My Barber Left New York City Before I Did

For nearly 10 years, my haircuts were cheap and they were good. To me, in fact, they were excellent. I got them from a barber named Gasper (from the Italian, Gaspare) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Most of the trips I took to Gasper’s came after I had moved out of the neighborhood to South Brooklyn. Other customers trekked further than me—from Hicksville, Long Island or from towns in New Jersey. Others had been customers for longer than my nine years. Some had gotten their hair cuts or shaves or shoulder massages (yes, he did shoulder massages with an old school, hand-held, vibrating machine) by Gasper for decades.

His shop is closed now, though. I found out one Saturday in June. I was behind schedule and rushing to his shop at 4:45 PM. He closed at 5:00 PM sharp on each day the shop was open. As I approached, I saw the blinds drawn. The blinds, when taken together, were patterned after the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. I stood on the sidewalk and cursed: both at my poor planning and at the fact that I’d made the trip and would have nothing to show for it.

But some impulse led me to climb the stone steps, walk to the silver metal door, and test to see if it was locked. When I pushed on the door, much to my amazement, it slid open. Inside, the shop was shadowy and cast in a near-brown tint. Gasper stood sweeping hair along the tile floor. He looked up at me through his thick, square, frameless glasses. He was both surprised and nonplussed.

“I was about to close,” he said. His words merged and stuck together by his thick Italian accent, one that was warped by years of living in Brooklyn.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I’m late.”

He rested the broom against the counter where he kept his tools: the clippers, the blue disinfectant, the electric razors. Then he shrugged. “I was busy all day, but I’m about to close,” he said. “I’m about to close for good, you know?” The way he said, “you know,” wasn’t a way of asking me if I had heard about the news, but merely a phrase that he added on to every other sentence when he spoke to you while you were sitting in the barber’s chair or waiting your turn on the worn-in, brown, leather couch.

My heart dropped, which took me by surprise. He’d been my barber for almost a decade. Sure, I knew he had just turned 70. And sure, he’d mentioned retiring soon. But I’d just had my hair cut two months ago. It seemed so sudden.

“Closing for good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Closing for good—June 14th. I’m retiring, so you can get your last haircut from me now.”

***

I started going to Gasper’s shop in the fall of 2009. I had been living in Williamsburg for little over a year. I’d passed by Gasper’s on my way to McCarren Park and decided to give it a shot. His shop was on the first floor of a trademark Williamsburg rowhouse along Leonard Street. It was a white-sided building that looked as if it was built at the height of the 1950s or 1960s. The doorway stood at the top of a small set of stone steps. The front of the shop was comprised of a large, Plexiglass window and was normally shaded by a dark blue, roll-out awning.

It’s hard to recall my first visit to the shop. After so many haircuts and so much time spent sitting beneath the fluorescent, overhead lights, the memories start to blur together. What I do remember is that from the moment I stepped into Gasper’s barber shop, it checked off all of my requirements: it was cheap at $15 for a standard men’s haircut; the atmosphere felt like a Brooklyn Italian Men’s clubhouse from the early 1960s; and after giving Gasper very vague instructions about the way I wanted my hair cut, he gave me the clean, neat results that I was looking for.

From then on, Gasper was my barber. While I lived in Williamsburg, before work in the morning, I would run by his shop as part of my jogging route. On many of those days, I would see him through the Plexiglass window of the shop setting up for the day. I’d pass by and wave and he would glance at me for a moment, determining who the hell this young guy was that was waving at him, then smile in recognition and wave back. Whenever I dropped by for my next haircut, as I sat in the chair, he’d ask me how I could jog so much. I’d tell him, shyly, that I did it to help me stay in shape now that I was getting older. He’d grab his round stomach through his white, button-down shirt (he always wore white button down shirts, sometimes with light stripes, but more often just plain white) and say, “Yeah, me too. I should do some running.”

