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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke
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Editor, writer, journalist, student of history. Chicago native, long-time resident of Berkeley, California.

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Salon.com
MAY 7, 2012 1:14PM

Road Blog: Sidewalk Sharpener

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sharpener050312.jpg

Late last Thursday morning, I went walking up Western Avenue from my sister's place. Ultimate destination: the long-term-care/assisted-living facility (a.k.a. "nursing home") where our dad landed after his most recent hospitalization for pneumonia. Secondary destination: Starbucks, for the coffee I hadn't yet had.

On the way north, just across Touhy Avenue, I encountered the gentleman pictured above, sharpening scissors outside a beauty salon. I passed, went about 10 paces, thought "I don't see that every day," then doubled back.

His name is Richard Johnson. He was sharpening scissors for the salon workers engaged in the beauty trade. The open-air contraption he was using, he said, "was designed by a genius"--meaning himself. He's an engineer by training and said that back in the '60s he worked on ballistic missiles stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. His sharpening contraption consists of what looks like an emery belt and a polisher that he runs off an electrical outlet. The cord snaked across the sidewalk into the salon. It was his first time at this particular establishment. "Mostly I work at pet groomers. They're always dropping their scissors and clippers." "The clients aren't as cooperative as here," I said. "Yes--they always blame the dogs."

The most urgent task he was facing the morning I met him was reconditioning some "texturizing" scissors for a woman who already had a client in the chair. He worked on them, tested the sharpness on his arm hairs, then worked on them a little more. Then he brought them in to the shop. Looking inside, I could see the beautician making a few preliminary snips. Then Richard came back out with the scissors. "They let them get rusty and dull, and then they expect miracles," he said.

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