Farewell George’s Five-Dollar Shave

by

01/26/2003

270 Broadway, new york, ny 10007

Neighborhood: Financial District

Along about now, dozens of shaggy guys prowl the streets of New York, looking for a new barber, wondering where and from whose hands their next haircut and a shave are going to come now that the State Barber Shop has closed and Giorgio Campli retired.

George left for Italy a few weeks back. There, he’ll live off his social security checks and whatever he was able to save during his forty-three years of tonsorial service in the U.S.

For George’s customers, the world has tilted a little off its axis, especially on Saturday, when they ordinarily would have been at the State, getting a haircut and shave. Many get their hair cut less often as they hunt for a replacement. I’ve only had it cut twice — once in Knoxville, Tenn. And once in Port St. Lucie, Fla. — since George left town.

Old timers hunger for a barber since the State (whose sign declared it home to “Bootblack, Manicurist, Haircuts”) closed its foyered, brass-handled doors on Chambers St. in December, after seventy-one years. The six-chair male fortress succumbed to redevelopment once New York State sold the 28-story Arthur Levitt State Office Building one year ago.

I went for a shave and a trim every day the State was open its last two weeks, hanging out near George’s chair. Before then, it had never occurred to me how tiring it is for barbers to stand all day.

Among those searching for a new barber is eighty-eight year-old Irving Ruckens. A State Barber customer for almost 40 years, the former controller of the Julliard School was driven from his hangout by the same logic of renovation that closed the Blarney Stone down the street a few months earlier.

The new landlord, impatient with a small-time rent roll at 270 Broadway, rejected Ruckens’ specific, blue-collar world, and appears set to opt instead for gourmet coffee and generic white blouses.

Ruckens feels “more than a twinge of sadness” at the sight of the shuttered State Barber Shop, and says he also lost a kind, gentle friend when George shuffled off to Italy. In recent years, Ruckens would wait his turn in a chair beside George’s, next to a marble-topped desk, away from other barbers’ customers. Most of George’s devoted regulars did the same.

To its patrons, the State was the Rosetta Stone of authentic New York. Home to the closest, $5 hot-towel shave in town, just half a block west from City Hall and the marker commemorating the 75th birthday of Hull House founder Jane Addams, the State was also good for a workmanlike $6 haircut not to mention more exotic pleasures such as a $3 sun lamp treatment. Old-fashioned white press letters on a black board offered hair spray for an extra 40 cents. The lobby of its Depression-era office building sheltered a dozen oak phone booths, complete with seats and working fans.

For all that, the State’s secrets, like the Manhattan Project, were jealously guarded while it was around, for fear it would be compromised by popularity. With that, the State avoided the fate suffered by Astor Place Hair more than a decade ago.

I was always loathe to describe the healing power of 73-year-old George Campli, the last barber at the State to practice the art of a fine shave. But the closure of the shop the weekend after Thanksgiving involuntarily frees me to do so.

Like the old Blarney Stone tavern down the street – also closed during the past few months and soon to become yet another frou-frou restaurant — the State was filled with archaic hardware. Its dusty smells predated Brylcreem and Vitalis, ‘Lectric Shave and Aqua Velva. Each of its barber chairs held an ashtray on one arm. The battered Kelvinator water fountain from Columbus, Ohio still worked. Worn radiators sizzled.

More than the equipment though, the centerpiece of the State was George, who arrived in Coral Gables, Fla. from a village outside Rome in 1957. Later the same year, George dropped anchor in New York. By 1969, after a stint cutting hair farther west on Chambers and a part-time gig at 79th Street and York Ave., he found his way to the State.

Married for forty-three years until his wife’s death last July, George occupied the same President Street apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn during his entire stay in New York. In the days before retiring to his sister’s home in Italy, he laid bare his life’s stories, despite protesting, “My English not so good.”

It didn’t matter. George made his fractured points. He explained how he came to swing a razor across a man’s neck, cheek and chin, and never draw a nick.

George is one of four Campli siblings, two brothers and two sisters, all living. He was born in Francovilla, not far from Chiete, which he says was the only open city in Italy at the end of World War II, apart from Rome. Open City. As in Roberto Rosellini’s “Open City.” As in Isabella.

After the war, he waited more than 10 years to come to the U.S., until his father and brother’s business was solidly re-established.

Most of George’s contemporaries spread lather on a balloon and hoped they could shave it off without an explosion. But nine-year-old George learned at his father’s knee, giving his first shave in 1936 to a local uomo di nobilita’ in Italy.

The town baron came into his father’s shop for a daily shave, each day’s growth so slight he hardly needed a shave at all. Once, George’s father was busy with another customer as was George’s older brother, also a barber. The rushed baron called for a shave from George, who overcame his nervousness only when his father ordered him to act as though it was his tenth, not his first.

By the time George was 17, he was cutting hair and shaving beards for occupying German troops in the middle of the war. On the day he was pressed into service, leaving home aboard a German transport for a camp outside town, George’s father thought he’d never see him again.

