It's a man's world

Longstanding barbershop owner recalls the old days

Nov 3, 2010 at 12:00 am
click to enlarge It's a man's world
Detroitblogger John

A cop walks into a barbershop, and the conversation starts by going downhill.

"Hello, John, how you doing, sir?" the Greek barber asks the Detroit cop. He replies with an unprovoked comment questioning the barber's sexual preferences.

The barber retorts, in so many words, that the cop ought to go have sex with himself. And these two consider themselves friends. "You see how he talk to me?" Pete Kithas, the shop's owner, shouts in mock indignation.

Moments later, two more officers come in and the conversation is along the same lines. Erections. Hairlines. Oral sex. In other words, the norm here.

Pete's Barber Shop, downtown on Macomb near Beaubien, is an old-time place, the no-frills kind where neighborhood guys used to go to get their hair cut, escape from home for a while, tell some dirty jokes.

Kithas has somehow managed to keep it, in essence if not in exactness, the same as when he opened it in 1962.

The shop leaves little doubt this is a hangout for the boys. The reading material is the type nobody actually reads: magazines like Penthouse and Playboy and Maxim. The language is locker room. The humor is raunchy.

"It's an old-fashioned barbershop — no kids, no woman, just man," the boisterous 79-year-old Kithas says in his still-thick Greek accent. "Lots of policemens."

Finding him isn't easy. His shop is on a second floor, up a tall staircase and down a long aisle that runs through Metropolitan Uniform, an 85-year-old police uniform and equipment supply store. There's no door between the two businesses, no wall either. Take two steps and you're out of one place and inside the other. And since the cops shopping for new uniforms find themselves feet away from a barbershop, many have become regulars here.

"You see now, you see those guys, we bullshit a lot," Pete says of the coarse give-and-take. "I come here, I make some money. I have a lot of fun. All my customers over the years are all my friends."

His personality,
his life really, is best summed up by a story from his early days.

In the mid-'60s, the three floors above his shop were a flophouse hotel. One day, a man walked upstairs looking for a room but was so drunk the clerk at the front desk wouldn't rent him one. The furious boozer stomped downstairs and threw a temper tantrum on the sidewalk that ended with him kicking in the barbershop's glass door, shattering it.

Kithas was cutting a Detroit Police sergeant's hair when this happened. As the cop heard the crashing glass he leaped out of the chair and ran outside to confront the large man, who took one swing and knocked the officer out cold on the pavement. Kithas saw this, put down his scissors and stormed outside. Then the drunk took a swing at him too.

Big mistake. Kithas was a Green Beret for Greece in World War II and saw combat in the Greek Civil War afterward. "At that time, they take the best, you know what I mean?" he says, bragging. "You had to be strong. We fight hard."

Suddenly Kithas — thick arms, meaty paws — was face to face with the man who just kicked in his door, knocked out a cop and threw a punch at him. "The guy tried to hit me," he recalls. "I said, 'You son of a bitch!'" The angry barber punched him once in the face. Lights out.

Two undercover cops parked nearby had witnessed this mayhem, jumped out of their car and ran at Kithas, who had no idea who was now charging at him. So he took one swing, hit a cop in the face and again with one punch knocked a man out cold. Now there were two unconscious policemen on the ground with a knocked-out drunk lying between them.

The sole cop left standing there, stunned at this carnage, pulled a gun on Kithas and screamed at him to freeze. The barber, fists knitted, face flushed, instead started barking back.

"The policemen hit themselves," he told him, audaciously. "I say, 'Why did you not identify yourselves before I hit you? You seen me with my barber jacket, you see my door broke, you see the guys down, and he tried to grab me. I don't mean to hit him, but he tried to grab me, so what am I gonna do?'" He was let go.

He's got lots of stories like this, and walls covered with pictures that go with them. One shows him as a young Green Beret. Several are of generals whose hair he's cut. There's one of him with Bill Clinton after Kithas basically talked his way into the Oval Office during a vacation.

"You got to have the guts," he says. "If you don't have the guts, you're dead. You gotta have the guts in everything you do. I don't say, 'I'm sick, I'm not going to work.' Bullshit, I get up no matter what." He brags about shoveling the snow without a hat in freezing weather, just to prove he's still tough.

"My wife says, 'You're crazy.' But I take the cold, I take the heat, it don't bother me," he insists. "Nothing bother me."

When he came
to America in the mid-'50s he set up shop in Greektown, back when it actually was a Greek town, crowded with little stores, butchers, restaurants and immigrants from Greece filling little apartments around Monroe Street.

"They still call it Greektown, they got restaurants, but the casino take over." It killed the historic little district, he says. "They got one coffeehouse. There used to be five, six. And not too many Greeks are left. There used to be a lot of Greeks around here."

In his time, he's gone from a big shop downstairs to a little one upstairs, from three barbers working with him at all hours to cutting hair by himself only during the day. Haircuts are $12, a slow rise from the $1.50 they were when he opened four decades ago.

David Silverstein, whose family started Metropolitan Uniform before the Depression, works at the store's counter just feet from the barbershop, and has a front-row seat for the frat party held by Kithas and his customers.

"I have to hear the same stuff over and over day after day," the 59-year-old says, with mock weariness of the barber's endless stories. "Believe me, I've heard everything." He's known Kithas since the barber first moved to Greektown and Silverstein was a 5-year-old dragged to a haircut by his dad.

Kithas listens to Silverstein say these things about him and says, exasperated, "We have argument many times, years and years and years." But then he calls Silverstein his friend anyway.

Between customers, Kithas will sit in his barber's chair, not reading, not talking, just looking forward, relaxing in the enjoyment of being at work still one more day. He doesn't need the money. He just likes the company of the guys.

"My wife say, 'How long you gonna work?' I say, 'Until the day I die.' What's wrong with that? My job is my life," he says. "If I stay home all day I would miss all these people."

After a quiet spell, two more cops make their way in. Two haircuts to be done. And the barber's eyes light up because he sees two more friends.