***

By 2012, it was time for me to leave Williamsburg. My close friends, those I had spent plenty of late nights and leisurely Sunday afternoons and evenings with, had either moved from New York or were starting to discuss, with seriousness and a sense of vague frustration, their plans to move soon.

My apartment in Williamsburg had been a center of activity for four years, full of plenty of parties where friends, friends of friends, strangers—and once, a homeless man—had wandered through my door, drank the cases of beer I had bought, and then left, leaving their footprints from the black tar of the roof on the white, tiled kitchen floor.

But it seemed that period of my life was ending, or needed to end. I didn’t want to wait around to feel the ghosts of past Sunday barbecues and hours spent lounging on the couch or floor listening to records wrap around me and chill me with dread. I wanted to get ahead of all that dull pain. It was all fun, for a time, but it had begun to feel like there was nothing new to learn, no way to grow or change.

So, I moved out of the neighborhood to South Brooklyn. By some dumb luck, I had found a rare, great deal on a studio apartment in Boerum Hill. In New York, sometimes just moving into a new neighborhood can have the same effect as relocating to an entirely new state.

Once I moved, for a brief moment, I thought about going to a new barber. But I immediately, thought the better of it. Gasper was a part of the “Williamsburg” phase of my life that I was going to take with me.

So, whenever I needed a haircut, I would jump on the G train on a Saturday and take the ride to Gasper’s. My commitment was such that even when G service was disrupted or stopped at Bedford-Nostrand, I would take the bus or an alternate subway route to get there. In my mind, no one could give a better haircut than Gasper.

On those scattered Saturdays throughout the year, I walked the streets of Williamsburg, in the area surrounding the Lorimer Street station, hoping to avoid someone I knew, at each corner thinking I saw a ghost from my past, and looking forward to my haircut at Gasper’s.

***

Over time, I got to know the rhythms and particularities of Gasper’s shop, his customers, and Gasper himself. Gasper is on the shorter side, maybe 5’5” at most. He has closely cut grey hair, those large, frameless glasses, a large chin with a square jawline, and a large, reddish, sloping, round nose. Beside one of the mirrors in his shop, there was an old photo of him taken in either in the late 1960s or early 1970s where he has a thick head of black hair that swoops down across his forehead. In the picture, his large chin has a small, but clear cleft. Every year, he would take a vacation with his family back to Italy. Sometimes it was to an apartment he kept in Naples, or other times it was to Sardinia.

Along the counter where he kept his tools, there were pictures of his family, his grandchildren mainly. Though I couldn’t keep an accurate count, based on our conversations I believe he had two daughters. One of them was married to a man who ran Spanish restaurants on both Long Island and in Manhattan. One of his grandkids, the one whose picture I will remember most vividly, had a thick head of red hair and a face full of round freckles. I saw that picture so many times, that when his grandson came to the shop one Saturday to get his haircut, it was almost like seeing some kind of minor celebrity.

The shop itself was not much to speak of. It was a decent-sized room with two barber chairs. One of the chairs was never used, except for one summer where Gasper had a young nephew of his visiting from Italy who was looking to open up his own shop. That only lasted for about three months before nephew disappeared. He was gone, “back to Italy,” as Gasper said. In its own way, that brief episode reminded me of Furio coming to New Jersey on The Sopranos.

Next to the main part of the room, separated by a small, wooden changing partition, was a little sitting area with a table and a tiny bathroom. Gasper took his breaks and brief meals at the table. There were times when I would come into the shop when it was empty and Gasper would be nowhere to be found. After a few seconds, most likely once he sensed there was a customer, he would emerge either with part of a sandwich in hand or a napkin still tucked into the neck of his shirt and tell me to sit down in the barber chair. Other times, on very busy days, with a room full of waiting customers, he would tell everyone that he just needed ten minutes or so to have “a little something to eat.” We’d all wait for the haircuts to resume, listening as Gasper ate behind the wooden partition.

