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A Death in the Family
2008-08-25 05:39
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

For most of us, death will not announce itself with a blare of trumpets or a roar of cannons. It will come silently, on the soft paws of a cat. It will insinuate itself, rubbing against our ankle in the midst of an ordinary moment. An uneventful dinner. A drive hom from work. A sofa pushed across a floor. A slight bend to retrieve a morning newspaper tossed into a bush. And then, a faint cry, an exhale of breath, a muffled slump." *
A Ridiculous Will ---Pat Jordan

The summer is almost over: The last days of Yankee Stadium are upon us. Over the weekend, my neighborhood was crowded with kids returning to Manhattan College. A few days ago I went to Brooklyn to get my haircut. I hadn't been in a few months and was starting to look downright shaggy. When I walked into the shop, early in the morning, the owner Ray was sitting in his chair. I noticed the place looked bigger and asked where my barber, Efrain was.

"He's gone," said Ray.

As in retired, not dead. Up and left three weeks ago. Moved to Florida with his wife. Didn't tell any of his few remaining clients. He only gave Ray a few days notice. 

"His legs have been hurting him," said Ray.

I felt stunned although not surprised. I had been waiting for the day that I walked into the shop to discover that Efrain was gone--retired or dead--for some time now. I sat in Ray's chair and listened to him as he cut my hair. But I didn't really hear him. I could only think back on Efrain.

Untitled

I never went to a barber shop as a kid. My mom cut my hair. Oh, one time, an aunt took me to a beauty salon where a woman cut my hair, but I never experienced the culture of a barber shop until I was an adult. I started going to see Efrain in the winter of 1994-95 when he still owned his own shop on Smith street. A basement walkdown. The window filled with plants.

I was looking to get a haircut one day, found his shop, and have been seeing him ever since. I loved how time slowed to a crawl in his shop. There were no appointments. No special treatment. You waited your turn. If there were three heads in front of you, that's how long you waited. How long did it take to cut three heads? As long as it took.

Efrain cut my hair throughout the Yankee Dynasty years, and I continued going to back to see him after he lost his shop and after I moved to the Bronx. He cut my hair for the first date I had with my future wife, for my wedding, and for just about every other big occasion in my life during that span of time.

I tried going to other barbers but it was never the same. They didn't have the same touch, the same craftsmanship. Efrain was a gentle, measured man, with soft, but sure hands. He was even-tempered but not weak, a true man of his word. I relied on him, I trusted him. He was a sure thing, never in a hurry; he cut my hair virtually the same way every time. It was a routine that I grew to love and take great comfort in. When I got out of his chair I'd feel like Sampson in reverse--confident, powerful, better.

I thought Efrain was my father's age, but Ray told me that he's really 72, a year older. We never had deep conversations--we chatted about our families and told jokes, that was it--but in a very real sense he took care of me. After all, how many men can you trust to hold a straight razor to your face and neck without worrying?

Efrain had a chair in Ray's shop for about eight years and had cut down his schedule of late so that he only worked on Friday and Saturday. He still had a handful of customers that would come to see him. "More than three or four guys came to see him regularly and he'd given them their first haircut as a little boy," Ray told me. But more and more, Efrain's old customers left him. "They went to other barbers, you know how people are, they like to go with a younger guy. I won't lie, it hurt Efrain."

Efrain's three older brothers all cut hair. He came to Brooklyn from P.R. in 1955 and being a barber is all he's ever known. I didn't see a dip in the quality of his work, but every man has a right to retire and just enjoy himself without having to work. But Efrain never seemed to mind working. In fact, I always thought he'd go mad if he couldn't work. To know that he'd gradually lost customers simply because he was becoming an old man breaks my heart. Just because he was old didn't mean he wasn't still good.  But now that I think about it, I did see Efrain waiting with an open chair more and more frequently over the last couple of years when the shop was crowded with waiting customers.

When he'd finish each haircut, Efrain would hold up a mirror to show me the back of my head and wait for my approval. I'd always hold up the okay sign with my hand and smile. "Okay, papi, I think you are ready to go fishing," he'd say.

I hope he has a good time fishing now too. Ray gave me Efrain's number but I just looked at the card over and again this weekend. I didn't call. Last night I told my wife how much I was going to miss him. "Why don't you call him?"

"I don't want to talk to him I want him to cut my hair."

I felt like a selfish child as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I'm not ready for him to go yet. As if I have a choice.

* I always thought my father would meet with a violent death. He drove like a madman, he provoked people, he didn't back down from confrontation. If anything, he seem to court it. But in the end, my dad died softly, after eating a plate of pasta, at home on a Sunday night, ready to watch his favorite TV series with his wife.

Comments
2008-08-25 07:43:26
1.   RZG
The next time you want a haircut make the jaunt to Florida (after clearing it with Efrain). You get a nice haircut, you and your wife can have a nice getaway weekend, and hope that you bring a little appreciation as a gift to the craftsman.
2008-08-25 07:49:32
2.   tommyl
Alex, that's just great writing. I had a barber growing up and would try to get every haircut I could with him when I was back over college vacation breaks. I still remember sitting in the toy car chair when I was a little kid. A great Iranian man with a shop on the hill in Riverdale. My whole family went to him, when my sister started going to a "stylist" I think he was a bit hurt.

He left the store a couple of years back and I still miss him. My girlfriend convinced me to change my hairstyle though, he'd probably be pissed at me. You should call him, I'm sure he'd love to hear that he made that kind of impression on you.

2008-08-25 08:02:52
3.   vockins
That's a real downer. I was going to email about where this guy's shop was because the guy that's currently cutting my hair on Court St. is replacement level.

Speaking of replacement level, I'd like to encourage someone to start pirate calling the games on the web. Please.

