No one appreciates the value of a good barber like a man who's going bald.
See, I'm a little more generous, follicle-wise, in the drawings of myself in this here blog, but I assure you, dear readers, I'm going quite bald. I have a sad future of looking like Ron Howard ahead of me. (Despite my numerous warnings about this, Girlfriend seems disturbingly OK with it. Reason #2,813 why I love her.) While you'd think that a man would stop caring as much about finding a decent barber shop when this tragic process really kicks in and instead go to the nearest cheap Supercuts, you'd be wrong.
When you reach the point where if you squint at the mirror juuuuust right after taking a shower that you can actually see your scalp and picture what bald-you is going to look like, you're reduced to a whimpering, more-foreheaded shell of your former self. Brushes and combs openly mock you.
To keep yourself from leaping off a tall building with a note pinned to your shirt that reads, "Goodbye cruel, hairy world," you seek solace in the arms (or rather, clippers) of a knowledgeable barber, some kindhearted gent who will not judge you for your bald spot, but embrace you, tell you it's alright, and make it all better by clippering away your sadness.
After a few trials and errors (1. No man should ever be tricked to pay $50 for a haircut, 2. No man should ever have his hair cut by a barber with 9 fingers, 3. No white man should ever assume that he can just slide into a barber shop with the word "Soul" in its name), I found my Valhalla in a great little barber shop in Chelsea. $15 for a cut, ESPN on the TVs, good selection of magazines for your perusal, and that general old-timey barber feel that either relaxes the hell out of you or makes you think that any moment, someone's going to bust in and whack you like at the end of The Godfather.
The shop is run by a bunch of guys, a couple of whom are brothers, who came over to America sometime during the 90s, mostly from Israel, to pursue their dream of offering affordable haircuts to the fair people of New York City. Given the, um, particular clientele of the Chelsea area, the fact that they've been up and running successfully for so long is a testament to how well these guys do their jobs.
The all-star of the crew is Cesar. Now, throughout the course of history, there have been a select group of people who have been lucky enough to do for a living exactly what the good lord had intended for them to do. Wayne Gretzky was supposed to be a hockey player. Jean Georges was supposed to be a chef. Nickleback was supposed to make terrible fucking music. Cesar? Well, Cesar was destined to cut hair. The man's a freak of nature. You don't even really have to instruct him. You just sit down and before you know it, he's made you a better human being.
As you can imagine, the line of people waiting to be transformed by the magic of Cesar is ridiculously long. It's like walking into an Old West brothel in the 1800s and requesting the hooker who doesn't have the syphilis; you're going to be waiting behind a lot of cowboys. When you're forced to settle, then, you have to go with a hooker, er, barber who may not be a visionary of Cesar's caliber, but is solid and reliable, like an old Chevy. My Chevy is Roman.
With Roman, I know I'm going to walk in, he's going to point at me and let me cut in front of the other suckers sitting there reading magazines, I'm going to tell him the usual, and I'm going to walk out with a great haircut. It's like watching a football game and knowing that Peyton Manning's going to lead a late 4th-quarter drive for the game-winning touchdown. Roman's my Peyton and my hair is his Reggie Wayne.
And then there's Avi. Avi is the Fredo of the group. The Ringo. The Oates. The Rocky V. The fat Kardashian that Lamar Odom married. It's not that Avi is bad at what he does, it's... Well, no, it is that he's bad at what he does. I'm not sure what sort of nefarious, implicating evidence he has on the shop's owners, but it doesn't seem like he won his chair through merit alone. When the shop is full of people sitting on line for a haircut and Avi calls out, "Next!", the response is less than enthusiastic.
To be honest, I felt bad every time I saw people awkwardly turn down Avi's offer to sit in his chair in favor of waiting for another barber. But time and time again, I'd join the crowd, because I was afraid of why everyone seemed to avoid this guy like a deadly, mustachioed plague.
And then one day, I stopped into the shop to get a haircut before I had to run off somewhere else. There was a bit of a line, like usual, but I didn't have time to wait for Roman or Cesar like I normally would. So, this time, when Avi wiped the stray hairs and shame away from his chair and called, "Next?", I had no choice but to man up and accept his barber cape 'round my neck, which he promptly tied so tight that my Adam's apple turned into a banana.
When I finally regained consciousness, Avi set about his business. His deathly silent business. I'm a pretty chatty guy, so I like when a barber engages you in a little old-timey, barber-to-customer banter, where you talk about the ball game or politics or what stand-up dame you happen to be takin' out on the town that night. Nothing major. I don't need a Larry King interview, but it's nice to have something. Avi, though, is completely silent as he goes about his business. Normally, you'd mistake that for intense concentration that will undoubtedly result in a stellar haircut. With Avi, it's just... silence. Which, as you can imagine, makes it all the more unsettling when he was buzzing the back of my head and uttered a single word:
There are a handful of people in the world who you never want to say, "Whoops" while they're working on you: your surgeon, your accountant, your mohel (Google it if you're not among my Jewish readers), and your barber, to name a few. I feared the worst, thinking I'd wind up looking like an NBA player in the '90s with some lightning bolt or gang sign carved into my head. But before I could tell him to just get over with it and start putting in cornrows, Avi audibly exhaled and muttered something that sounded like, "Eh, it's okay," and went about his business.
The haircut progressed with a few other little almost-screwups along the way, but for the most part, Avi seemed to be at least performing his basic job duties. After the customary edge-trim with the straight razor (another old-timey barber shop touch that I love), Avi went to the back and fetched a hot towel (another appreciated touch) to finish up with.
He pressed the steaming towel to my face, wiping off the last of the shaving cream and engulfing me in the warm, fibrous embrace that only a hot towel can provide. For a moment, I melted into a zen-like state of bliss and relaxation, and waited for the equally satisfying moment when the towel is removed, and the coolness of the air hits you like a dive into the ocean.
And waited. Panic began to set in. Some of the barbers let the towel linger, sure, but at that point, I was beginning to lose air. Surely he had to realize...?
I accepted my fate and prayed to Jesus, knowing that this, indeed, would be how I left this world: A hot-towel smothering at the hands of an inept Middle Eastern barber. Just as I began to see the glorious light of Heaven approaching me, Avi snapped the towel away, and declared my haircut finished. Looking in the mirror, I could tell the finished product was a wee bit uneven.
Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad. But it was definitely in the top 3 of Worst Haircuts of My Life (#1 most certainly being the time I decided to cut my own bangs as a kid because "they were getting in my eyes," which later resulted in me having to get a buzz cut to "even" it all out and pissing off the regulation-setters at my Catholic grade school; but I digress). Even Girlfriend noticed, asking, "Why does your hair look so different?" when she saw me afterwards. Because I took a gamble and lost, Girlfriend. Because I took a gamble and lost.
But that's the funny thing about people. Where they lack in certain areas, they make up for it in others. For instance, if you happen to be threatened by a homeless Spice Girls fan, Avi's the guy you want on your side.
Stay tuned for Part 2 for the reason why...