The Barber of New York

An homage to El Maestro

| November-December 2003

I get my hair cut at a Dominican barbershop on the Upper West Side. You have to go down some metal stairs to get there. It’s kind of like a cave. There are crucifixes and postcards and a three-foot plaster statue of a naked goddess. On the mirrors they’ve Scotch-taped photos of guys with hairdos, and the chairs must be at least 50 years old.

It’s usually chaotic. People come to hang out and the TV is always on too loud, blasting in Spanish. I’m always the only non-Latino there. I like the place because you don’t have to make an appointment and it’s cheap, just 12 bucks for a decent haircut.

You never know which barber you’re going to get, but the other day I got one of the old guys, the one they call El Maestro. El Maestro is short and stocky with sloping shoulders. He has a bullfrog face and wears huge glasses and a gold necklace. There’s a big ring on each hand. I’ve never seen his hair because he’s always got a cap on, the kind newsboys wear in old movies. His hands are stubby but he’s so gentle I usually nod off a couple of times during the cut.

He went at my hair with his electric razor first, changing the head several times, then got out the comb and scissors. It took about thirty minutes. Along the way, he used a variety of strong-smelling gels and lotions that he brushed and rubbed into my head hard, stimulating the scalp, I guess. He trimmed my ears, my nose, and my eyebrows. The guy’s a total perfectionist.

It’s always the same routine, so I knew El Maestro was almost done when he unwrapped a fresh straight-edge razor and meticulously cut the hairline around my ears and neck, making it sharp and clean. Then he toweled the goo from my head, turned on the blow dryer and, after a last go-round with the scissors and a quick fluffing with talcum powder, I was done. He’d never said a word.

When he picked up the mirror to show me how it looked in back, I nodded approval, then gave him a five-dollar tip and left. Normally, I would have headed straight home to shower the stink from my hair, but it was getting late and I had to stop by Bergdorf Goodman before catching a train to visit a friend who’d asked me to bring her something called Perfect Air. “It’s a spray that makes your hair amazingly silky,” she’d told me. “It’s only sold at Bergdorf’s. You’ll find it on the Beauty Level.”

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