2008-08-25 08:05:56
4.   Raf
Nice writing.

I never stayed in a spot long enough to develop any type of relationship with a barber. I let friends work on my head, didn't make much difference if they messed up or not, as 99/9% of the time I was rocking a baseball cap.

2008-08-25 08:18:44
5.   Bags
Nice. Every man needs a good barber.

I've got a guy named Said, 40th and Third Avenue. Good guy. Same haircut everytime.

There is something very reassuring about going to see him.

2008-08-25 10:02:10
6.   pistolpete
I can't abide by any place that takes 'reservations', and I'll never frequent any place that labels themselves as a 'salon'.

Long live the barber shop, and long live the salt & pepper-haired gentlemen who speak broken English and still charge a little over $10 for a cut.

Oh, and lollipops in a drawer for the kids.

2008-08-25 10:15:12
7.   LAT
I had a barber like that for years. When I met Aldo he was in his mid-to-late 60s. First generation from an eastern block country and had three regular girlfriends who he each took dancing once a week. (Yes, they knew about one another--don'task me how he managed it, I can't imagine). We used to sit and talk about the ponies for hours. Aldo could squeeze more betting combinations out of $10 than anyone I ever met. And no one ever missed more huge pick sixs by a nose, or at least so he said. Aldo coninued to cut my hair into his 70s and then moved to the desert. Years later I wondered into the barbershop at Tamarisk County Club and there he was. He had an open spot, I didn't really need a haircut but got one anyway. We picked right up about how Kent Desormeaux doesn't ride his horses out (obviously before Big Brown); How Mike Mitchell is the best rainer on the West Coast and why we don'tlike Bob Baffert. About half way through I realized Aldo had grown much older and I began to worry less about the quality of the haircut and more about the well being of my ears. That was about five years ago. Not sure where he is now. If I'm in the desert this winter maybe I'll swing by Tamarisk to say "hi" and get a few tips. I may pass on the haircut though.
2008-08-25 10:16:50
8.   williamnyy23
I am fortunate enough to still have a Brooklyn barber to cut my hair...sometimes, going feels like taking a step back in time. I walk-in, read an old magazine while I wait for those ahead of me, sit down without saying a word about what I want done, talk about Italian soccer and food for about 15 minutes straining to understand the same heavily accented English I have been listening to for about 20 years, and then go back on my way to the real world.
2008-08-25 10:31:37
9.   Steve in Philly
Great piece!

I went to the same barber, Frank, an Italian immigrant who was (and is) my parents' age, for the first 30 years of my life before moving out of the area. We had talked baseball, football, school, neighborhood stuff, everything, for those 30 years. Right before moving, I got married and invited him and his wife to my wedding. I was happy that he hung a picture of the four of us at my wedding in his barbershop. I still went to him on occasion when I was back in town, but otherwise I stuck to the same barber ( a Cuban immigrant, Gerardo) in my new state for 6 years. Unfortunately, by the time I had moved back to the Philly area, Frank had retired. He told me I could stop by, his wife would make me a nice plate of pasta, and he'd cut my hair in his house, and I may yet take him up on it. But it's not a good long term solution, so I have picked a new barber, Joe (a second generation barber), and have gone only to him the past 3 years. We talk baseball and football all the time too, but he's 67, so I don't think I'll be seeing him for 30 years. But you never know.

I have no interest in going to a barbershop that calls itself a "salon" or its barbers "stylists." Or that has a website.

2008-08-25 10:36:45
10.   The Mick 536
0 Is that pole by Hopper?

I thought that the Jordan piece introduced the end of the Yankee's season. I have no confidence.

2008-08-25 11:26:03
11.   Max
Very nice writing, as usual, Alex. I don't have much to add other than to say that the feeling where you know you should call someone -- but just can't do it -- is one of those sad but inevitable elements of human relationships.

I used to give people a hard time about not calling people that mattered to them after a change or transition in their lives...how hard is it to pick up the phone, right? But I've come to realize that sometimes a relationship (no matter how close or casual) just reaches a point where it fades away, or as you put it, it's "kept alive" in one's mind in a weird way by not acknowledging the change that took place.

2008-08-25 12:41:07
12.   ToyCannon
If had died instead of retired you might have gone to his funeral as one of his regulars and wished you had told him how much you appreciated his craftsmanship.
Make the call, you may not need it yourself but Efrain would like to know you thought of him, even if the conversation is brief.
2008-08-25 12:57:21
13.   Alex Belth
That is a great point. I will get over myself and make the call. You are right. Even if it just makes him feel great, he deserves it.
2008-08-25 13:25:03
14.   dzzrtRatt
My barber is a Lesbian opera-lover. Thanks to her, I got to meet Renee Fleming. She also cuts my Dad's hair and my son's. When the pollsters say there are Hillary Clinton supporters out there who are disinclined to vote for Barack Obama, they mean my Lesbian barber. She just inherited a little money and is thinking about retirement, but it's a long way off. When she does retire, she will probably go on the road, following Renee Fleming around the world.
2008-08-25 16:17:35
15.   Physics DR
Thank You for well-written comments on your friend.
When I growing up, Davie was my barber from birth through college until Vietnam.
Davie Jr. (who has 4 years younger than I) joined the Long Range Recon unit that I was a member of during my second tour in "nam".

In the middle of that tour he asked to switch R&R assignments with me so he could see his family in Hawaii. he did not return from that recon and still listed as MIA to his family.

Years later I always tried to return to him for haircuts. However they were sad occasions. He had this POW/MIA flag in front of the barber shop and died in 90's still missing and still honoring his son.

I always wondered if we had not switched assignments. However it always good to remember old friends.

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