I have a receding hairline. Actually, it’s in full retreat. I’m balding, so I chose to finish the job Mother Nature and testosterone have started. When I travel, I often use it as an excuse to get a hot shave from a real live barber.
Finding one has become more difficult as time passes, but in larger metro areas, finding a traditional barber shop with the red and white-striped pole and a couple of chairs (three max), with old guys manspreading on chairs against the wall, waiting for a sucker like me to walk in.
Said barbershop should smell vaguely medicinal, with whiffs of talc, aftershave, blue Barbicide with a bunch of combs in the jar, and something astringent. If it’s one in a sub street level shop, accessible by a few stairs down, it might have a slight musty basement smell, which is fine. Visually, look for calendars, usually a few years old, and pictures of grandchildren tacked around the mirror. The license on the wall is faded and aged, in a simple frame, hanging from picture wire. It has expired, probably, and the renewals are in a stack of mail in the back closet.
The barber himself, well, that depends on your locale. Sometimes they’re immigrants, in one case from Mosul, Iraq. Ibrahim was a wizard with a razor and given that he cut his teeth on middle-eastern hair that grows as thick as tree trunks, my wispy peach fuzz was no challenge. But in many cases, it’s an octogenarian, a man twenty years past retirement who would be dead in a week if you made him stop working.
When I arrived in Manhattan to visit my firstborn, I was already a day scruffy, and I use safety razors so traveling with blades is somewhat problematic, so when I arrived I started looking online to find a barber, I was overwhelmed with choices. Because this is Manhattan.
40 or so barber shops popped up below 125th Street, many in Midtown and the Financial District. Most of them clustered in the south end of the island, where there is more discretionary income (financial dudes, real estate tycoons, and movie stars). One place even bragged that George Clooney was a client, as well as a list of other manly men. A shave was $30, a haircut was $70 or more. Out of my price range, even if I wanted a place that gave me a shot of whiskey or a PBR before my salon treatment. A hundred clams for a shave, even if it does keep going for a while?
I wasn’t about to take the subway 40 minutes each way for a hot shave, so I started a little more selective Google search. Lo and behold, I find a place that isn’t on Yelp, has one comment on Google, and is four blocks away in East Harlem.
I love East Harlem. Downtown is cool and hip and all that, and the restaurants are great, the people beautiful, and the parks green and spacious. But it’s almost like being on a movie set. I love Greenwich Village, but I couldn’t live there. It’s as if Disneyland made its own Main Street USA but more swanky and avant garde.
East Harlem has families there. Mostly Hispanics, mostly from the Dominican Republic, and the rest a mixture of other minorities, except here they’re not minorities; I am. No supermarkets, just bodegas and fruit stands. No restaurant chains to speak of (except for the ubiquitous McD’s), but lots of little taquerias and bakeries. The streets and not spotless; in fact, there is a significant amount of micro-trash, waiting for a storefront operator to sweep it into the curb and scoop it up into the trash. Bags of trash are piled up here and there, but for the most part, I like it that way.
Yes, there are homeless people, but no more than any other place I saw in Manhattan. Yes, the storefronts are locked down tight with impenetrable doors and padlocks the size of hamburger buns. Yes, there is crime and inner city problems, but I walked around without blinking. I was treated with respect if not deference, which just made me uncomfortable. I handed out a little food here and there to the homeless folks I met, and it was graciously received with a God bless you, man.
But at the end of the day, I don’t know that it’s any more dangerous than any other place in a large metro area. I’m not setting my laptop on a bench and going to get a Coke from the machine, mind you, but I wouldn’t do that in downtown Madison.
But as usual, I digress.
Located on 116th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues, Claudio’s is as old-school as it gets. It was half a mile walk from my daughter’s apartment, which in New York is a short hop. In most places we’d hop in the car, sadly, but it was a nice morning so it was a welcome diversion. It was early Memorial Day morning. I passed a few folks walking their dogs, but that was it.
I peeked in the door and saw no one, but an older guy standing outside the door indicated that Claudio was in. Three steps down and I saw him, feet up, reading the paper.
I knew from the internet that Claudio was Italian, from Salerno, near Naples, so I greeted him in Italian. He ignored that and said “What do you want?” Not in a rude way, but he wanted to get to the point. I told him I needed a shave, beard and scalp. “Sit down here,” he said. I complied.
Then suddenly he started addressing me in Italian. In fact, he used voi, a strange and anachronistic honorific, used by older Italians, often to their parish priest or someone like that. I don’t know if he was pulling my leg or just super-polite. After a few minutes I decided he was just being super-polite. He was too sweet to be mean-spirited.
We did the usual chit-chat, me being more careful when his straight edge razor was hovering over my Adam’s apple. He started with the typical Italian fatalism surrounding the presidential election. “We are on the edge of a knife, he said, and things could go very badly.” He’s right there.
A local dude with a thick Brooklyn accent came in and asked if he could put up a political sign. “No.”
“Aw, c’mon, we’re neighbors.”
“I no nothing about the neighbor, capisci? No Powell.” He pointed a poster of retiring Congressman Rangel. “He have my back. No Powell.”
“Well, sir, I hope we can change your mind.”
Claudio made a sound familiar to people who have lived in Italy. It’s a cross between ‘meh’ and ‘nah,’ but more nasal. It means “I’m done with this conversation.”
Back to work. He was just finishing behind my ears when pretty boy came with his Powell poster. He never looked up.
He rubbed my scalp with some weird tonic, then stuff that stung a little, then talcum powder. Seriously, I looked like a mime. He must have seen my expression and dabbed away, muttering Maybe I put a little too much, eh?
It had rained earlier that morning. “Ah yes, boom boom and a lotta rain.” I asked him if clients stayed away during rainstorms. He smiled and said “Good! I have enough of the clients. My health is good. I have enough money. Why I need more client? I want to go home at two, I go home.”
Frankie (see in the picture) came in and they exchanged greetings. Frankie was a regular.
“Hey Frankie, you remember Johnny, come in here a lot, since he a boy? You know, him, yes?”
Frankie indicated that yes, he knew Johnny.
“He dead. He die at fifty, his brother, he die at forty-eight, his dad, he die before he sixty. They all sick in that family.”
Frankie said something about bad genes. Claudio said, “I don’t know nothing about the genes, but they all sick, and now they all dead.”
I went to stand up and he said “aspett…” which means “wait a sec…” He grabbed a pair of small scissors, grabbed my nose and lifted the end skyward and started snipping nose hairs. It tickled and I stifled a sneeze.
“Ecco,” he said.
I pulled out my wallet. “Quanto devo, signore?”
“Lessee, for the shave, seven…for the head, ten. So seventeen.” I handed him a twenty and said thanks, and I would be back again the next time I visited my daughter. “Arrivederci.”
He grunted a reply, I waved to Frankie who smiled back, and took off.
Two minutes later I was back. Forgot my glasses. Arrivaderci. Grunt.
Two minutes later I was back again.
“Why you come back? You forget something else?”
“No, I wanted a picture of you, for my daughter. The one who lived in Milano by your sister.”
“Sure! Go ahead. Frankie, it’s okay he take the picture, okay? Frankie gave his consent.
“Adesso parto per l’ultima volta.”
He grunted, turned back to Frankie’s haircut and said “I see you next time.”