Q: Could we just start with your name?
BARBER: I’m Frank. Frank the barber.
Q: Could you say a little about how you came to be working here? When you started…
FRANK: Truly… well I started five years ago. As a matter of fact, by the springtime I came to work here. And I came from another shop in Brooklyn. Briefly I can tell you I’m a barber all my life I been a barber. My father was a barber and I follow in his footsteps. I’m in America thirty-five years. I come from Sicily. I did barbering there… at the age of like twelve. And I came in America and continued in the same business. I’m doing men’s haircutting but I was doing women’s hair, too. Now I’m staying in this old-fashioned barbershop which is ah—there’s a call for it. It’s the revival of the barbershop. There was a time when from a barbershop people moved up into hairstyling. And now, finally, these last ten years regular haircuts are back. We have a lot of people on 23rd street—it’s a very good location. A lot of people, lot of traffic. Hey, I’m just happy being a barber. I don’t know what else I’m going to tell you. Do you have any questions maybe that you want to ask? You want to hear some stories?
Q: I’d love to hear some stories.
FRANK: Well before I came to this barbershop, the barbershop in Brooklyn where I worked, that was an interesting shop. We had cops, firemen, wise guys, lawyers, teachers… everybody met there. And there were all kinds of conversations about everything from politics to Mafia to foods and wines. It was like a social club. You know we had these truck drivers which they, they had their own particularities. And we had the accountants. Everyone knew one another. We had the same customers and they made appointments and they all met all the time, the same people. I had all kinds of characters. I had a guy who used to win haircuts at arm-wrestling. He’d say, “If you beat me, I pay for your haircut.”
Q: So did he always get his haircuts that way?
FRANK: Ah—sometimes he won and sometimes he lost. When they found out he was so strong they didn’t want to pay for his haircut. Yeah he was a tough guy from—his parents were born in Poland. One of those guys who work on trucks, lifting, loading, unloading. He was very strong and he was proud of his strength. A happy guy, he used to win haircuts arm-wrestling. Things that went on in the barbershop! Then we had the Italians who brought homemade wine. Drink wine in the barbershop—real good, homemade wine. Gave some haircuts halfway drunk, then the next day they would come back for a repair job.
Q: What was the shop like in Sicily?
FRANK: Well over there was the same as the shop I just described in Brooklyn. Everyone knew one another. People used to hang out in barbershops without getting a haircut. And the coffee shop was right across the street and there were baristas bringing espresso over all the time.
Q: Do they have the red and white pole?
FRANK: Yeah they have that too. That was all over Italy. That’s because barbers in the past used to have a medical kit. They used to even pull teeth, the barbers.
Q: Yeah, and let blood.
FRANK: And let blood. Yeah, they had that.
Q: Your father taught you to be a barber?
FRANK: Yeah my father taught me how to be a barber. That’s the way it was. If my father had money, he would have sent me to school. But the regular common class, the working class, you know, their children will be doing the same things as their parents. My father was a barber I’m a barber. My grandfather was a fisherman and his children were fishermen. Yeah and here we are in Manhattan on 23rd street. You know, the number twenty-three in the Italian culture—no, not Italian, in Sicilian, in my town, it’s a lucky number. When you’re twenty-three means you’re lucky and as a coincidence, this barbershop on 23rd is a lucky shop! Even a woman’s behind we called the twenty-three. “Ah—that was a twenty three,” you know, “She has a good twenty-three.” That’s how we used to say it. You know what it meant, a code number. “She has a good twenty-three.” Alright, so…
Q: Do you remember giving your first haircut? Or your first lesson in giving a haircut?
FRANK: Yes! My first haircut was giving—this is very important—it was a kid who was mongoloid. You know you practice on those people. And on my grandfather. We used to cut hair with the hand clippers and I was pulling his hair because I wasn’t squeezing it right to cut. And he turned around and he almost hit me. Yeah, I was thirteen years old when I gave my first haircut—of course under supervision of my father. And you learn your business being slapped around too when you make mistakes—that’s the way it was. When you make some mistake, they hit you in the face. “That’s not the way you do it!” And you get hit.
Q: The customer slapped you in the face?
FRANK: No, no! My father! The teacher! The teacher he hits you—not the customer! You learn by getting hit, kicked and everything. Everybody knew that you expect that from your father. Rarely there is a kid who is so bright that doesn’t get smacked.
Q: How long was it before you weren’t getting slapped?
FRANK: Oh, I got slapped until I learned! A good two years! That’s the way everybody teaches their kids. Even the schoolteacher used to beat up the students. I don’t know why you can’t do this anymore. They learn better by getting beaten up because you get your fear, you don’t want to get hit again. So you concentrate.
Q: So what do you think of this barbershop?
FRANK: This is one of the last of the barbershops. These chairs, you don’t see these chairs almost in any other shop. These chairs are about sixty years old. This barbershop has been open here, at this location maybe Nineteen… Forty-five. And it’s been owned by the current owner for twenty years. And twenty years before by his cousin.
Q: Do they still cut hair, the owners?
FRANK: They still cut hair, sure. The first owner has a shop on 57th street and Park Avenue. He does hair coloring and hairpieces. You know who gets his hair cut there every once and a while? John Leguizamo. He goes there for a haircut and also to look at the barber, and learn something about how to move around a barber’s chair because he had to do a movie about it. Interesting, isn’t it?
Q: You have any famous customers in here?
FRANK: No, but we have important people here. We have small-time actors, people from soap operas. We have some guys from Discovery Channel. My brother has some celebrities. He’s not a barber he’s a stylist—the highest of the barber business. I mean he’s a refined barber. Jerry Seinfeld got a haircut by him. He works for a big name on Fifth avenue 57th street, Vidal Sassoon. Haircuts are a hundred dollars and all big business people go there: TV producer-directors, actors, baseball players, tennis players. It’s nice to know they come to your shop. Over here, they’re just twenty dollars. Here we have fifty percent steady customers and the other fifty percent are walk-ins, which we see once, twice, you know, quick conversation: who they are, where they come from. Hey, we met people from Australia, from Denmark… all visiting New York. You know.
Q: And they come for the real barbershop experience.
FRANK: And they come for the real barbershop. They’re getting a haircut in Manhattan by a barber from Sicily! Eh, it’s good. You know being a barber and having the time to read the paper and speaking to your customers, it’s really interesting. You develop a real relationship with your customers. You have a little talk about, you know, everything…
Q: About what’s going on in their lives, from week to week?
FRANK: Yes, but in this shop the people here are more reserved. They don’t look at this as like a place to meet and socialize. Here in Manhattan people are more distant to one another. They look at the papers. I got the Playboys for the rest of the people. You know it’s funny: once somebody said that when you read the Playboy make sure you read it with one hand!
Q: Thanks a lot, Frank.