If not for the classic red, white and blue rotating stripes on its barber poles, the Mayfair barbershop on 39th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues might go unnoticed among its garish neighbors. Fabric stores and notions shops clutter the view, along with the other big business in the area: Porn. The sex shops and "XXX" theaters easily beat Mayfair when it comes to self-promotion.
Rafael Cruz, the owner and one of Mayfair's six barbers, doesn't mind sacrificing his shirt-sleeve as he buffs the barber's pole between customers. "Look around! There's no end to it. Everywhere there's dirt," Cruz says with a sweeping gesture of his arms. He dodges two garment racks, barely escaping with his life. "I'm not even safe on my own doorstep," he says.
For Cruz, dirt is a living, breathing entity whose aim is to make his life hell. Out of the corner of his eye he notices that the shop's name, painted in gold, is starting to flake. He winces and, speaking rapidly to himself in Spanish, moves in for closer inspection.
Cruz's fastidiousness may once have been a common sight in New York, but these days it's so rare it's been known to prompt spontaneous applause from passersby.
When the boss is away visiting family in Puerto Rico or even when he's outside cleaning fly specks off the window, he counts on his fellow barber, Rocco Battista, to look out after the shop.
Rocco's body is a testament to 45 years of his wife's home cooking--he's all soft edges. His facial features are smooth, sagging a bit, but it's a kind visage. Hard-earned dark circles hang beneath his eyes. Thick glasses ride low on his nose, making his eyes look bigger and friendlier. He's bald except for a small patch on the side of his head--barely enough to cut.
He began his career at 15 in his native Naples, Italy, always hoping to come to America, but never expecting it to happen. Now he is part of the bricks and mortar of New York City. His boss, as well as the tonsorial cognoscenti, call him "the best barber in Midtown."
Fifty years ago, when Mayfair first opened, the difference between success and failure seemed to be the personal touch people invested in their work. The local barber who could boast, "I cut your father's hair," is no longer part of our lives. But this is Mayfair's credo.
Haircuts cost eight bucks at Mayfair--unlike everything else in the world, there's no catch here. Don't confuse the bargain price with some inferior, low-budget franchise; no one will ask you if you got a free bowl of soup with a Mayfair haircut.
The shop's interior is square. The street side has two large windows, with a front entrance dividing them. Two walls are covered by mirrors and fronted by three barber's chairs; a seventh chair resides in the center of the shop.
Most of the wall-space is taken up with prints of New York as it looked 50 years ago, small posters showing out-dated hairstyles, and a couple of expired calendars that haven't been removed. You won't find any designer products, just the old-school Clubman brand gel. When asked if hes heard of Paul Mitchell, Rocco responds, "Didn't he play for the Mets?"
They still use Pinaud Haircare goodies in their Spartan green canisters--check in your grandpa's medicine cabinet to see what they look like. Combs are placed in sterile blue liquid, and talcum powder is stored in tin canisters that resemble big salt shakers. On a countertop, an Oster shaving cream dispenser foams out hot lather.
Tiny scissors, designed for ear and nose hair removal, are arranged in antiseptic-looking trays. Old nylon aprons with snaps at the neck are still used, as well as soft-bristled brushes that whisk your neck clean of hair when the job is done.
The finest pleasures you'll find at Mayfair are the professional shaves. Wielding meticulously sharpened straight-razors, the barbers' hands are as steady as a surgeons.
Mayfair is a cultural melting pot where customers feel at home--unlike the subways and buses where a cross-section of society is thrown together, yet straphangers still tend to insulate themselves from their neighbors. On an average day, a street guy can find himself seated next to an Asian UPS worker, a Wall Street guy in $700 loafers, or a newly arrived immigrant hustling garments on racks. The clientele clearly appreciates the opportunity to ease back and soak up the scene. Even if the People magazine is from last January, it's fun to wait your turn at Mayfair.
Mayfair is a barbershop, not a beauty salon. Women customers are rare. When the occasional woman does come in, it's for a masculine haircut or one that demands clippers or a straight-razor.
If you arrive at the right time, you'll catch the regulars. Next to the door, beneath a faded poster of a Fonzi-lookalike advertising Vitalis, sits a lean black man with a sleek, shaved skull and white chin whiskers. A pork-pie hat rests on his knee.
"If you're looking to meet ladies, don't come here," he says. "The boss don't keep no blue hair dye in stock, dig? Ain't that right, Rocco?"
