WASHINGTON — Nurney Mason cut Tip O’Neill’s thick, white head of hair. For decades, he’s been giving Charlie Rangel a trim. John Conyers Jr. would sometimes come by twice in a single day just to fix anything that wasn’t quite right.
On Friday, after three decades tidying up the titans of Congress and their underlings, Mason stood behind his barber’s chair in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building for a final few customers: Capitol Police Sgt. George McCree got a Temple Taper. Shoeshine man Al Bolden had an Even All Over. Simon Baugher, an assistant to Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., got the sides short.
“People come and go through these offices and the Hill,” Baugher said. But the barbers “are the ones that have the staying power.”
Mason’s first day on the job was May 3, 1983, which made Friday his 30th anniversary. It was supposed to be the perfect moment for a goodbye celebration. But one of Mason’s twin daughters, Faye, died unexpectedly Wednesday after being hospitalized with pneumonia. When his wife called him with the news of Faye’s death, Mason kept driving toward Capitol Hill and showed up for work in Room B323 — just as he always had.
“I felt I’d be better around people, you know, being here where I’m used to being,” said Mason, who rose from a life of labor on a Virginia peanut farm to a job that last year had him sharing an early Father’s Day soul food lunch with President Barack Obama.
Members of Congress and their staffs have been stepping into the Washington institution for decades. For $15, they can drop by between votes and within earshot of the buzzing House clock. The walls are filled with signed power portraits. And the men who run the place nurture a family feel, so they’ve all been touched by the death of Mason’s daughter, who was in her late 50s.
Mason came from a family of barbers. His brother Curlie, who had a shop in Baltimore, taught him the craft. Mason opened a shop in D.C. in the early 1960s for $500.
In the early ’80s, a friend told him that a barbershop on Capitol Hill was looking for a replacement. Mason took the job, and he would come by the old shop at nights.
Life behind the congressional barber’s chair was an education. Occasionally, the shop was not such a warm place. The high wooden barriers between barbers’ chairs gave an illusion of privacy that allowed Mason to hear what some customers really thought — about politics and also about race.
“They would use the word then, the N-word.” Sometimes even a congressman. “They didn’t bite their tongues.”
His reaction? No reaction.
“If you want your job, what are you going to say? I’m not going to walk out of my booth and challenge a congressman,” Mason said. “Being from the South, I had pretty thick skin with that kind of stuff anyway.”
When Mason started, “I knew very little about cutting white hair,” he said. His customers were about 75 percent white then, he said, although now it’s about 50-50.
“The first nervous haircut I had was Tip O’Neill,” Mason said. But he relied on what Curlie had taught him: “If you can cut hair, you can cut hair.”
“I just told myself, I’ve got the clippers. I’m in charge,” Mason said. O’Neill proved easy to connect with.
For now, Mason’s thinking about Faye on a day they were both looking forward to.
“She was so happy when I told her I was retiring,” Mason recalled. “She said, ‘Finally, Daddy. Finally.’”