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 Sunday 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 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.
“We got to help him through,” said Keith Miller, a friend and minister who operates video cameras for the House and who for years has shared Bible verses and life stories with Mason in the shop.
Mason came from a family of barbers. His brother Curlie, who had a shop in Baltimore, taught him the craft. Mason opened a shop on H Street NE in the early 1960s for $500.
When the riots hit, the shop wasn’t physically damaged. But things were changing. After James Brown’s “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” people no longer wanted the same old cut, and business tanked. Mason, ever entrepreneurial, started offering alternatives, including “blowouts” meant to bulk things up rather than cut them down.
By the early 1980s, after business had largely returned, 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.
“I was used to hard work,” Mason said. “I came off the farm, working for nothing. I was glad to work and get paid.”
Life behind the congressional barber’s chair was an education. 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.
Occasionally, though, 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,” Mason said.
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.”
His fellow barbers initially postponed plans for a party Friday for Mason, who plans to still cut hair for a few regulars at his H Street shop. But after talking with him, they decided to do a little something after all. They brought in wings and mumbo sauce. Some basement neighbors and friends stopped by for a bite and congratulations.
Wilbert Clark, a friend who works as a gym attendant for members of Congress, sat with Mason on Friday between customers. Mason was staring at “The Price Is Right” on the shop TV.
They talked about how easy it was to fall in love with working at the Capitol, how easy it was to get attached. Clark had come to work just after his wife’s death more than a decade ago.
“She died on Mother’s Day?” Mason asked.
“She died on Easter, Easter Sunday,” said Clark, 77. “I know how you feel. Shock.”
“Yeah,” Mason said.
Mason was gracious in taking the congratulations, but he spent stretches of the afternoon staring at the television, even after the sound had been turned off.
His daughter Faye used to call her father and tell him to pick up some dinner on his drive home to the Bowie area. She was the cook of the family, and baby lima bean, corn and tomato succotash was one of his favorites.
Her brother, Robbie Mason, who started cutting hair at 13 and runs Mason’s Barber Shop, said his father “didn’t flinch” when he heard the news about Faye. But he knows he’s hurting.
“My sister was not just his daughter, that was his friend.”
The family will gather for the funeral Thursday.
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.’ ”