JOE: What do you want to know? What do you want me to say?
Q: I just want to ask you about how you came to be a barber…
JOE: Okay. I didn’t like to be a barber. And my father, he forced me to go in the barbershop. He said I was too skinny, too small—I wanted to be a woodworker. Then, he beat me up, he buy one goat for me and said, “You don’t want to be a barber? Take care of the goat.” So that was twelve hours a day take care of the goat. And this was in 1947. So I went in the barbershop because I didn’t like to take care of the goat. And I stayed three years in the barbershop. Then, I went in the service, in the Italian Army. When I come back, I emigrated to Switzerland; I did barbering over there. I didn’t like the Swiss people. I went in London, England. And I stayed twelve years over there. And I did also barbering. And I then I got fed up in England, I came over here. Here, I stayed for thirty-one years. In this barbershop. This was my first job in the United States. What else you want to know?
JOE: I did every kind of people in the world. Only, before I came over here, I didn’t have one of the—they live in the Alaska—what’s the name of that?
JOE: Eskimos. Eskimos, and the Indian of America. When I came over here I did them too. Any race in the world. What else you want to know?
Q: Well what town are you from in Italy?
JOE: I came from near Naples. The town is named Salerno. That’s where the Americans landed in 1943. September 1943, and I was in the middle of it. I was eight years old. Now I’m sixty-eight. So I did a lot of customers—a million customers.
Q: Did you work with your father in Italy?
JOE: No, my father didn’t have a barbershop. His cousin had the barbershop. My father was a farmer. Cultivated the land. And my Grandpa, he came I think in 1905 in this country. And he had six kids. He left three with his wife in Italy, and three with him over here. Unfortunately, my mother was left behind. So that’s why I wasn’t born here. I had cousins over here I didn’t even know. Then when I came I met them.
Q: What was your trip to America like?
JOE: Over here was nice. It was better than the Columbo. I came on the Michelangelo. The boat was beautiful. I come here with my wife and three kids. No job, no apartment. I was homeless! But I didn’t stay homeless: that’s America, right? If you want to do it, you do it. It worked out. I have three, three beautiful boys. Now I have a grandson. Okay, what else do you want to ask?
Q: I overheard you talking about giving shaves. Do not so many people get shaves in barbershops anymore?
JOE: Yeah, they have shaves. No, not too many. You know, nobody wants to pay twelve dollars for a shave. I would prefer to give a haircut than a shave. It’s not because it’s difficult—you have to do hot towels, and soap, but that’s okay. But we have a shave everyday, so if anybody comes for a shave, we shave. And my life, I’ve been working since I was fifteen or twenty years old. I meet a lot of customers. And I told you, any kind of customer.
Q: What’s changed since you began here?
JOE: It changed a lot. When I went—in Italy it was a typical, you know, haircut, full around the sides. Like Perry Como used to have. You remember Perry Como?
JOE: Then when I went in England. I worked in England in 1960, and then, the Beatles, they come out. And then we had a rough time. Here in New York alone they closed a lot of barbershops. Until John Travolta did the film Grease, okay? His hair was short. Now, they’re back like they were in the fifties. You know, fades, with the machine. It’s a lot of changes. But now, it’s changing for the better. People are having more haircuts. In ’63, ’64, ’65, it was horrible. I think more than a thousand barbershops in New York alone closed then.
JOE: Do you know guys who worked through that era here in New York? You weren’t here yet, right?
JOE: No no no no, no. I came here in 1972. I was in England. Over there we had a tough time, too. I went in England in 1960, I left in 1972.
Q: Was the shop in England much like the shops over here?
JOE: No, more conservative, no luxury like here. In England, it’s different, more conservative. Wood chairs, and smaller than this. When I came over here, I found huge barbershops, fifteen, twenty chairs. This is a big barbershop. I spent twenty-four years in Italy, three years in Switzerland, twelve years in England, and this is the country I stayed in the longest: thirty-one years.
Q: What didn’t you like about the Swiss?
JOE: At that time, they opened up the immigration for the Italians and the Spanish. I don’t blame them—they’re too snobbish. They want you to be slave to them. The English people are different. More understandable, more compassionate. The Swiss are like Germans. You know, militant. And I didn’t like it so I stayed only a couple of years. The English are nice people but the country I didn’t like too much. Over here is the best.
Q: The best.
JOE: And my country is the most beautiful country in the world. Italy. You’ve never been there? You should go. And this county, I worked very hard, I made quite good money. I lived comfortably; I did what I want. A free country. Switzerland is not a free country. Not really a free country. Until a few years ago, they didn’t allow women to vote. So that’s not free, is it? In England there is freedom, but here is much better. Ask me anything.
JOE: How many haircuts I’ve done? Could be a million and a half.
Q: A million and a half haircuts!
JOE: Yeah! Could be.
Q: Would you say you are still getting better at giving haircuts, learning new things?
JOE: Yeah, well you just do what comes natural.
Q: Who taught you barbering?
JOE: Yeah, my father’s cousin. I was a little boy. I was fourteen years old, thirteen, fourteen. I’m sixty-eight now, so I’m… mature.
Q: So how did you practice? Whom did you practice on?
JOE: You practice on relatives. On your father, on your brother, on your cousins. But you watch for a couple years. You stay in the barbershop, you clean, you brush the customers, stuff like that.
Q: Do you remember your first haircut on your own?
