The Barber of New York

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.”

The Beauty Level?

Like Dante’s Inferno, Bergdorf Goodman has nine floors, but the Beauty Level is in the basement. It’s a sleek and sterile place, lots of glass and nothing on the walls, the eyeliner containers and lipstick tubes lined up perfectly, a museum for makeup. There weren’t many customers, everything was hushed, and the bored eyes of the sales force sized me up. “We’re out of Perfect Air,” one told me. “Take the elevator to nine.”

I traveled to the ninth floor, where the elevator doors opened onto the John Barrett Hair Salon. The reception area was spacious, with high ceilings, lots of polished wood, and a view of Central Park. You’d never know hair was cut there; that’s done somewhere out of sight, behind closed doors.

A friendly young woman asked if she could help me. When I told her I was looking for some Perfect Air, she fetched a tiny dark blue bottle from a shelf. At first I thought it was glass, very classy, but it turned out to be plastic. (What could I expect, though, since the price was only $19 and therefore something of a bargain, considering the surroundings.) As the clerk slipped my Perfect Air into a Bergdorf shopping bag the size of a purse, I asked what haircuts cost at the John Barrett Salon. “It depends on the stylist,” she explained. “A Level-One stylist costs $100, but if John Barrett himself does your hair, it’s $350. Would you like to make an appointment?”

“Not today,” I said. “But thanks.”

“Come again,” she told me.

I got on the elevator and so did a woman with an impressive mane. I’d noticed her as she paid her bill. Her cut was elaborate and sculptural, with a spiky thing on top, then some layered business, and the ends were intentionally ragged. The word postmodern came to mind, like those 1980s skyscrapers that mixed together several styles. The elevator doors closed and we headed down. I felt her scrutinizing me. When we passed floor five, she said, “Excuse me, but I have to ask: Which stylist did your hair? It’s fabulous!”

“El Maestro,” I told her, and she nodded in a way that said ah, yes, of course, she knew just who I meant.

Reprinted from Threepenny Review (Summer 2003), an always interesting nonprofit magazine of essays, poetry, short fiction, and arts criticism. Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from Box 9131, Berkeley, CA 94709;

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