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Connections | Magazine

A barber for decades, my grandfather loves other people’s stories. I love his

He cut hair for 65 years, but he'll never cut ties with his customers. They've become his lifeline.

The writer and her grandfather, Pasquale Fronduto.From Rachael Allen

On a Thursday afternoon last October, my 88-year-old grandfather tells me about the time our family, briefly, was famous. We’re sitting in his Newton barbershop, but it feels like we’re down in the North End on a summer night in the 1960s.

The neighborhood was hosting one of its annual street festivals, he says, and producers for a pasta commercial weaved through packed streets, asking locals to suggest someone “Italian” and “elegant.” A cousin directed them to my grandfather’s sister, Mary, who was sunbathing on her apartment roof. That’s how Mary landed the role of the mother in the “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” commercial, which would gain local fame during its 13-year run in New England.


This tale is different than one he’s told before — where producers simply spotted Mary shopping at Haymarket — but the truth of the story doesn’t matter so much as the joy of hearing my grandfather tell it.

A barber for over 65 years, my grandfather, Pasquale Fronduto, has spent his life listening to other people’s stories. For years he worked at a Boston hotel barbershop where Jimmy Hoffa was a repeat customer, Ted Williams made an appearance, and the Beatles, once guests at the hotel, politely denied the haircut invitation altogether — they liked their hair long.

Eventually, my grandfather bought his own shop — Stan’s Salon. (He kept the original owner’s name.) Our weekly appointments to talk are his chance to tell the stories.

He’s 7 years old and for the first time is shaving a man — his grandfather, Nonno Nunzio — outside of his house in southern Italy. He nicks his grandfather’s cheek. Convinced Nonno is bleeding to death, my grandfather runs through their small town looking for the doctor — conveniently, his great-uncle — only to return and find the cut scabbed over and Nonno asleep in the sun.


He’s 16 and meeting his father at Ellis Island. They hold photographs of each other. His father has worked in the United States since Pasquale’s birth, so they’ve never met. Soon, they’ll share a bed in a tiny North End apartment. On the train to Boston, my grandfather eats a ham and cheese sandwich, blushing when the sliced white bread, a foreign food, sticks to the roof of his mouth. Unable to speak, he clucks his tongue to talk, worried about what his father thinks of him.

Last year, my grandfather and I walked through the North End. Motorcycles cluttered the curb outside of Mike’s Pastry where he and other young Italians had once sat smoothing their suede shoes to impress girls walking by. The church where he had married my grandmother was now a nursing home. So much has changed in two generations.

I feel an urgency to preserve my grandfather’s memories and my family’s story. But more urgently, to preserve even the smallest things about my grandfather — like the way his gray waves are always combed back, his customary button-down shirt pressed, his reference to customers preceded by “Mr.” I note these details, hoping that someday, they’ll help me face change with grace, too.

In May, Stan’s Salon turned 50. My grandfather closed the shop for good that same month, unwilling to risk reopening during the coronavirus pandemic. I worried what he would do. His customers are his friends, his patients in need of counsel, his board of advisers, a buffer to the melancholy that comes from revisiting his past. They’ve been his lifeline to the outside world, particularly for the decade that my late grandmother, suffering from dementia, tucked herself away at home.


Over FaceTime, I tell him he should spend his days writing down his stories. He waves away the suggestion. “You know them better than me.”

The landline rings. “I’ve got to go. A customer is calling to chat,” he says. He’s taking yet another change in stride. He blows me a kiss through his iPad screen and, for a moment before hanging up, I watch him answer the phone and smile again.


Rachael Allen is a podcast producer at Slate. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. To tell your story, e-mail a 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.