In fact, George’s father expected he would tend to the Germans, but George insisted on standing in, arguing his youth would let him flee if need be. Meanwhile, haircuts and shaves kept George from the fighting at the murderous battle of Monte Cassino.

“They gave us a lot of trouble; if I don’t cut their hair maybe they send me to Cassino,” he said.

After a three-month stint at the German base outside town, George returned to his family in time to flee Francovilla on Christmas Eve, 1943, setting off on the 11-mile journey to Chiete. Settled there, he was again forced to serve the Germans.

George refined that technique for the next six decades. Until the State rolled down its gate for the final time, George was the practitioner of a dying art. “You can’t do this work if you don’t like it,” he’d say. “With pride, you see? Otherwise you are just passing over with a razor.” George relished that work, ending up as the last barber at the shop happy to supply a shave.

Wearing the mien of an Italian squire, George for years kept his thoughts to himself and shied from telling stories. That was true only until the final weeks, when he grew more voluble. Only then, when the end was near, did the room fill with a cacophonous hum of chat.

Draped in a faded yellow, acrylic jacket and with little more than a shock of white hair himself — George was as likely to claim that the Russian barber working the next chair over or the Hispanic barber across the room were skimming money from the register, as he was to describe the time he traveled to Atlantic City with his brother-in-law and some cronies, went to the track and turned out the only winner.

Or the reason why he never got a barber license in Dade County when he landed in Florida from Italy in the late 1950s: refusal to pay a kickback to a local union heavy.

George looked born to cut hair, trim beards and lather jowls at the State -– amid the radio arias of a Saturday morning, or the Sinatra Saturday show in the afternoon. Never a ballgame; never lite FM.

To be honest, I wasn’t that crazy about George’s haircuts. They usually left my hair too wet, and too short. But they were serviceable — and George’s company more so.

The real reason to visit was for a shave. It was the centerpiece of George’s performance — as refreshing as a short schvitz at the Russian and Turkish baths, for those who didn’t have the time or inclination to head over to East 10th Street. George’s shave had its own calm rhythm, a soothing cadence, an order that relaxed a customer and left him free to doze, perchance to dream.

After exchanging pleasantries, George would roll down a patron’s collar, cover him with a smock, and tilt back both customer and chair. As it slid back, the footrest flipped over, allowing the back of the ankles to rest, and the headback extended to lay a customer not merely prone, but almost horizontal.

Facing the cracked paint and half-century-old fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling, you shut your eyes and prepared for the first, gentle onslaught. A light oil massage softened your beard before George deployed his hidden weapon: a steel Bramfield-Deane globe-top sterilizer with steam pressure gauge and a patent pending date of Feb. 20, 1900.

More than a dozen people asked for the machine, fueled by city steam heat, before it went to a collector the morning the shop closed for $150. Before that, it supplied George his hot towels, its odd door swinging open like two sliding clam shells on a Jules Verne-inspired, science-fiction module.

Go for a shave today and, if you’re lucky enough to find a barber who’ll give one, the most you can expect is a wet towel sprung from a microwave. Far more common is a towel that’s been run under lukewarm water. Most times, it’s just lather. Sometimes it’s a Bic disposable from someone uncomfortable in his chosen trade.

Not so with George. From the sterilizer, he’d pull a steaming towel, walk it to the chair, snap it behind your head, wrap it around the contours of your face, and leave an opening for your nose to breathe. Drunk from the heat and moisture, it often induced an afternoon nap. Before removing the towel, George would massage your cheeks, again to soften the beard for the straightedge razor to come.

With the spread of HIV in the 1980s, George, like the few barbers who offered shaves at all, had long since abandoned a fixed-edge blade and the leather strop to sharpen it. Instead, he used a straightedge handle with a disposable blade.

A shaving cream dispenser spat out hot lather, and George would apply a couple of coats before beginning his kabuki. Cheeks were the first area shaved, then the neckline, the neck, the chin, the spot below the lower lip, the upper lip last. For tension, George would stretch the skin, pull it and pinch it to make bristles stand up.

To assure a smooth shave, George repeated the entire dance a second time, drawing the blade in an opposite direction from the first.

After another hot towel, and lifting your head with it to rub the back of your neck, George applied a dab of cocoa butter, witch hazel and talcum powder to your face.

When it was time to sit up, younger customers knew George was in no shape to lift them, and righted themselves while George raised the chair.

George had graceful flourishes in his act that stood him apart. After cutting your hair, he always shaved the hairline around the neck, the ears and sideburns. When he was done sweeping your hair, he lightly tossed the comb or brush into the nearest sink, looking like he was taking a spin around Roseland. After a customer left, he always wiped the armrests before calling out, “Next!”

By the end, shaken by the misery of his wife’s death, George accepted his sister’s offer to come stay with her. He traveled light, saying he wouldn’t take anything from the State Barber Shop except memories.

On the day the shop closed, I swung by hoping for a last shave and a trim. George was sad and heartsick, looking like the lost refugee he was as a youth. The fixtures were in the midst of being torn out.

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