned to Tyler's father.
"Short enough for you?" he asked.
Neither Oster nor Jones has a child, but as Jones put it, "I'm hooked on children."
"Of course," she said, "children are beautiful."
She turned to her next customer, a 3-year-old boy holding a yellow toy tractor in one hand and a miniature orange car in the other.
"OK, mister," she said, hoisting him onto the booster.
Then she pulled out her scissors and began to snip.