Want a Dose of Reality? Ask a Barber.

I come from a line of barbers on my mother’s side of the family. Her older brother, Michael Fasano, spent his whole adult life in Madison, New Jersey, where he was known as “Mike the Barber.” His son Frank has told me many stories about his dad who was a fixture in the city and respected as a solid guy. Since Uncle Mike rarely made it out to Long Island, NY, where I grew up, I can only remember one haircut he gave me when I was a kid. Actually, that task had fallen to Papa Roberto, my paternal grandfather, who used clippers that he squeezed together like a vice as he ran it over my scalp, often taking some skin along with the hair. Fortunately, I eventually made it back to the Fasano side of professional barbers. From high school through most of my college years, my uncle Matthew D’Andria, who was married to my mom’s sister, Anna, cut my hair with great expertise until he died of a heart condition related to barbering – holding up his arms all day long against the doctor’s advice.  A few times in boyhood, my father took me to a local barber who happened to be our next door neighbor. That was Sam Lumia, another Italian who considered himself an intellectual because he often quoted Voltaire and other philosophers while laying deft hands on gleaming scissors to take aim at my waves.

Here’s the thing. All the barbers who ever cut my hair always had much to say about wide ranging matters that boiled down to life in general, the issues or problems of the moment, or “what makes people tick,” a New Yorkism of earlier times. This includes two guys, Clint and Richard, who cut my hair regularly at the Lawndale Barber Shop not long after I arrived in Greensboro in 1980. That lasted until about 17 years ago when I accompanied Sharon to a salon just off Battleground and watched a woman cut a man’s hair with greater skill than I had ever seen before. I made an appointment that day with Ellie Alinaghi, the only person who has styled – not just cut – my hair ever since and also a good friend who should have a degree in psychology. You should see it now, Ellie. As my mother used to say when my hair got too long, they’ll need a mower to cut it down.

Shawn Walden

This week I interviewed Shawn Walden at his shop, Master Kutz, on the corner of Bessemer Avenue and Westside Drive. Of course, like all barber shops and salons in North Carolina, his remains closed while other businesses have reopened under Phase 1 of Governor Roy Cooper’s plan. Walden offered me a clear understanding of the hardships he’s endured during the shutdown and the challenges he faces when he finally reopens, which he believes will happen in the next few weeks.

Walden has been at this location in East Greensboro for nine years and enjoyed a strong and steady clientele up until COVID-19 brought the crash. When he opened the front door for the first time in over a month, he discovered that the TV set was still on. I quickly sized up the interior. It’s the real thing, I thought, immediately flashing back to Uncle Matty’s shop when he cut my hair in Plainview, New York, back in the sixties and seventies. Five chairs all spaced equally apart, the long mirror stretching the wall behind the chairs. The neatly arranged bottles of liquids one sees in these traditional barbershops looked strangely familiar and far from the feminine touch of the salon where Ellie does my hair.

The last two months have been agonizing for Walden.  Like most small businesses in America, he hasn’t gotten a penny of the $10,000 he is eligible for from the federal Small Business Administration. “I’m on the IRS website every day trying to get the stimulus,” he said. Also, he still hasn’t collected unemployment from the state though he applied a month and a half ago. With his young daughter sitting quietly nearby, Walden said he and his family were doing okay because they’ve been able to manage their money pretty well so far. “But help from government on stimulus and unemployment would really be a plus,” he said.

As for reopening, Walden said that he and the other barbers who work in the shop as independent contractors are planning a staff meeting to deal with what he calls “the new normal” when the shop reopens. For one thing, they will “break tradition” by ending the walk-in business so vital to a barber shop and move to scheduled appointments. I asked him how he felt about five barbers, all men, each with a client in his chair at the same time. To this Walden pointed to the equal space between each chair. To me they looked less than six feet apart, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask him more about it. Walden is a serious guy who does not deserve quibbles. He assured me sincerely of his plan to ensure as much safety as possible for barbers and clients alike. Everyone will wear some kind of face covering, preferably a mask. He’s bent on “extra, extra sanitation.” There will be hand sanitizer at the door. “Barbers always wash their hands,” he said firmly, adding that he believes clients will “follow the barbers’ lead” when it comes to safety.

Everything in the shop will be wiped down constantly. Walden told me he is hoping to line up a professional cleaning crew to come in and prepare for the reopening. But this and other necessities will depend on what the budget allows, and here the question of federal stimulus aid is crucial.

For one thing, Walden made clear that the other barbers, all independent contractors, normally pay for their own supplies, and those costs have gone up throughout the supply chain. Moving to appointments also causes prices to rise because none of the barbers can count on the walk-in traffic that brings them steady daily earnings. Once again, aid from the SBA could make a big difference. “If the federal government would give small businesses like mine the funds they need, the owner could afford to buy all the supplies rather than putting it on the independent contractor.” The latter would be relieved of that burden. “So then I wouldn’t have to raise prices,” he said.

I asked him what other challenges he faced. He thought a bit before answering. “People have to understand the importance of being patient and understanding the rules.” The move to appointments will be difficult for people who are used to walking in and sitting until it’s their turn. “Why can’t I get a haircut?” he imagined someone saying in a state of utter frustration. This is the new normal, he said, and the rules must be followed to ensure safety for everyone in the shop.

I gently pressed him about how he felt about reopening the shop and what it meant for him personally. “I think about the nightmare,” he said. “The dangerous part of our job is the close proximity with our customers. I talked to a couple of my barbers. We’re afraid. We’re terrified. But we have to provide for our families. There’s no other way. We can’t live off unemployment and the stimulus is only a start.”

My last question was somewhat provocative but I had to raise it. Who do you think is responsible for all this, I asked? He thought about it carefully. “I don’t hold anybody responsible for this,” he said. “Nobody has concrete evidence where it came from, how it started. But I do hold people responsible who have the vaccine and don’t release it.”

Next Week

I will be out of commission for the next two weeks due to eye surgery. I am happy to report that my wise friend, Al Brilliant, who owns and manages the Glenwood Community Bookshop a few doors down from THE PROJECT, will be filling this space. I hope you will read what he has to say. I certainly will when I can open my eyes and, hopefully, see the world better than I do now.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.