And there was the little silver TV that he had set up on the far side of the counter, right in front of the mirror. During my visits, the TV would be playing either Italian News, Italian soccer, CNN, Fox News, closed-circuit horse racing, or he would use its built-in DVD drive (yes, it was one of those TV models) to play a CD full of covers of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin songs, usually in English, but sometimes in Italian.

The clientele that passed through his barber shop varied. There were other twentysomethings like me, some with thick, black-framed glasses or self-cut jean shorts or thin chinos cuffed for bike riding that were clearly transplants. Those customers spoke to Gasper with a reserved, but earnest politeness. During one of my visits, I was sitting next to one of these types of customers. I glanced next to me, looking up from reading one of Gasper’s copies of The Daily News, and thought I recognized the man sitting next to me. Looking in the mirror, I could make out the man’s face a little better from his reflection. I knew exactly who it was, one of the lead singers from one of my favorite Brooklyn-based bands. They had just released an album that had gotten rave reviews, nearly universal acclaim. I thought of something to say to him, some simple compliment or observation about the album. Then, I noticed what he was reading—it was one of Gasper’s copies of Playboy. I decided to let him read and wait in peace.

Then there were other guys who appeared close to my age with loose collared shirts, thick forearms, and closely trimmed heads that spoke to Gasper as if they had known him since they were kids. And, of course, there were the middle-aged or older men who came in and had their hair cut or their necks shaved or their shoulders massaged wearing full tracksuits. They wore their tracksuits so that the front zipper was pulled down just enough to expose their chest hair. These men spoke to Gasper in raspy voices that suggested years of cigar and cigarette smoke. Gasper would talk with them about how the neighborhood had changed, or they would complain about their wives, or they would brag about their girlfriends. Gasper would, from time to time, tell me that he had a girlfriend that he kept on the side, but I never saw any evidence and for some reason I always felt he was lying.

Once, when Gasper was leisurely giving one of these men a haircut, they both reminisced over a murder that had happened near Gasper’s shop years ago. The way they spoke about it had all the cliches of a mob movie.

“You remember that guy.”

“He was always talking.”

“Yeah, but he was that other guy’s cousin.”

“It couldn’t have been helped.”

Sometimes, sitting and listening to these conversations caused my imagination to run wild. I’d picture, with horror, someone coming into the store and shooting Gasper, an old neighborhood mainstay who’s hair he was cutting, and then the rest of us innocent bystanders just to make sure there were no witnesses to a settling of a score. This occasional paranoia never ran deeper than when I went in for a haircut during the winter one year. There had just been a snowstorm. I sat in the chair and waited for Gasper to start cutting my hair. In the front window, I noticed a little circular hole letting cold air in. I stared at it as Gasper began to buzz my neck and trim my hair. I wondered what had caused the hole. The circle was too perfect. Yes, it had to be.

“What happened there?” I asked, nodding to the window.

Gasper put a halt to the haircut and stood next to me staring at the window. He frowned and pursed his lips. Then he turned to me and looked down, almost smiling.

“A rock,” he said.

“A rock?”

“Yeah, you know? When it snows sometimes it kicks up rocks.”

I nodded and dropped the subject.

Eventually, Gasper started housing a bird in his shop. It was a green and yellow parakeet that sat in a white cage. Sometimes he’d keep the bird by the window. Other times, he’d sit it on a little folding table next to the couch where his customers waited for their hair to be cut. After a few years, I could never really remember where the bird came from—it was just there. Originally, though, I think it had belonged to his grandson, but Gasper was the one who ended up taking care of it.

Around Christmas and New Year’s, Gasper always kept a collection of liquor bottles out on the folding table where he sometimes sat the parakeet. He’d line up Johnnie Walker Black, Sambuca, Dewar’s, a cheap bottle of Remy Martin, and a dusty bottle of amaretto. Whoever passed through Gasper’s shop at that time either sat with a little plastic cup of liquor in hand while they waited, or took a drink with him once their haircut was done. He took little sips, especially when he was busy. You always left your haircut during that time of the year feeling like it was the best one yet. It wasn’t the drink talking, it was something about the shop, the way Gasper made you feel like you were cleaning up for the holidays. Even if you dreaded Christmas or New Year’s, you were getting a haircut, you were putting your best foot forward.

