By:  | 

Razors that Cut Deep

Ju’s eyes gleamed as they spread wide, staring at a customer’s right temple, Ju’s steady fingers obstructing the view as he carefully stroked a razor blade along the customer’s forehead, tracing the sharp angle of his hairline. Ju shuffled his feet and shot a glance at the flat screen TV to see why the crowd cheered; he wouldn’t want to miss any of the NBA All Star game’s highlights. He looked back down at his patient customer and examined the finished work of art.

It was 12:15 a.m. on a Sunday night in All Star barbershop, a salon off the corner of 186th and St. Nicholas Avenue in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Ju took a quick survey of the shop.

Three customers swiveled in their chairs, three barbers tended tirelessly to them, and six men sat scattered throughout the room just enjoying the scene. The late night rerun of the season’s NBA All Star Game flashed across widescreen TVs that donned walls on either side of the store. The announcers’ voices flowed from surround-sound Bose speakers and reverberated throughout the room. Customers and barbers shouted to each other to overcome the deafening bass.

It was a regular night in a Heights barbershop. Ju stands as a pillar in All Star, a pillar of the Heights’s dense barbershop world. All Star is just one of five hair salons on St. Nicholas Avenue between 185th and 186th streets. It’s also just one of scores of barbershops that line both sides of St. Nicholas Avenue and polka dot its side streets.

Look through their glass storefront windows any time of day or night and you’re bound to see the lights on, hear the music pumping, and realize you’d have to wait your turn in line to get that long needed haircut.

Ju, a six-year veteran at All Star, has spent countless hours providing those intimate, late-night cuts. Ju says he regularly stays in the shop past midnight along with some of the other long-time barbers. Those barbers have accrued loyal customers who consistently show up at late-night hours, making it worth their while to stay, even if they live as far as Brooklyn, as Ju does.

The Heights are unique in that way. Twin, one of Ju’s many customers, pointed out the strange economic situation. “Where else do you have a target market for an 11:45pm haircut?” That market starts a vicious productive cycle that allows barbershops to stay open as late as they do. Heights residents consider it a rare luxury to be able to get a haircut long after the clock strikes midnight. JC, a boisterous Dominican man from the area, raves about his neighborhood. He claims, “It’s the only place you can get a haircut at 2 a.m. It allows me to do what I need to do, when I want to.”

It seems the hair salons are the lifeblood of Washington Heights, as though the neighborhood’s residents were the lost descendants of Samson, drawing all strength from one source: their hair. Only they seem to draw strength from cutting it.

After living in the Heights for a few months, people come to accept the strange barbershop activity as a regular part of the St. Nicholas line-up, strolling by as if the salons were a varied mix of grocery-mart and pharmacy.

But if, for instance, an alien would stroll the same streets, or perhaps even a New Yorker from a few blocks down in Harlem or a few blocks northward towards the Bronx, that alien or non-Heights New Yorker would probably spit out his French vanilla iced coffee on the very sidewalk that the barbershops call home.

There are simply too many barbershops, in too small of a vicinity, open—and bustling—at hours too late in the night.

This extreme density of haircutting activity demands an explanation.

One aspect that feeds the Heights’s thriving barbershop ecosystem is the perception of the barbershop as a destination in its own right. The barbershop has become to the Heights what the club or bar is to other neighborhoods. It stands out as a place for male bonding and community or, in other words, the best place in town for guys to just “hang out” and relax with their buddies and with their favorite barbers.

Perhaps that’s why Nigel came all the way from Pennsylvania to get his hair cut a few weeks ago—on a Saturday night no less. Nigel’s been going to Robin’s Salon for five years, never missing a cut there, even as his job at Comcast took him downtown, to Jersey, and finally to Philadelphia.

Robin’s, the barbershop next door to All Star, fills up as early as 7:30 p.m. on Saturday nights. A twenty-by-five foot sign outside the store flashes neon green, blue, and red, announcing the store’s name. All barber chairs are filled with customers draped in plastic aprons, leaning back as men work meticulously with razor and brush. A framed certificate behind every barber reminds customers that Robin’s only hires the best.

