Better Grooming

My Grandfather, the Barber

The soul of a barber and the fragrant, nostalgic aroma of bay rum and hair tonic and hot shaving cream.

My grandfather came to America in 1905 with several other young men from Castellammare del Golfo, a seaside town about an hour’s drive northwest of Palermo, the capital of Sicily. He was 18, and already a schooled barber. He quickly found work, and eventually opened his own barbershop on Church Avenue in Brooklyn.

If my grandfather were alive today and happened to read the recent news that French President Francois Hollande pays his barber more than $10,000 a month to cut his hair, I know exactly how he would’ve reacted. He’d have looked up from the newspaper, his jaw slack in amazement, and uttered a Sicilian word I’d heard him use several times: “Daveru!?!”


I’m also certain he’d shake his head in wonder at the prices some barbers are charging today right here in New York City. It is not uncommon for a barber (excuse me, stylist) in a high-end barbershop (uh, salon) to charge $300 for a haircut, more for extras like straightening and a color touch-up (oops, I mean toning).

“I maintain that men’s prices should be the same as women’s.”—Daveru!?!

“I maintain that men’s prices should be the same as women’s,” Tim Robbins, a stylist at Sally Hershberger’s downtown New York salon, recently told the New York Times. Robbins charges a minimum of $400—and as much as $800—for a men’s haircut. Nice work if you can get it, huh? And if you get it, you might one day earn enough to buy a condo in Palm Beach.

My grandfather lived above his barbershop with my grandmother and his three children: Martin (my late father), Joseph and Carmela. He was short and bald, and his merry eyes reflected a warmth and decency that won him a legion of friends among the Castellammarese and other Sicilians in Brooklyn and beyond. Like most barbers of his day, he charged something like 15 cents for a shave and 25 cents for a haircut. His barbershop had three chairs, and he hired two barbers to work with him. As a boy, my father sometimes entertained the barbershop’s customers with his violin on Saturday mornings, and he recalled that several of those customers were Brooklyn Dodgers players, including future Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance.

My grandfather soldiered on during much of the Depression. But hard times forced loyal customers to get fewer haircuts and to shave themselves at home, convincing him to hang up his scissors and clippers. He sold his barbershop to a man who worked for him, partnered with one of his brothers-in-law in a funeral parlor, and moved his family to another part of Brooklyn—Bushwick Avenue, not far from his barbershop. Several years later, the little violinist had become a doctor and married, and in 1946, I was born and named Peter, after my grandfather. And when the time came, he whipped out his trusty old scissors to give me my first haircut, a rite of passage that my brothers and cousins also experienced at his hands.

“That was a very good haircut. I feel so refreshed!”

Pete the Barber died in December 1971, just shy of his 85th birthday. For the last dozen or so years of his life, he lived with his daughter Carmela’s family in Douglaston, New York, a few blocks from my own family’s home. Now and then, I’d drive him to the neighborhood barbershop for a haircut. Like him, the barber was from the old country, and they’d converse in both English and Sicilian, often to the dismay of the waiting customers who’d grumble about the lengthening minutes it was taking to trim the nearly naked terrain of my grandfather’s head. Once, when I drove him home from the barbershop in my battered red Oldsmobile convertible with the top down, he patted the sides of his bald head, and proclaimed: “That was a very good haircut. I feel so refreshed!”

I laughed inside, but later came to understand what I think my grandfather was actually telling me. He had been transported back to his days as a young man, days when he was a barber, and it had delighted him to share the wisdom of his craft with a fellow barber and paisano, to feel the soft brushing of talc on the nape of his neck, to smell the fragrant, nostalgic aroma of bay rum and hair tonic and hot shaving cream.

You see, I believe it was Pete the Barber’s heart and soul that were refreshed on that long-ago summer afternoon, and I am forever grateful I got to play a part in it.