***

Gasper cut my hair for nearly ten years, but I never told him my name. Over almost a decade, I watched Gasper’s grandchildren grow, purely from the pictures he placed next to his front mirror. He gave me haircuts with one arm in a sling after he had a slip and fall accident in the shower when he was vacationing in Sicily one winter. I asked him about his physical therapy and he asked me how I stayed so thin and if I was still running every day. But over that entire period of time, I never told him my name.

I’m still not sure exactly why I never did. Part of it was most likely tied to my desire to remain anonymous, which is probably itself one of the reasons I live in New York. I know there is some urge deep inside of me that craves not being known. I don’t like going to the same bars or restaurants frequently. I don’t like the idea of someone recognizing me or my order. Maybe it has to do with some deep-rooted insecurity I have of being unoriginal or boring.

Maybe it was the same thing that drove me to leave Williamsburg in the first place, some small way of feeling like I wasn’t doing the same thing over and over again, which in fact I was. Repetition and familiarity can be comforting things in life and, generally, I am a creature of habit. But for some reason, allowing Gasper to know who I was, even just my name, felt like an intrusion on my privacy, on my chance at anonymity, on my ability to decide one day to disappear into the masses of the city to never be seen again—as unlikely as that last decision would ever be.

Perhaps even more pathetically, after I realized that I had been getting my haircut there for a few years but had never given him my name, I took a sense of pride in being this unnamed customer who came in every other month, got the same haircut, tipped well, and then was gone again only to return two months later. I watched as long-time customers came in and greeted Gasper and caught up about their families; I watched as new customers came in and told Gasper their names and that they were going to come back to him for haircuts from now on. I watched all this and still felt pleased with the fact that he did not know my name. What did it matter if he knew who I was?

***

When Gasper finished with my last haircut on June 9th, he held a small, black framed mirror up behind my head to show me the finish he had done to the back of my hair.

“You should take a picture of this,” he said. “Show it to the next guy who cuts your hair.”

“What am I going to do now?” I said.

Gasper shrugged, took the black apron off me, whisking away the remaining hairs, and waved his hand, indicating that I could stand and that the haircut was now complete.

“So it’s off to Naples now,” I said.

“Yeah, we’ll see how it goes. I might be back. I gotta sell the apartment upstairs.” During his time running the shop, Gasper had rented one floor above the apartment and had lived in another floor with his wife.

“No one’s interested?”

“Nah,” he said. “With this train closing down. The L train.” He always said L train with a strange mixture of formality and brusqueness, as if he was fighting, but not too hard, to mask his disgust for how the neighborhood had changed. “I can’t get anybody to buy the place.”

I nodded and thought about how the Williamsburg boom, which I had rode into Brooklyn on originally back in 2008 when it was already in the middle or potentially past its height, was maybe over for good. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just a brief pause while the L train underwent a year or two of repairs. Most likely, things wouldn’t change. But both things were possible, neither would surprise me.

“You want a drink?” Gasper said. He pointed to the bottles he had lined up: instead of for the holidays, these were for his farewell tour. I told him that I would love a drink. He picked up a bottle of Remy Martin. This time, it was a bottle of Remy Martin XO. “This is Remy Martin XO,” Gasper said. He held the bottle in his hand for a moment, regarding it. Then he poured me a small, clear plastic cup full and dropped just a splash into a cup for himself. We touched cups and toasted to his retirement. I took a drink and waited to finish the rest.

“Give me your number,” Gasper said, suddenly. He walked over toward the counter with his supplies and pulled out a black book. “If I come back, I want to call up all my old customers and tell them where my new shop is.”

