I could use a haircut. This is generally true for me. I don’t go to a haircutter often. Among the reasons for this reluctance may be my boyhood when I was made to get a crew cut or, even worse, a flattop and go to the barber every two weeks whether I needed to or not. Then, when a bit older, it was the time of rebellious, shaggy hair, and a haircut was an act of bourgeois conformity. Soon hair stylists started to replace lowly barbers with costs that my frugal lifestyle and income could not afford. Finally, my hair started thinning (a kind way to put it), and I knew no matter what was done to it, at best my hair could look kempt but not particularly attractive. That my seldom-cut hair would not have been acceptable to those who admired or wore a Brooks Brothers suit, which I never have, did not bother me.
My standard has been to get a haircut when the hair sticks out above my ears and on top of my head (I don’t see the back of my head, so why would I care what it looks like?) so much that it has been bothering me for weeks. This usually is a period of at least four or six months from my last tonsorial visit. But even then, it takes me still a while longer after I have determined it is time to get it cut to do so because I do not have a regular haircutting place. Instead, in my travels around the city I look for an establishment where the service is inexpensive. It amazes me how much the price of a haircut varies, at least for my hair. It can be two or three times as expensive in one place compared to another, and my eye can’t tell the difference in the result. So, I look for cheap. If the price listed in the window is right, I then look to see that I will not have to wait for more than a minute or two before I can get into a chair. Even though I am almost always carrying a book to read, I hate waiting to get my hair cut. These demands and routines mean that I have gotten my hair cut in many different places in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I have gotten it cut more than several times in only a few establishments.
Although I do it infrequently, I enjoy getting my hair cut. I enjoy the sound of the scissors and electric razor. I love hot lather on the neck. I like being brushed off and the apron swung to the side. I even like getting into the chair. And I often find the person clipping away to be interesting.
Most often the haircutter is a first generation American. When I first came to New York, the cliché was the Italian-American barber who came from some small village in Abruzzi or Apulia. Now it is different. I recently had my hair cut by a Palestinian who told me how hard it was for him to go home, flying to Tel Aviv and then having to cross over into Jordan. To my surprise, he indicated that it was easier for him to deal with the Israelis than the Jordanians on his trips home. Most often, however, the person cutting my hair these days was born in a communist country. This has been true even when I get my hair cut in the country during the summer. There the barbers have been Polish-American, and from one I learned the strengths and weaknesses of the Polish delis within a half hour drive of the Poconos house. She even told me of her favorite place to get Polish food. It was unlicensed and in someone’s house. It seemed to require an introduction and several passwords. I would like to report how good it was, but I was too chicken to try it.
Some of my recent haircutters in New York City have come from former parts of the Soviet Union. That was true thirteen months ago. I was in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan. The shop’s sign said a haircut cost $20, my kind of price. A barber was sitting in one of the three chairs reading a newspaper. My kind of wait—none–and soon I was seated and covered, and he was snipping.
He told me that he owned the shop and that later in the day his son would also be there. He said that he grew up in Russia. I asked what part and he said Uzbekistan, which he said was now independent. I did not ask him, but I wondered, why he said that his birthplace was Russia instead of the Soviet Union since Uzbekistan is not Russia. Maybe it was because Americans are easily confused about this part of the world, and he hoped to simplify.
He had come to the United States in 1997 and had been in his shop for nearly as long. He said that he had heard that the area had once been dangerous, “a lot of drug dealers.” He credited Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty for making the neighborhood safe.
He lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, about which I know little. I did not know if this is where a lot of Uzbeks lived, but I knew there were several Uzbek restaurants near Coney Island and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. He told me they were all good, but, if I understood him—his accent was thick–they all served the same food, and it did not matter which restaurant I went to.
Although he had grown up speaking three languages, he had no English when he came to America. He immigrated with two children, aged nine and five, and his wife, who did speak English. She is now a paralegal in the Queens Family Court. I could see his pride when he said that she was labeled the best Family Court paralegal, “not just in Queens, but in all five boroughs.”
As I paid and was about to leave, he told me for no apparent reason that he was Jewish. I asked why he had not gone to Israel. He said that it was “too hard.” He had relatives in both Israel and the US, and when he had the chance to come to New York, he did. I don’t know if he was referring to all of Uzbekistan or just his region, but he said that it was 95% Muslim now, but that it used to be only 70%. I asked about a Christian population. I did not understand his answer.
When he began the haircut, he had asked me if I had seen the State of the Union address, which had been the night before. He apparently had watched it and was confused why so many women were wearing white. I tried to explain that it was the hundred-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and about the suffragettes and their white clothing, but I am not sure that he understood. He may have had no history of his own that related to those events. Other than that, I avoided the State of the Union address and other political topics. Perhaps if the subject had arisen after we had talked for a while, I might not have tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. It might have been interesting to hear what a Jewish person from Uzbekistan who ran a small business and had immigrated here twenty years ago thought of our president and other politicians.
As I was almost exiting the door, he told me his name was Mark and asked for mine, which I gave him.
Twenty dollars for a haircut. And an education. Plus, a generous tip. (No haircutter makes much money from me, so I think I should overtip.) Not bad.
(concluded April 3)