Sal: "You want it short?"
I needed a barber not a stylist, in a barbershop not a salon, owned and operated by one man, not a local franchise of a national chain, who would cut my hair, not tag my head like some graffiti artist. I wanted a barber.
"I know what you need," my friend Nick said as he interrupted the litany of haircutting demands I was making. He was smiling, sitting across from me at our regular restaurant. He’s been going there for years, the food is good, but most importantly they let him smoke. Before telling me what I needed he slowly put his cigarette to his lips, puffed out a cloud of smoke and watched it rise before it gently broke apart into the air.
"You need to see Sal the Barber." My mind immediately leapt to Sal "The Barber" Maglie, former New York Giant and Brooklyn Dodger pitcher nicknamed "The Barber" because he often threw at batters’ heads, giving them close shaves.
"His shop is on Mott between Prince and Spring," Nick continued. "They got two chairs there, but he does all the cutting. He doesn’t have a phone, so just show up, and if you have to wait he’s got these photo albums of pictures he took in Naples. Get a shave too, it’s the closest thing to heaven. The whole thing will run ya twenty. That’s without the tip." Then he leaned in and turned his head slowly to the left and then to the right, as if he were telling me a secret. His eyes were bright, his eyebrows raised as he said the words he knew would send me directly to Sal, the one thing I wanted from a barber, "Pal, he’s even got one of them old fashion barber polls outside his joint." He moved back and took another drag on his cigarette, but instead of looking at the smoke or me he folded his arms and looked away giving me a moment to contemplate what he had just said. He knew what I wanted, I wanted the old school Barber, the old school haircut, one that was classic and timeless and nothing symbolized that more than the barber poll.
The next morning on my way to Sal’s I was struck by how much Mott Street had changed. It used to be a neighborhood where men wearing untucked shirtsleeves would sit outside their homes and social clubs on folded chairs on nice days; talking, yelling, reading papers while other men passed and shook their hands and joked. Where gangs of boys would walk aimlessly with purposeful strides up and down the street all day, stopping only to gawk at pretty neighborhood girls. It was a neighborhood of juxtapositions being a hub of organized crime with no street crime, an ancient village in the most modern of cities replete with customs and shibboleths that separated its locals from outsiders.
Old School Mott Street: A barber
pole, a chair to take in the day.
These days the barriers have been broken down and the outsiders have opened up boutiques where you can be guaranteed that you’re paying the highest price possible; young and beautiful men and women walk up and down the street in a certain these-are-the-good-old-days swagger, with a fearlessness that these good old days will last an eternity. These are halcyon times in the city, it’s the safest big city in the country, the only crime, one could say, are the prices at the Mott Street boutiques, but these new Mott Street pedestrians don’t seem to mind.
Sal’s barber poll seemed to be out of place in this space where it once fit so comfortably. Walking in I knew immediately that the shop was the last vestige of the old neighborhood and old village ways. I later learned that Sal’s business hours were indicative of this. Like a mom and pop shop he keeps flexible hours. "Sometime I open at nine," I would hear him tell a customer in his thick Neapolitan accent on a subsequent visit. "Sometime I open later."
On the walls were three brilliant celebrity photos unlike any I had ever seen. There was the picture of Martin Scorsese with his parents (Scorsese grew up a few blocks away on Elizabeth Street. His autobiographical film Mean Streets takes place in Sal’s neighborhood). Next to Scorsese was a picture of an actor, whose name I didn’t recognize but underneath his name read the line, "The Robert DeNiro lookalike." The third picture was of the Robert DeNiro lookalike smiling that side of the mouth squinty eyed Robert DeNiro smile standing next to an uncomfortable and serious looking Robert DeNiro.
I asked for a haircut and shave.
"No shave, buddy," he said sharply, and then turning on his clippers asked, "you want it short?"
Two things I have learned about Sal: he calls everyone Buddy and he always wants to cut your hair short.
"Not too short," I said nervously. Sal chuckled and said under his breath, "Not too short," and put down the clippers and grabbed his scissors. "Buddy, I won’t make it too short," he laughed as he began snipping furiously.
As the haircut proceeded, I tried to angle for the shave. I asked him if he knew my friend Nick, but he said he wasn’t sure.
He asked me if I lived nearby, and I told him that I lived in Brooklyn. He stopped cutting and said, "I live in Brooklyn too, Borough Park, I started cutting fifty five years ago, right after the war." Before we could bond over Brooklyn, he turned on the clippers to shave the nape of my neck. When that was done I started to talk about Brooklyn, but he didn’t seem interested.
I had given up. He was putting the finishing touches on my hair when he asked "You like this music?" The music was coming from a radio in the corner of the shop. It helped supply much of the old time ambiance, playing nostalgic big band music on an AM frequency. The DJ announced in an easy and dulcet tone that the station was from a small town I’d never heard of in New Jersey. He thanked us for being in The Make Believe Ballroom. It was a great station, playing not only big band music, but also some of the more obscure songs by well known artists. It was as if the Make Believe Ballroom was created and broadcast solely for Sal’s Barbershop.
"Yes," I said.
"Really?" he chuckled skeptically.
"Oh sure, I like Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman."
"You really like Frank Sinatra?" He was still skeptical.
"I love Frank Sinatra," and I told him which albums I owned and how I went to see Frank the last time he ever played Madison Square Garden.
"Okay, I give you a shave." I had passed the ultimate test of the old school barber, the appreciation of Frank Sinatra.
It was incredible.
First there were the hot towels, and the warm shaving soap and the gentle brushing of the straight razor across my face. My eyelids grew heavy and I closed them. Occasionally, I opened them to see Sal’s eyes behind his black framed glasses studying the small motions he was making as though he were sculpting my features. Then came the details. With his fingers he pulled my nostrils apart and cut my nose hair, he put his hand in my mouth so that it was smooth and he shave around its edges. When he was done my face was smoother than it had been since I hit puberty.
"So, you like your first Mott Street haircut and shave?"
I did, although I am a little miffed that he asks me that every time I see him. But then, we’re all just Buddy to him.
That was how the story was going to end, but then I called my brother. On my recommendation, he’d started getting the short haircut I had turned down from Sal. After his first cut, he called me. "He’s like an artist," he said.
"He’s great," I said.
"He’s better than great, he’s an artist," he said.
"Like Van Gogh," I said.
"That’s a bad choice of artist for a barber," he said.
"Sure, with the ear and all," I said.
"Michaelangelo works better, because he sculpted too and he’s Italian and all."
"Michaelangelo," I said.
But just yesterday, my brother actually got a bad cut from Sal, one that he had to cut further when he got home, because Sal had missed a spot. And there were other things wrong too. There’s no Make-Believe Ballroom, anymore. The music is from a soft rock station, an FM station, no Sinatra, only contemporary classics. My brother learned that someone broke into his shop and stole his radio, and the new radio can’t get AM that well. Maybe that’s why Sal didn’t seem quite himself.
"Poor Sal, did they take anything else?" I said.
"I don’t know, I didn’t ask," he said.
Who breaks into a barbershop? I wondered. Is there a big black market for scissors, clippers and AM radios? What kind of people would have done this? Was it vandalism or theft? Did Sal keep a secret stash of money in the shop, and how much could that have been? And, besides, I thought the city had rid itself of crime. Maybe the radio could be replaced, but where can one find a good AM radio these days?