January 20, 2008

Hair of the Dogs


In spite of my paranoia regarding the overt and covert surveillance of private citizens by government and corporate agencies—as well as other private citizens—I must confess there are times I wish I had something—some unobtrusive electronic recording device—to record some of the conversations I hear around me. I occasionally find myself in situations that are so odd in their own way, the language so accidentally stylized, that I would love to be able to recreate it later. Unfortunately, I lack the skill to reproduce it on my own—which is why a recording would be helpful. I found myself in one such situation just the other day, in fact.

            It was that time of year again, so I walked a few blocks to my barber shop for a haircut. I don’t care much for haircuts, but I love the barber shop itself. It’s been there forever, and hasn’t changed a whisker in all those years. Walking through the door is like stepping back into the 1940s, or sometimes the 1950s. No later than that, though—the music they play never gets much beyond that point.

            It’s a family-owned shop, run by four brothers. I generally go with Vito, who that morning was working with his brother Angelo. That tells you something right there. And sitting on the benches around me waiting their turn were a rookie cop, a retired fireman, and a priest.

            So in short, I found myself getting a trim inside an Italian joke waiting to happen. And even if there wasn’t a punch line at the end, the flow of conversation over that half hour was something to behold. It progressed logically from the news of the day, to John Garfield’s performance in Body and Soul, to the presidential race, to NYPD and FDNY contract negotiations, to various small fires the fireman and barbers started when they were kids, to the proper brand of canned tomatoes to use in a sauce, to the nature of electricity. (That last one kind of came out of the blue.)

            The big topic of discussion, though, was a recent story about the barbershop which had appeared in one of the Brooklyn community papers. Specifically, it was about the well-stocked minibar set up against the shop’s back wall, near the cash register. That’s another reason I love that place—they have everything back there: whiskey, gin, bourbon. It’s a nice little set up, and customers are encouraged to step back there, grab a plastic shot glass, and pour themselves a snort, free of charge. I’ve been getting my hair cut there for almost twenty years now, and the minibar has always been part of the atmosphere. I’ve written about it myself, and I’ve left the shop with a warm glow on numerous occasions. It’s a nice thing, that minibar. One more charming, traditional element of one of the few places left in this neighborhood with any charm or tradition.

            Anyway, the story, though lighthearted in tone and approach, turned out to be an underhanded and unnecessary bit of whistle blowing. The man who wrote the story, see, had apparently been a customer. But after becoming curious about the bar, he decided to call the State Liquor Control Board to find out if such a thing was legal.

            Well, guess what—it’s not. According to the State Board, my barbershop’s free minibar constitutes a form of illegal trafficking. So in short, the implication was that these nefarious barbers—even though they don’t sell the booze in question—were undermining the American Way of Life. In fact, they were on a par with Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. Why, it’s nothing more than a speakeasy using that whole “hair cutting” thing as a cover! (I bet it was all that Sinatra on the stereo that tipped off that reporter,). As a result of that story, the days of the complimentary barbershop minibar may well be numbered.

            Here’s the thing. A while back, I had a very (very) brief and undistinguished tenure at the community paper in question, and I know the man who wrote the story. He’s an excellent and well-seasoned journalist, who’s covered everything from hard politics to human interest. He’s blown his share of justified whistles in the past. But you’d think any good journalist would know when to leave the damn whistle in his pocket and let life roll on. The minibar isn’t a source of trouble. I’ve never heard any complaints about it. Nobody gets hurt. Everyone seems glad it’s there. Customers who want a drink can get one, but it’s rarely more than a shot. They don’t get drunk and ornery and start throwing scissors and barber chairs around. It’s just a nice thing—and a rare thing in this day and age. I grew up with barbers who kept a few bottles out, and I’ve never seen it cause trouble. It’s simply an age-old part of the culture. As Vito is quoted in the story, it’s a way of saying thanks to the customers: “How else can we say ‘thanks’ — by giving out free samples of hair gel?”

            Even though the story mentions other barbers and salons in Brooklyn where you can find a bottle or two set out for customers, this was the only place mentioned specifically by name and location. That makes me wonder what the justification was for going after them. The reporter says it was the size of the minibar that caught his attention, but I’m not sure.

            It’s a tiny issue, I know. I’ll continue going to that barber if the minibar goes away. But it’s the principle of the thing.

            My guess is that this is merely the latest offensive on the part of the Stroller Brigade in their continuing effort to ensure that the entire city will be non-threatening and child-friendly, no matter what the cost to the rest of us. Anything aimed at adults specifically is being wiped clean from the culture. Christ—even the regular bars in this neighborhood are becoming child-friendly. So I guess we’ll see if this new generation of Carrie Nations mandates that the barbershop replace the minibar with a nursery.


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