I walked over and took a pen from him. I flipped through the small address book, passing a few pages with names and numbers written in blue or black ink. As soon as I found some white space, I bent down and began to write out my name and number. Gasper stood nearby and watched. When I was finished, he peered over and looked down at the page, his thick, frameless glasses inching down his nose.

“Matt Domino,” he said. He put the emphasis on the first part of my name so that the “i” sounded like it had an accent. It gave my name a greater sense of drama than it actually has. Gasper turned and looked at me. “For all these years, I never knew your name. Now I do,” he said.

I shook my head, slightly embarrassed and finished my drink. I was never sure if he wondered about me or the fact that he never knew my name. But I did now.

With the slightly vanilla taste of the Remy Martin XO in the back of my mouth, I took out my wallet and pulled out forty dollars. Gasper’s haircuts had creeped up in price over the years. They were now $25, just on the outer reaches of being truly cheap. I handed him the money and then told him to keep it.

Gasper looked up at me with his big chin, his large nose, and his thick glasses. Then he smiled. He held out his arms and gave me a gentle hug, the way he always did when I left his shop after a haircut.

“The best,” he said. This is what he always said after I gave him a tip.

“Good luck with everything,” I said. “Enjoy your retirement.”

“I might be back,” he said.

“I hope so,” I said. “I don’t know where I’ll ever get a haircut again.”

He nodded, still smiling, then walked me to the door. I stepped out into the late afternoon sun. We waved once more and then he returned back behind the silver door and the red, green, and white shade that covered the front windows of his store.

***

As I made my way down Leonard Street, walking among the roadwork that had been abandoned for the weekend, I caught my reflection in a car window. My hair looked good, the way it always did after a haircut from Gasper. I felt handsome and young, even though I was nearly 33 and no longer 24, the way I had been when I first started going to Gasper.

Looking around at the rowhouses that I had passed for years, I realized how quiet the neighborhood felt. It was generally quiet on Saturday afternoons, but for some reason, on that day, it felt like the evacuation of Williamsburg had already begun. On Metropolitan Avenue, I passed new restaurants, coffee shops, and nail salons that had never existed when I lived in the neighborhood. The streets and storefronts had changed and would continue to change as people left the neighborhood or left the city entirely and made way for new people to move in, fresh from college or wherever they were before to start on their own adventure or vision of Brooklyn, of New York City. Everything would continue to change even as I moved to a new apartment somewhere else in South Brooklyn most likely, or eventually, to another town or state.

Then, I thought about how much I had changed since I’d started going to Gasper for my haircuts. I’d changed jobs four times, moved apartments twice, failed to publish two novels, saw many of my best friends leave the city or get married, tried to start my own blog, fallen in and out love with the wrong people, and only recently found someone who I might truly might be in love with.

But still, I was about to be 33, and even as all those other things in Williamsburg and in my life had changed, I didn’t feel much different than the way I was when I first started going to Gasper. I drank and went out less, my job paid a whole lot better, but I was still the same person, prone to the same vanities and weaknesses, the same delusions I had nearly a decade before.

Gasper’s shop closing was a shock. He was leaving New York now too, most likely for good. Along with my own personal hang-ups, he had been one of the lone constants in my life in New York. Now, that constant was gone. As I approached the entrance for the G train I worried if I would ever find another barber that I loved and trusted as much again.

That person won’t be the same as Gasper. The haircuts will be different even if they look the same. I thought I would leave New York before Gasper closed his shop, that I would disappear one day and leave him wondering where the trim kid who used to run by the store went.

Photo Credit: Calitri Sponz Fest via Wikimedia Commons 

About the author

My name is Matt Domino and I am the Director of Editorial Operations and Growth at Artsy Editorial. My non-fiction work has appeared in The Outline, The Millions, Splitsider, and The Paris Review. My fiction has also appeared in Slice.

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