Monday, October 4, 2010

A Harlem Haircut

I wrote this one a few years ago, but didn't have a place to post it. Here's my story of adventure and pride:

A Harlem Haircut - my experience, by Mike Rosenthal

It all starts with a moment of inspiration.

No, I take that back; it all starts with my hair getting to an uncomfortable length. By most peoples' standards, it's still far shorter than what they're used to, but not as short as I'd like. And not as clean. I digress.

In LA, I have a spot where I get my haircut, every week. It's a modern day barbershop, with music playing, walls covered in magazine tears, and gay hair stylists with tattoos. It's a fun place to spend 30 minutes every week.

But I'm not in LA, I'm in NY, and I want to get my hair cut at an old-school barbershop in Harlem. My friend Thomas lives in Harlem, near 125th street, so we both decide it's a good idea and a moral imperative to get our cuts at the local barbershop. At 11:30 I make the trek north, and meet Thomas at the corner of Lexington and 125th St, arguably a 'sketchy' part of town. The corner is a circus of activity - a large group of people sit on a pile of shopping carts, some with hair nets, others with showercaps. It looks like an urban bazaar - a large selection of items that appear to have been salvaged from the garbage are now arranged for sale on the sidewalk. Items include: 1 bra, VHS tapes of Jean Claude Van Dam, an NFL jacket for an 8 year old, a Tshirt that was used as a mechanic's rag, and a great selection of bootleg CDs of neighborhood hip-hop hopefulls.

We stroll past the outdoor swapmeet, and nearly walk past the barbershop - it's that small. There are probably 4 people standing outside, blocking the entrance, but when they find out we want cuts, the gentlemen inform us that they are in fact the barbers and are quick to claim us as their patrons, hereby preventing the other barbers from stealing our business.

Now when I began this quest, I had a certain image in my mind - a barbershop playing some old jazz or hip hop, some crotchity old men inside complaining about today's youth, and a good old fashioned trim and shave. Electric clippers on the top, and I want the straight razor shave with the hot towel, the banter, and all the character of Harlem.

Inside is pandemonium, which is funny as the entire shop is no larger than 200 square feet. In the back are 3 ladies getting weaves and the 3 stylists applying the weaves. In the middle is a man getting an 80s fade, a baby with no shirt and sagging pants, and a pile of African drums sitting 4 feet high. I think the drums take up half of the floor space.

The two guys up front immediately begin to argue. The closest to the door has claimed me, and the guy second from the door isn't happy about this. He's already at work on Thomas's head, which bobs back and forth from the jutting, haphazard stabs with the electric clippers. It looks anything but comfortable. Thomas's barber, who's name I can't remember but I'll call Stan, insists that he's a professional barber, and that he offers a higher quality of service than the others. The other barber, MY barber, is appropriately named Mike. No joke. So Mike tells Stan that he has more refined skills, and is in fact not a barber but a hair stylist - he has copious amounts of style. They then proceed to rattle off the names of famous people who have sat on their chairs - Mr. T, Ol Dirty Bastard, Three Six Mafia, to name a few..

Mike's chair opens up, and it's my turn to get the royal treatment. I repeat my request for electric clippers on top, and a good shave of the face. He emphatically tells me I'm going to get the best service ever, from the best "international hair stylist".

I say "do you have any idea what you're doing?" ...and then out loud I say "great."

I sit in the chair, and he begins to buzz my hair. I asked him for a "metal 1 and a half", which is the guard that gives me my desired hair length. He pauses, clearly confused, and says "oh don't worry, I know which one is right for your head". I worry.

He picks through a small bag of guards, pulls out a plastic red one, and goes to work. Oddly enough, it's actually the right size, and I'm starting to have more confidence in Mike - maybe he really is an "international hair stylist". The haircut goes well - he has good form with the clippers, and seems to cut everything evenly. Thomas's guy is talking loudly on the cell phone while he finishes cutting hair, and at one point he even leaves the shop to talk to someone outside, leaving Thomas in the chair.

So the haircut is done, and it's time for the shave. Now, I've never done this before, and the only frame of reference I have is what I've seen on TV and in the movies. I picture a man with a waxed moustache, a white apron, bald head, and a razor sharp enough to split a hair in half. Instead, I have a sweaty, loud, "international hair stylist" with a pack of disposable razors, not even Bic. He reminds me of 'Tyrone' the homeless guy from "In Living Color". I'm already in the chair, he's already applied the shaving gel with his fingers - I'm committed to this now, but I'm starting to regret it already.

Mike proceeds to tell me how he's going to shave down first, with the hair, then up against the grain to get a good smooth shave. It all sounds good in theory, and he goes to it.

Everything goes well until he gets to my neck.

Somewhere along the way, the shaving gel has disappeared, and now he just uses a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol. He forgets to go with the grain on my neck, and goes straight to against-the-grain. With each stroke, my eyes tense up, my face squirms, and my neck cries in agony. This is not going to be good.

A few painful minutes later, my neck is good and bloody, and the neck muscles hurt because there's no headrest, so my head has been flopping around.

Now it's time for the recovery, and Mike tells me (nervously) that this isn't a big deal, and always happens a little bit. My neck looks like a scene from a horror movie, bleeding profusely. MORE ALCOHOL, Mike thinks, and sprays me down again. OUCH.

Then he takes the brush covered with talc, and brushes that on. My neck is now a strange mix of blood, alcohol, and talc. It's a talcahol mess.

About 15 minutes later, he gets the bleeding to stop enough to get me out of the shop, but my entire neck is powder white from the many applications of talc. It looks like I ate a powdered donut with my chin. I hand him the whole $17 for both spa-worthy treatments, and head home.

Now a few days later, the cuts have healed, the talc has long since washed away. The hair has re-grown on my neck, and the red bumps have settled. Do I regret going to Harlem for a cut and a shave? Not at all. I got to experience a true international hair stylist, and the trip home was possibly the only time I was given ample personal space on the subway. Next time, however, I think I'll find a Dominican for the shave.

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