by JIM KNIPFEL
April 7, 2013
The Italian Comedian
Some time back I wrote a column about my barber, an ancient, hunchbacked Italian who speaks almost no English and charges a pittance. Those adjectives collectively make him the ultimate and perfect barber in my book. That his shop is a block away only sweetens the deal.
About a year ago I noticed that as he was cutting my hair he was playing recordings of a man giving a dramatic recitation in Italian over appropriately dramatic music. Being a philistine, I initially assumed it to be some souped-up recordings of Mussolini. The more I listened, though, the more I kept catching a word here and there that left me thinking no, it wasn’t Mussolini, but someone reading poems about Mussolini. As he continued trimming (his haircuts generally take an hour or more, as he’s very old and very slow) I concentrated harder on the voice. At the end I didn’t know what the hell I was hearing, save for a few references to the Pope and small boys. Whatever the hell it was, it was strangely captivating. Whoever that was reading had quite a presence.
The shop was growing a little crowded by the time he whipped off the apron and brushed me off with his little whisk broom. Still, as I handed him his money I couldn’t resist. “So who was that we were listening to?” I asked him.
“The recordings,” I said, pointing toward the apparent source in the back of the shop. “What we were hearing,” I then pointed to my ear. “Who was that?”
“Oh,” he said, finally putting things together. “Thata was my voicea you hear. My comediana.”
“That’s you? You’re a comedian?”
“Si . . . yes.”
With that I thanked him and headed home, thinking he was an even more interesting character than I’d figured. A great and famous postwar Italian comedian who somehow found himself working in a small barber shop in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Now there was a story, right? Sat there all day listening to his old routines, recalling the days when he was king of the radio and had legions of followers. It was a story I wanted to hear. It had everything—drama, turmoil, pathos, laughs, failure. Maybe it wouldn’t stop there. I knew a few local comedians. Maybe I could help kick start his career again. I had visions of an ancient hunchback who spoke no English making the rounds of the open mics. He’d be a huge hit. Right back on top again.
A few days later I was tapping past the shop when his partner (one of the most malignantly boring people I’ve ever encountered) said hello. I stopped and asked if Vito was in.
“Nah, not today.”
“Okay, well, when you see him could you tell him I’d like to talk to him?”
“Oh,” the other barber said. I could hear the concern in his voice, the clear worry that I was going to accuse Vito of shaving half my head or slicing open my neck with a rusty straight razor or touching me inappropriately.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Nothing’s wrong. Just wanna talk to him.” I left it at that.
I didn’t see Vito for months, and the next time I stopped in for a haircut he wasn’t there. His partner was not only boring, he gave lousy haircuts to boot. But now that I was standing in the shop, what choice did I have?
As I took a seat, the boring barber asked, “So did you ever have a chance to talk to Vito?”
“Not yet,” I said. “It was no big deal. He was playing some recordings in here last time and said it was his voice, that he was a comedian. I just wanted to hear more about it.”
“Oh, that,” the boring barber sighed. “It’s not that he’s a comedian so much as he wants to be a comedian. Went out and bought himself a karaoke machine and started making tapes. Now he sits in here all day and listens to them.”
“Oh,” I said. That wasn’t nearly so interesting a story, just a sad one.
“He won’t talk to me about it, ‘cause a few of the customers complained. Last I heard though his karaoke machine broke down and it’s so old he can’t find anyone who’ll fix it . . . I guess he wants to put these up on the internet or something, but he doesn’t understand anything about the Internet.”
I quietly dropped the idea of a big New Yorker profile and his breakthrough headlining gig at Caroline’s.
The next time I stopped in Vito was alone, and again he was listening to the tapes.
“So,” I ventured as he wrapped the apron around me. “This is you we’re hearing, right?” I wasn’t sure I trusted that other barber, and still wanted to hear the story from Vito himself.
“This,” I pointed. “That we’re hearing,” again I pointed to my ear. “This is you.”
Oh yah . . . my, eh, poetry.” He turned up the volume.
“My wifea, she no likea my poetry. But it justa taste, si? I likea some movies that she don’t. Different tastea.”
“Sure.” I was starting to get the idea that maybe I should’ve waited until the haircut was over before I said anything. It takes long enough as it is.
“You understand Italian?”
“Very, very little.”
“Wella,” he said. “This very beautiful poem. A mother, she givea birth, then shea dies. So her son, he grow up alla alone, an’ he miss her. But when he all grown uppa, he marry anna have children, but he still missa her.”
“Ah, my English is no good. Harda for me to say.”
“Then the poem, she become very beautiful. Then phonea rings, si? Anna he pick it uppa, an’ all he hear on the other end issa crying.”
Okay, yes, this was probably a mistake on my part. While describing the poem to me, he squirted down my hair with his water bottle three times, but hadn’t cut a thing yet. When the poem ended, he whipped out the tape and put in another. It sounded like he had a plastic bag holding thirty or forty tapes sitting there on the counter.
“Thissa comedy. You know, eh, jokes? Joke?”
“I understand.” Well at least a joke should be quicker than an epic poem about motherhood.
“Itta about thirty-five minutesa. Verya funny joke. A younga man, he in car accident, si? Anna ambulance come . . . eh, it hard for me. Eh, instead offa hospital, ambulance take him to. . . eh, crazy house. Understand? Crazy house?”
“Sure, I understand well.”
“Thena he in, eh. . . he inna coma. . . No, I dinna tell you the start. I starta all wrong. I tella you whole thing. . . eh, itta hard to say. . . ”
Halfway through the joke, he muttered something under his breath and gave up. That’s when he finally started cutting my hair. I never heard the goddamn punchline.
I did learn a few things, though. Vito began making recordings some twenty years ago in his basement. He was in his sixties at the time. He never performed live and didn’t seem interested in the idea. What he did want, though, is to post the recordings online where, he figured, people would be happy to pay to hear them. But first he needed to get them translated into English. Once they read them in English for free, they’d pay to hear his actual voice.
He did have an undeniably beautiful performing voice, but I wasn’t about to tell him the idea of people paying to hear recordings of an Italian hunchback reciting poetry online was all a hopeless, even stupid and delusional pipe dream. Not when he was the one holding the scissors and razor. No, I’m not that smart. In fact I’m incredibly stupid most of the time. In retrospect I’d likely be better off if I’d told him to give it up moments before he jammed the scissors into my throat. But I didn’t tell him that.
“Well,” I told him instead, “I know an Italian translator. I think he might be interested in this. Let me get in touch with him and. . . ”
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