Ben Miller is walking down Peachtree when he spots an old-fashioned barbershop between Sixth and Seventh streets. He ducks in for a quick haircut.
Miller, a graduate student at Georgia State, sits in an 80-year-old steel chair with red leather cushions and a solid metal footrest. The barber, a white-haired man in a white smock, covers him with a red-striped apron from the neck down and goes to work.
To Miller's left, Bob Vance, a retired tax accountant, sits in a barber chair and reels off jokes. He tells the one about three couples standing in line at the pearly gates.
St. Peter was barring them for their earthly obsessions -- one man for his love of money ("You even married a woman named Penny!") and the second for his addiction to alcohol ("You even married a woman named Sherry!"). The third guy in line turned to his wife and said, "Well, Fanny ... ."
The barbershop, Vance explains, "is just like the one in 'Andy of Mayberry.' And I get to choose who I want to be. I think I'll be Otis today."
He points at the barber and says, "But he's always Floyd."
Floyd also is known as Eli Sotto, the Barber of Midtown. He's operated the Trim Shop at 849 Peachtree St. since 1953.
Sotto is focused on the dark hair of Miller, his new young customer. His strong, smooth hands hold a comb and a pair of scissors. He snips awhile, then picks up a great buzzing metal electric clipper. He cuts hair short. He nearly went out of business when the hippies took over Midtown in the late '60s.
Now, business is better. Sotto and Vance are still talking about their sighting earlier in the day of Baton Bob, the Midtown majorette, the guy who merrily marches around town in women's clothing.
"Today, he was a ballerina," says Sotto, who speaks with a thick Greek accent. "Yesterday, he was a bride. Oh, my goodness. I wish I could have a camera. I don't know where he gets his costumes. He's a big muscle guy. Sometimes he's a cheerleader. Sometimes he blows a whistle. Every day, something different."
Sotto is 82. He could sit at home with his two rambunctious dogs and wait for visits from his children, his grandchildren and one great-grandchild. But he likes to be in on the action.
He doesn't want to sit in front of the TV. And he doesn't like to dwell on the past.
Eli Sotto's past includes the worst memories of the 20th century. That's why he's so happy to climb into his car six days a week, and head to the Trim Shop, and cut the hair of customers, and look for the daily visit from Bob Vance and the sightings of the Midtown majorette, and peer across the street at all the young people enjoying themselves on the patio of the Gordon Biersch brewery.
"This place, to me," Eli Sotto says, "is paradise."
MILLER PICKS UP on bits of the conversation and asks the barber, "Were you in a displaced person's camp?"
"No," Sotto says. "Concentration camps. I'm Holocaust survivor."
Sotto was a teenager when the soldiers came to his town, Thessaloniki, Greece. At Auschwitz, the Nazis tattooed the number "115303" into his left forearm. He had a twin sister, Sarah, and five other siblings. By the end of World War II, Sarah and four other siblings were exterminated in the gas chambers. Only Eli and his younger brother survived.
On five separate occasions, Sotto says, he was lined up to be marched into a gas chamber himself. And five times something happened -- the Germans decided to call it a day or wanted the people in line to work more. Each time, Sotto says, it was a miracle.
He escaped death another time when he was called upon to shave the head of the Nazi commandant at the camp in Lansburg, Germany. Using a straight razor, he nicked the commandant's ear. He stanched the flow of blood with hair and soap. He finished, and the commandant wrote a note to a soldier who led Sotto away. The young barber thought he was going to be shot. Instead, the soldier took him to the kitchen, where he was given a roll with cheese. It was a tip.
"I said to myself, 'This is a miracle,'" Sotto says. "I live on miracles."
When tens of thousands of hippies invaded Midtown in the 1960s and crime turned up in the '70s, Sotto wasn't afraid. He stepped over sleeping street people to open his shop.
He owned five other shops that he had to close. He reduced the size of his shop from six chairs to three. But he had loyal clientele. A young Maynard Jackson got his hair cut on credit, long before he became mayor. When the Atlanta Cabana hotel was in business, Sotto cut the hair of Bert Parks and Doris Day's boyfriend. He's been cutting some customers' hair for 35 years. He's now cutting hair in the fourth generation of one family. Men come from Columbus, Newnan, all over the world. Sotto speaks seven languages.
He married another Holocaust survivor, Lucy. They were introduced by an Italian woman, a kindhearted matchmaker who brought Lucy to Eli's fruit stand in Greece after the war was over. The couple moved to America and settled in Atlanta. They were married 49 years and raised three kids.
Thirteen years ago, Sotto's son David was in a terrible collision on I-75 with an 18-wheeler that shouldn't have been in the city. David's wife, Cindy, was killed. David suffered a brain injury and was wrongly charged by police. The charges were dropped and the truck driver was brought to trial but acquitted of vehicular homicide. He was banned from driving in the state. Lucy Sotto was terribly depressed by Cindy's death. She began weeping, wondering why such bad things had happened to them.
Eli Sotto knew what to do. He brought her to the Trim Shop. She crocheted. She made friends. She was as happy there as her husband. She died 10 years ago. But Eli kept coming to work.
Eli sotto always expects another miracle. In July, he was given 60 days to move out of the Trim Shop. The building at 849 Peachtree is going to be torn down by its new owner, the Novare Group, which plans to build high-rise condos.
Sotto was despondent. He got David involved. One thing led to another. The Novare Group agreed to let Sotto stay through November.
"God bless these new owners who give me a little more time to stay," Sotto says. "This is a great miracle."
The company is looking around the neighborhood for a new place for Sotto to open his shop when the current one closes. He wants to keep working.
Business remains brisk. The shop is packed on Friday afternoon. Vance starts complaining that one of his neighbors came to visit him the other day and keeled over dead.
"Bob's jokes could kill anybody -- that corny crap!" declares Mark Casey, sitting in the third barber chair in his undershirt.
Everybody is laughing but Sotto. He's too busy running his clippers over the head of Engin Can, a banker who moved here from Turkey. But Sotto is smiling. He is enjoying his miracle.
Senior Editor Doug Monroe is a native of Midtown. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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