But Nigel says the real reason he loves Robin’s is not the glitzy accolades on the wall; it’s the unique and pleasurable experience the shop provides.  “You can’t beat the atmosphere here,” he said, staring wistfully at the vintage, redbrick wall. “The minute you walk in here, everybody’s your friend.”

Eddieson, a barber at Robin’s, is so busy on Saturday nights that he doesn’t have a second to talk to reporters like me. But Raphiel, the custodian at Robin’s, points to Eddieson as the best in the business. Eddie works the back right corner of the shop in his navy blue, crimson-trimmed apron. He smiles through his rough, gray goatee, and blows some hookah smoke out as he laughs at a customer’s joke, then quickly returns to the task at hand: giving the guy a buzz. What Raphiel will never know is whether customers flock to Eddie for his skill with a razor or simply because he’s a good guy to hang out with.

Ju isn’t too bad at hanging out either. He’s basically the godfather of All Star. His office, the front left corner of the shop right in front of the clear windowpane for passersby to behold, is always filled with “non-paying customers,” as you might call them. Two leather office chairs and several windowsill seats next to his table are rarely empty, set aside those who stand around to chat with him.

Some customers walk in and hand out brown paper bags holding glass bottles with metal caps. Others offer “buds” to the guy on their left—and they’re not talking fizzy beverages.

Everybody finds a place to relax. They swim from conversation to conversation like a bunch of teenagers in a smoky basement. Everybody present is a fair target for mockery. Everybody present has the right to mock. Unless, of course, he lost his right to mock for lack of wit. Curses and slurs of both racial and ethnic brand are commonplace. Dialogue generally centers around sports, but just as generally slips into boyish banter of the ad hominem sort.

Attention-deficient transitions glide between discussions of BaNaO Crew parties at Vintage, a club on 210th street, “white girl,” code-word for cocaine, “cab companies” that drop plastic bags of oregano at your door, and whether Peja Stojakovic is still any good at basketball. Ju generally stands quietly, stoically on the side, but when he talks, he has the final word.

He ended the debate about Lebron’s goatee, declaring “it’s ugly as s--t.” On the topic of Jews he closed up too, explaining that “there’s no such thing as a broke Jew. My brother-in-law is Jewish; I know.” When the television news began reporting about an undersea tunnel being built from Haiti to Cuba and then to Florida, every customer had his own opinion. Ju put an end to the conversation with two words. “Bull. S--t.”

The idea of the barbershop as a communal meeting place for males is not new. Pop culture, academic scholarship, and barbershop aficionados have all brought attention to the phenomenon.

In the popular movie “Barbershop,” Calvin Palmer, an African American man living on the South Side of Chicago, struggles to buy his barbershop back from the loan shark he sold it to. Although it is a comedy, the movie relates to the function of the barbershop in the black community. One critic summed it up nicely, claiming the film is an assertion that hair cutting is “cultural pride in microcosm,” that “the barbershop is a place where black men can be black men,” and everyone stands on equal ground. It’s certainly a place for black men to go to relax with friends, share stories and opinions, and just have fun.

The black barbershop is used as a model in many academic disciplines. In “Fading, Twisting, and Weaving: An Interpretive Ethnography of the Black Barbershop as Cultural Space,” Bryant Alexander uses the shop as part of a study in cultural criticism or sociology. Terry Bozeman considers the barbershop through the lens of literature in “The Good Cut: The Barbershop in the African American Literary Tradition.” In “The View From the Barbershop: The Church and African-American Culture,” Edward Braxton describes how he took a bishop to a “neighborhood barbershop” to give him a glimpse of what really goes on in the African American community.

