‘ADVISER AND COUNSELLOR’: Lionel Sooknanan

Tools

A barber to judges, captains...and crooks

By Richard Charan rcharan.charan@trinidadexpress.com Multimedia Editor

BACK in the 1980s, a big, old wooden house containing a barber shop at Union Road, Marabella, became the subject of interest to police detectives trying to unravel the dealings of reputed drug lord Dole Chadee.
Chadee, who lived in nearby Piparo, came to the shop twice weekly. But since he didn’t appear to need a haircut or to shave his pencil moustache that often, the cops thought they were on to something fishy.
How long they snooped around watching the place is unknown, but had one of them come in undercover for a trim, they would have known Chadee’s purpose. It was the same reason that hundreds of others made frequent visits to barber Lionel Sooknanan, known to most as Mr Lio.
For close to 70 years, the man had been adviser and counsellor to anyone who shared a problem, growing wise from listening to a cross-section of people of different ethnicity and age, social standing and class, and sharing that knowledge with everyone.
So loyal were his customers that often an elderly man, his son, and grandson would all turn up together for a cut and some talk. None of it was nonsense. It was about politics, religion, the worrisome state of the country’s progress, race relations, horse racing, the importance of family, discussing how Trinis appeared to hate themselves while visitors loved the place, and, of course, what had become of West Indies cricket.
Mr Lio came from a time when a good debate added something to your life and didn’t need to end in acrimony and bad feeling. And he worked at his own pace. If you couldn’t sit patiently and wait your turn, too bad, come back later.
There were no appointments here. Seating arrangements were sparse. Four uncomfortable chairs and a wooden bench. No post-trim loafers allowed either. The barber was for men who wanted a neat haircut and none of that fancy grooming. The implements were a pair of scissors and a straight razor sharpened on a leather strap.
This place was not for the metrosexual. Anyone unsure just needed to check the wild hog jawbone and deer antler trophies on the walls, or the caged whistling birds around the room.
Sooknanan, 86, was born in 1927, in the very spot where he still lives and ran the salon. He was the first child to Mabel and husband David, who was a pipefitter at Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd (later to be called Petrotrin).
Then, it was a carat-roofed home surrounded by houses of tapia, located near banks of rice fields and sugar plantations, with the San Fernando Hill rising in the distance, and the steam locomotive shaking the house as it travelled the railway line running to the back of the Sooknanan property.
One of Sooknanan’s earliest memories is of the village boys trimming one another to look neat enough to attend the Harmony Hall Canadian Mission (CM). And of listening for the train whistle as it approached the terminal (now the site of Southern Marines Steel Orchestra), so the boys could run down to the train stop for the three-cent trip into San Fernando to see a movie (American pin-up model and actress Esther Williams is still young and beautiful in Mr Lio’s memory).
By age 17, Sooknanan said he knew that barbering would be his life’s work (“I worked no other job. How I became a barber is a mystery to me”) and set up shop in the front yard. Cost of a haircut then–12 cents.
It was the height of World War II then and the American military had bases in Chaguaramas and Cumuto, with the oil facility at Pointe-a-Pierre an essential asset for the ships and planes of war.
Sooknanan took a job at a barber shop at Chacon Street, San Fernando, where the soldiers, having travelled into the town by train or ship, would get a haircut and shave before heading off for some recreation, which often was the cinema, bar, or a Jean and Dinah.
What Sooknanan learnt of the war, and this place called the United States, never left his memory. Sooknanan would open his own salon at High Street in the 50s and end up with another infamous customer far more deadly than Dole Chadee, who, along with eight others, was hanged for his capital crime 15 years ago.
Sooknanan said Boysie Singh, the smuggler/pirate/gambler whose gang was said to be responsible for the murders of as many as 400 people, talked like a schoolteacher and blamed the authorities for making him a criminal when they seized the boats he used to move his contraband from Venezuela.
Singh, who would hang in 1957 for one murder, paid 36 cents for a haircut.
Sooknanan, father of six, also became the barber to the attorneys, magistrates, politicians and doctors of the town, and when he took his business back home in the 70s, his customers followed.
By then he had purchased an Emil J Paidar barber chair (it cost $500 in the 1950s) from a Chinese merchant who imported it from the company’s Chicago, Illinois factory, a piece of equipment so well made that it outlasted every other tool he ever owned.
It is on this chair that the people who know Mr Lio got an education. He would tell of his days of gambling on cock fighting (caught once and paying a $5 fine for the offence) and being held by the police in a bar on a Sunday (against the law then), but being discharged by a sympathetic magistrate, after being defended by a lawyer who would become a judge and lifetime friend and customer.
Of camping all over Trinidad to trap his whistling birds, fishing and hunting for wild meat. And of his membership in the Composite Lodge in Marabella, a fraternal organisation with secret rituals sometimes viewed by locals as occult.
And he would mourn the closure of Union Park Race Club (where the Mannie Ramjohn Stadium now stands), recalling the famous horse Rastafare, the first West Indian-bred horse to win the Governor’s Cup there in 1943, and jockey Steve Bennett (1922-2011), who went on to become a veterinarian who developed the Buffalypso breed of cattle.
Sooknanan also spoke of his travels, and this thing called the pursuit of happiness. And of second wife Slvie and four of his six children living in North America, whom he visited often, getting to see the places those American soldiers came from all those years before, and his ten-year-old great-granddaughter Andrea, the “miracle child” who survived leukaemia.
And predicting the rise and fall of politicians and governments. All of this for $25 for a haircut.
Two years ago, Sooknanan had to close the shop after the fingers of the hand he used to hold the pair of scissors curled and became numb. The condition slowly improved, but last year, on a visit to Florida, he suffered a heart attack.
Sooknanan, who had a pacemaker installed, would like his customers (many of whom are still looking for a decent haircut) to know that he would have done anything to get back to work.
“Even if to trim one person, because this was friendship. Living like this cut my life short.”
However, there will be no reopening. He has sold the tools of his trade, including the chair, and the shop is now an air-conditioning business.
But Sooknanan had some parting advice.
“I had a good career and life, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. Don’t regret anything. Go on a cruise. Once you on, everyone is equal. You can live like a millionaire. No matter how much a man has, he knows nothing unless he travels. And the greatest tonic in the word is laughing and singing.”
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