Rocco, bending over a customer whose neck he's shaving, responds in almost a whisper. "I will cut anyone's hair if they come in on time and pay. They can be ladies, too, or anything in between."
A young Russian barber, the greenest member of the staff, watches Rocco's hands, fully absorbed in his wizardry. "Look how smooth he is--like silk," he says. "When he uses the scissors, it looks like a hummingbird's wings."
The black man, half-listening, shrugs, and immediately changes the subject to his "old lady."
"She gets suspicious about what really goes on in this place," he tells an Asian man with doughy hands, holding a horse racing form. "She suspects its a front for a cat house."
This elicits raucous laugh from all the guys: "A cat house?"
The barbershop could be the last bastion of the figurative "boys' club" in New York, one which a woman would not wish to join, even if invited.
An old garmento with a gravelly Brooklyn accent, faintly smelling of cigars and Old Spice, has been going to the barbershop since the Nixon administration. He has an answer for everything. Over the course of an hour, his polemics range from "Why we blew it in Vietnam" to "Why we're blowin' today." He blows in like clockwork at 3 p.m. on Thursdays.
"It's a veritable fountain of youth, " he says of Mayfair. "Twenty years ago, I thought the Big Guy in the sky had Bernie Gootblatt's number, I tell you. With two bleeding ulcers and a bad ticker, I wasn't even gonna see Nixon run outta office! Now I kibitz and laugh. It makes the time pass easier. I don't look a day over 60, do I? It's the age I was when I started comin', so I ain't gonna stop now."
"Me too! I been regular eight years now," the Asian man pipes up. He habitually tries to join conversations with the words "me too"--so much so that it's become his nickname. He works as a stockboy at his uncle's grocery store up the street. "Everybody know my face here, everybody say, 'Hi!' Everybody listen, right, Rocco?"
Without looking up, Rocco, who is concentrating on his client's sideburns, confirms Me-Too's statement with a slow nod.
"The city can be a lonely place," the old black man says, looking down at his shoes. "Most of the good joints closed down."
Downtown billiard halls and late-night diners were where many of Mayfair's customers used to hang out.
"It is the Yuppster wiped out all the class in the city, isn't it, Rocco?" says the young Russian. "They call it sanitation, huh?"
"Sanitization," Rocco corrects him, his eyes on his client. "People don't change, only the words."
"Yuppsters! I don't know from Yuppsters," the garmento interrupts. "All's I know is: I'm a pastrami on rye with a malt. I think Cagney was the best damn actor ever was, I like a bourbon at night. See my point? That's what gets me through the day." He cranes his neck to see if his pals agree.
The regulars nod their heads, as if no finer truth has ever been spoken.
Suddenly, there's a commotion outside. Three large bodies collide at full-speed into the storefront window, like NBA players chasing a loose ball into the stands. WHACK! The barbershop window quakes but doesnt shatter; everyone in the barbershop recoils from the shock.
The guy on the bottom, a black man in standard-issue baggy clothes, takes the wallop of a forearm to the jaw. It sends him scurrying for shelter. He tries Mayfair's front door. The other two men, white with bristly goatees and buzz cuts, charge him. They're inside now.
Rafael Cruz drops his scissors and heads for the doorway. The two attackers drag their victim outside and bang the man's forehead on the cement as if it was a sandbag. They pull him to his knees. He struggles back, gets loose. A blur of legs and arms fly. Everything is motion. They're pushing him against the storefront window, trying to subdue him.
No bigger than a bantamweight but fighting like a heavyweight, Cruz jumps into the fray, easing them off his window, over to the adjacent concrete wall. The black man has nothing left. The two men lock his hands with plastic tie cuffs. It all happens in a matter of seconds. It's clear to everyone in Mayfair these guys are two undercover cops and a suspect. The black man's blood has streaked the window.
"Fuck! He's bleeding!" says one cop to the other. "Did he bite you?"
The same cop sees the suspect is choking. He had the "rock" in his mouth the whole time, trying to get it down. The cop grabs his throat, to stop him from swallowing the drugs and destroying his bust.
Everyone at the barbershop has an opinion to voice about the scene they've just witnessed--about the insanity and unpredictability of everyday life. As usual, Rocco has the last word.
"Outside, you never know what to expect. But nothing ever changes at the Mayfair."