From another angle, barbershop aficionados and gender critics take up the old-school white man’s barbershop of the 1950s. Online forums abound with descriptions of the traditional barbershop of yore, whether reminiscing about a tragically lost past or lauding current shops modeled after the old. Some focus on the high quality of the old-school products used—the leather upholstered chairs, the hardy design of the footrests, the traditional brand-name products like Bay Rum Gram fragrant skin toner.

In “A Shave and a Haircut: Celebrating the Thrills of a no Frills Haircut,” one Alameda Magazine journalist put his finger on the culture in the traditional white barbershop:

Typical banter at most barbershops…weaves current events with local politics, with funnymen throwing in a few jokes for good laughs. Practically every customer has something to add to the conversations, so there’s much more to barbershops than the quick, efficient haircut that the barbers crank out. The barbershop sprouts its own community life, where participants take—and make—the time for civic banter.

The Dominican community has not received as much attention, but it looks like it has all the makings of a classical barbershop centered community. It rivals the black community as a minority group that can find its identity in the safety of a barbershop. Its shops stand out as a hangout for social interaction and exchanging ideas, and boast similar pride in their high-quality products and results. Apparently the Dominican residents of the Heights spend so much time “hanging out” in barbershops, they can support the plethora of salons on St. Nick all day and night.

Another feature of classical barbershop culture explains the high density of shops in the neighborhood. Not everybody likes the same type of salon, and not every salon is the same. As one writer puts it, “Even though barbershops by nature have many similarities, each one usually…has its own distinct personality.” And it’s true in the Heights too.

Customers are drawn to All Star for its young, cool feel. Ju stands at his post in black onyx earrings, a silvery skull chain hanging low on his chest, a backwards, black-on-black Yankees hat tilted to the side. His two letter name, purple shirt, tattered jeans, half shaved eyebrow, and Brooklyn accent epitomize what one customer claims All Star is all about: “urban.” Ju puts it a bit differently. He says, “If All Star is Hot 97 Robin’s is La Mega; we’re the hip-hop barbershop, and they’re a bunch of old hick Dominicans.”  He points to their old-style plaid hats as an obvious indicator of their lack of cool.

Others love what Ju spits at, walking through Robin’s doors just for the old-school Dominican feel. They find the familiar clothing and salsa music comforting. What’s more, many of the stylists at Robin’s had cut hair “back at home,” in the Dominican Republic, before they immigrated to America. This gives them a distinct edge on the competition. When stylists travel from the Caribbean, they bring their customers with them. When former customers come to the United States, they flock straight to their beloved barbers.

A few stores down, Jorge’s Barbershop diverges from the pomp and frills of its neighbors. The place has a minimalist feel, which Jim, a sharp-looking twenty-year-old, says he likes. There are no flashing neon lights or fancy signs. The walls are painted one shade of baby blue, the room is small, the barbers all wear blue and red uniforms that match the blue and red smocks on their customers. Jim defended the simplicity: “I come to get a haircut—keep it simple! This isn’t a roller coaster.”

The varied desires of barbershop customers create distinct markets in the haircut business and thus the need for multiple shops in one neighborhood. To a certain extent, it’s just that simple.

But though observations about generic barbershop culture might illuminate certain elements of the strangely dense barbershop environment of St. Nicholas Avenue, some customers think something about the Heights is different. And they’re probably right; there are just too many barbershops and hair salons according to the regular rules of barbershop markets.

JC, one of Ju’s long-time customers, has his explanation. He points to his head and face, and then those of the other customers in the shop, and his point is immediately clear. The types of haircuts and shaves Heights men get simply demand more care. Their tight buzz cuts and crisp facial hair—whether chin strap or goatee—require constant touching up.

Ju says most of his customers come by at least once a week. Jay, a quiet man in Ju’s corner, piped up in support, claiming to be one of those customers. Melo, a short and plump twenty-something-year-old with a few eighth’s-of-an-inch of hair on his head, claims he only comes twice a week. JC, whose boisterous demeanor, extreme confidence, and claim to owning a cab company indicate he might have a bit of money available, makes multiple appearances in the shop throughout the week. “I generally come twice a week. During the summer—three times.”