JOE: Yeah. It was my father. You start little by little. It’s not difficult. In my country, we had no electric machines. It took a little longer, like to clean the neck. If we had to do a crew cut, like him, we had to use scissors. Only scissors.
Q: It took a lot more time?
JOE: Over there they work fast with the scissors. I learned the trade with scissors, so when I use scissors, I work fast. Of course it took more time. Now, you take a number two, number three, number four, you go all over. Like him, we put the number three, number two, it’s done. It’s a very interesting trade because I met a lot of nice, beautiful people. I love people.
Q: Whom have you had as a customer here for the longest time?
JOE: I still have a customer from when I started in 1972. I have three or four guys that I’ve done the three generations: the grandpa, the son, and the little boy. I see them once a month, couple times a month. I have customers that come every week, that come for just a wash and a blow every week. I’ve made a good living from being a barber. Excellent hours, you know, this is it.
Q: What kind of stories do people tell you?
JOE: Anything, anything. I’ve very good at making people talk. And then they ask you questions, they tell you about their family, they tell you about being unemployed, anything. You are a barber; you are like a psychiatrist, a shrink. I don’t talk politics or religion, that sort of thing. Mostly family, you know, job, vacation—you been there, I’ve been there—and so on.
Q: Where do you like to take vacations?
JOE: Italy. But I’ve been to Cancun nine times. I’ve been to the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Bermuda, Nassau, Paradise Island, Antigua, St. Martin. I go on vacation every year. I like the Caribbean islands. It’s nice: the water, beautiful, the weather. And I prefer beautiful.
Q: Who cuts your hair?
JOE: Anyone. I’m not too fussy.
Q: Have you had any really fussy customers?
JOE: Yeah, but I do really good with them. See, once they become my customer, then it’s easy. You do him all the time, he doesn’t have to tell you anything. I’ve had difficult customers. I’ve had crazy customers too. One time one guy—you’re recording what I’m saying? I don’t want to use bad words.
Q: Oh, it’s okay.
JOE: It’s okay? So, this guy came in. I said, “What would you like, sir?” when he sat down in the chair. He said, “First of all, don’t fuck up my hair.” So you know, rough, he told me like that. Now, you’ve got to take it easy. I said, “Sir. I speak to you like a gentleman, and I would like you to speak to me like a gentleman. I’m not used to your kind of language. You make me nervous.” This was an excuse: I didn’t want to do it. Whatever I do, I’m a loser. Anyway, I said, “You make me nervous,” because you can’t tell him I don’t want to cut your hair, he can sue you. I said, “I can’t cut your hair now. Pick somebody else,” and he left. A couple like that. Otherwise, my customers are very nice. I have a wonderful time. Once they know you, you become friendly.
Q: Whom do you look forward especially to seeing?
JOE: All my customers, they’re nice. I make a good living from them, we become friends. Anyway, what else you want to know?
Q: You work six days a week?
JOE: That’s up to me. The hours, I choose the hours. Six days, five days, three days, two days. Now, I’m part-time, I work two days a week. That’s up to me, nobody can force me.
Q: Did any of your sons follow you in the business?
JOE: No, no, nobody, no. One is in construction, one works in a gym. I have a grandson, he’s two and a half years, a beautiful baby. No, my sons didn’t want to do it because it’s long hours. I don’t blame them. It is long hours.
Q: Do they come here for haircuts?
JOE: No. One lives in California, one lives in Chicago. Only one, he lives with a girlfriend, and he comes home to get a haircut. He lives in Astoria, Queens.
Q: Did anything ever really strange happen in the shop?
JOE: Sure. One guy came in with a dog and without saying anything he went to the sink to get water for the dog. A couple guys who were just running away from the police came inside. There used to be a lot of homeless who would come in, but not anymore.
Q: Back in the eighties?
JOE: In the eighties, this place was horrible. Now is much better. When I started over here it was beautiful. In the eighties, it went down. Mostly I blame the politicians, you know. Mister Cuomo, blah, blah, blah, they let it go. You know, the police couldn’t chase the homeless out.
Q: Is anyone who was here when you started still working here?
JOE: The owner, who isn’t here now. Then, this shop was next to the police station. Then we moved to where Duane Reade [Pharmacy] is now, and now were back here. I’ve been working with this guy since he opened up—since he bought the shop from someone else.
Q: Now they also cut women’s hair here?
JOE: Yeah. But I just cut men’s hair. I can’t deal with the women’s hair. It’s too long. Before it was just a regular barbershop, but then the beauty parlor went out of business. It used to be next to us. So then we take the women. The women who work here, they leave early.
Q: Is it different working alongside women?
JOE: At first I felt uncomfortable when the women came in. They smoked more than men, but you’re not allowed to smoke now. They talk loud, talk too much. It was, I would say, ten years ago. It was just the first couple of weeks. Now we’ve become friendly. That’s the way it goes.
Q: Where are some of the other barbers in the shop from?
JOE: Okay—two come from Colombia. One, something-istan…
JOE: Something like that. I’m from Italy, the boss is from Sicily, and another guy from Ecuador. An international barbershop. Used to be all Italian.
Q: Are there still young Italian guys who become barbers?
JOE: No, nobody comes from Italy. And people born here, their kids, they don’t want to be a barber. They become lawyers and teachers. That’s the way it goes in this country. The first generation comes as a laborer, then, out of it.