Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
As Good as it Gets
2004-08-31 08:49
by Alex Belth

Every time I ride out to Brooklyn to visit my old barber I get this feeling that once I get there, he won't be around anymore. It is not only because he's getting older but because the Carroll Gardens-Cobble Hill neighborhood has become so gentrified that the older shops along Smith street are regularly replaced by chic boutiques, hip bars and trendy new restaurants. I lived in Brooklyn for five years (1995-2000) and loved my barber, Efrain Torres, a soft-spoken Puerto Rican man who lost the lease on his barber shop four years ago. Since then, he has a chair in another shop on Smith street, and still happily works six days a week.

It may seem like a long way to schlepp for a haircut. After all, I live in the Bronx now. But Efrain approaches his work with great care and respect for his craft. The barbers around my way are a good bunch of guys, but they cut hair like they are late for dinner. And not only do they rush, but their movements are coarse and violent. Their work is often sloppy. I've got a hard cut to screw up--a conservative fade (1 1/2 on the side and 2 on the top with a straight razor to clean up the lines). But I usually come home with small nicks from the razor with random little hairs sticking up from the top of my head.

Emily, who loves my hair short, will inspect their work and usually has some cherce words for their craftsmanship. "You should go back down there and have them get it right."

"Ahh, sweetie, it just doesn't work like that. It's fine, whatever."

I know I'm getting a second-rate cut but it's depressing trying to find a new shop. I always know that I've got Efrain, who I visited last Friday afternoon. (I'm not the only one who will travel a ways to see him either. He has regulars that come in from Long Island and Weschester as well.) A father and son--also Puerto Rican--own the shop and cut heads too. They will be silent for long periods of time and then suddenly come to life with tall tales of fighting and "How to be a man." They speak a mixture of Spanish and English, usually depending on who is in the shop. A heavy-set Spanish woman has a corner area where she cuts women's hair. A glass statuette of a dolphin sits on top of a can of hairspray next to her. I've rarely seen her with any clients. She spends most of her time rummaging through her bag or through the drawers of her table looking for make-up. You'd think her bag was a clown's prop. She's in there forever. Then she applies more lipstick, eye-shadow. She is comically vain. When she's left with nothing else to do, she will take a hot-iron and touch up her big, orange hair.

Efrain speaks with a heavy Spanish accent, but has a gentle voice and is unhurried in virtually all of his movements. It is always comforting to see him. He works in a predictable, almost robotic manner. Always the same routine. It's one that I've come to forget. I used to get impatient waiting for him to finish, but now, I appreciate the pace. His hands are soft. When he wipes away small hairs that have fallen in my face with a brush, he does it as if he touching somebody who is asleep, afraid to wake them.

He'll tell me stories that have no punchlines. He'll stop what he's doing at one point for the payoff. I sit there with a frozen smile on my face waiting for the kicker which never comes. So I keep smiling and offer a laugh which prompts him to laugh back, pleased that I've enjoyed his story.

When he's finished with the straight razor and everything is done, he'll take a pair of sissors and snip behind my ears or on the top of my head. As he was doing this last Friday he stopped and told me, "I'm sorry it takes so long, but you have to pay attention to the details. It's the small details that make the difference."

Ain't it the truth. The telling detail. It's hard to find people who take their craft seriously, but when you do find them, they are worth their weight in gold. Am I right? No matter what they do. If they drive a bus, or cut heads or write for a living. Pat Jordan is a throwback baseball writer. He is a journalist who writes "straight" stories in a style that pre-dates New Journalism or Gonzo writing, though he came of age in the era of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. His best pieces are long profiles, but he doesn't get to do much of them anymore. His most recent baseball piece for The New York Times Magazine wasn't longer than 2,000 words. He used to write 6,000 word articles regularly.

It's hard for a writer like Jordan to thrive in the today's magazine culture, which is a shame for someone who takes his craft seriously. He writes clearly, and has a keen eye for observation, not to mention human behavior. He respects the language and doesn't let cute language or gimmicks get in the way of the story. But even if he doesn't get the opportunity to pen longer pieces anymore, he is now offering a look at some of his best unpublished work. Jordan recently launched a website which posts a new story every month. They are no baseball pieces yet, but a sampling of all kinds of work: a piece about a healer, an expose on the porno industry. Jordan is charging up to four bucks per story. The shorter stories are only one or two dollars.

Anyhow, they are worth the money if you appreciate honest and unpretentious craftsmanship. Jordan writes like Efrain Torres cuts heads: with sensitivity and discipline. His work also suggests that he is doing exactly what he was meant to do on this earth. He cares about his craft which makes the visit well-worth the trip. Tell him I sent you.

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