Twin thinks women are the key to understanding the hyper-density of Heights salons. He says the guys in the Heights count on the barbershops to keep them looking good for all the local ladies. “You ever walk around outside?” he asks. “There more f--kin’ b--ches here than anywhere else. And they f--kin’ fine. They f--kin’ ideal, man.” Apparently there are more women in the Heights than anywhere else in the world. Or maybe the guys there are just really insecure.

Others think there’s something deeper behind the barbershops in the Heights, something fundamental about the Dominican people who use them, inherent in Latin American culture.

Angel, a tall, skinny boy cuts hair at Jorge’s Barbershop in his flat-brimmed St. Louis Cardinals hat. The kid barely speaks English. But he managed to get the message across: Dominicans are hyperconscious about their appearances. Angel put it like this: “Latin people go out want to much look good.” Jay put it a bit more eloquently—and bluntly. “Dominicans—we’re just self-indulgent. Always need to look good.”

The feeling was a theme that many customers echoed. It seems they care about a fresh shave so much they do it even if it means using much of the little cash they have. Angel gave his insight on the matter, saying, “American people, Jewish people—want to save money. Latin people think of present not future.” Apparently, Dominicans know how live in the moment. Ju says people in the Heights would never go out to a family dinner without first giving him a quick visit. They just wouldn’t.

It’s no surprise, then, that Heights barbers are given so much respect. Barbers with more experience are considered to have higher “rank,” and are deferred to for difficult questions. Some Dominicans come to the Heights for their haircuts no matter where they live. Angel says he has customers from New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and even Massachusetts. One of JC’s off-handed remarks sums up the community’s perspective: “The barbers in the Heights are superstars.”

And the Heights barbers deserve that praise. They might enjoy hanging out with their customers, but they take their work very seriously.

Ju’s rise to the top of All Star wasn’t easy. When he first started, he was working in his room in his mother’s apartment. His friends would come by at three in the morning to get a haircut but, not wanting to wake the old lady, would knock on the wall of Ju’s room. Ju would open the door for them and get started. He worked like that for almost five years. Only later did he get his first shot in the big leagues—that is, on St. Nick. Over several years he hopped around the block, cutting in three different shops before he landed at All Star. Since then he’s become a fixture in All Star’s front window, rising in the ranks and dominating the shop’s social scene.

Ju views his work very personally, and brings that personal investment to his corner. On one side of his mirror, a small picture of a baby curls up at the edges. Ju smiles as he says it’s his niece. A poster dons the top right corner of the mirror. A man in a flat-brimmed baseball hat with heavy bling around his neck stares out from tilted down sunglasses with fire in his eyes. Block print atop the man announces he’s JR WRITER. “He’s my cousin,” Ju boasts. “He’s a rapper.” Black marker on the poster sends a personal message: “To Ju, My N---a.”

A yellowed, wrinkled newspaper photograph sticks to the left side of the mirror too. It shows a man cutting a child’s hair. The child sits in a barbershop swivel chair with a smock on, but they’re not in a barbershop; they’re outside. A closer look reveals a large pile of rubble behind the chair. A caption says the picture is from the day after the Earthquake in Haiti. Ju gets somber when he talks about it.

“You see that?” he says, referencing the picture. He points to a small makeshift battery on the floor next to the barber. Tangled wires twist between his shaver and the power-source.

He pauses, and then comes back to the picture. “And look at this.” He points out that a line of people waited for a haircut, standing around or sitting on the curb.

“Look at that. His fourteen-year-old daughter dies in an earthquake and a day later he’s cutting again. Wow.”

Ju’s shop has never been destroyed. Nor has he ever built a battery to power his clippers. But he draws inspiration from the picture, glancing up at it as he touches-up loyal customers.

It seems the situation is irrelevant—whether he’s cutting hair at ground zero in Haiti or in in an “urban” Washington Heights barbershop. Because regardless of where they live or where they go, when it comes to hair, Latin Americans stand together.