August 17, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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The barbershop brotherhood

The haircut ritual has preceded every important event in my life. First dates, last dates, weddings, funerals, and court appearances all kicked off with a trip to Ness's Barbershop on Park Avenue.

          On April 28, 2005Ness's owner Ernie Orlando gave his last haircut. After 42 years behind the chair crafting countless high 'n' tights, Princetons, crew cuts, balboas, D.A.'s, and just-a-little-off-the-tops, he was hanging up his scissors and shutting his doors.

          "It was time," he says.

          No more clipping. No more snipping. It was time to enjoy retirement with his family, especially his two grandsons.

          Orlando is one of a vanishing breed. He is a true craftsman, an artist with a straight razor who amassed a huge, loyal following. Rarely did I trust my head to another barber.

          Consequently my hair's getting a little shaggy. Orlando has been my barber since I was a 16-year-old kid with a skyscraping pompadour. Now, out of nostalgia, or perhaps allegiance, I'm not getting a haircut.

          I'd have to choose someone new... and train 'em. Where would I start?

          "There's not a lot of barber shops because there are not a lot of barbers," says Orlando, who stresses there is still good money to be made by those drawn to it. "You ask any kid out of school today who's not college bound: Would you wanna be a barber? They'd laugh at you. It's not a glamorous enough job. It's not exciting. So nobody really wants to do it. But there is definitely a need."

          To this day, your haircut is an indication not only of your take on fashion but your musical, political, and social leanings. Just look at how many genres in music are identified by coif. Got an old picture and want to ballpark the date? Look at the haircuts.

          A lot of barbershops have been gobbled up by budget haircut chains, or gone unisex, but there're still a few good barbershops in town, many of them in the black community, where it seems like a new shop pops up every week.

          I'm talking about barbershops in the classic sense, where a man can get a no-frills haircut and discuss whatever's on his mind.

          The mere function of a haircut was --- and still is --- accented by jokes, political talk, and advice from a male point of view. The barbershop is where the word on the street swirls around with the clippings and where a young man can get good --- or bad --- advice on anything from cars to romance.

          The late John Bell, a barber at Ness's, set me straight one memorable occasion. I was getting a pre-date haircut when Bell suggested the sure-fire, can't miss soundtrack for any would-be Lothario: Johnny Mathis.

Just like a bartender, the barber is also in a position of confidant and confessor. Sometimes coming in for a haircut is just an excuse to hang and spill.

          "Sometimes you're a counselor, sometimes you're a friend," says Whitmore "Woody" Odonkor, who cuts hair at Just Like Water Barbershop on South Plymouth. "You know, sometimes you're a comedian, you might brighten somebody's day just coming in here."

          That's because Odonkor and fellow barber Jason Newton (complete with an electric clipper tattooed on his arm) never seem to stop smiling. They love what they do and love to talk.

          "We offer good conversation," Odonkor says. "The haircut's a component. To tell you the truth, sometimes it's the smallest part of what we do."

          It was no different when Orlando started.

          "My God," he says. "People would come in and spend hours sitting around talking after and before a haircut. Just kind of a social event."

          As a young man this was a kind of rite of passage. Amidst the semi-antiseptic blues and whites, old magazines, random pictures on the wall, the wafting Bay Rum and Clubman, and the buzzing and clipping, the barbershop experience was undeniable, unforgettable.

          It was the first place to hear really heated debates over things you never thought were debatable --- up to that point you had only heard your dad's side. I mean, Christ, I thought everybody liked Nixon. It was the first place you heard salty hybrids of vulgarity immediately followed by "don't tell your mother." It was the first time you laid eyes on a naked woman, thanks to musty copies of Playboy under the counter. And again: "Don't tell your mother."

          Paul Marrer, who cuts hair at Ted's Barbershop in Irondequoit, has been a barber for 37 years. At age four he was "the official broom man" at his dad's barbershop in East Rochester.

          "I got quite an education from being a little guy right on up spending time there," Marrer says. "It was like a men's club years ago where men would come read the paper, we'd have coffee and donuts, and they would sit around and talk politics, religion, or anything they felt like. Today women come into the shop and feel comfortable. Back then they didn't. It was exclusively for men."

          "It wasn't a thing for a woman," says Orlando. "It's just a stigma people had. The language in a barbershop --- you know how guys are when they get together. Now it's very accepted."

          Ted Szatkowski, the owner of Ted's Barbershop is now cutting hair for the third generation of some families. While we chatted he was busy giving a haircut to a man whose four little girls sat and enjoyed complimentary chocolate chip cookies while they waited.

          Back in the '50s and the '60s, women barbers were pretty much out of the question as well. Some people don't think that should change.

          "You can't have a woman as a barber," says Sam Polito, who also works at Ted's. "You can't be yourself. A man can't be himself."

Shifting hairstyle trends in the late '60s and early '70s were the first death knell for the traditional barbershop. Barbers had to adapt or close.

          "We went into the hippie movement, and all barbers were the bad guys then," Orlando says. "Everyone's growing their hair down to their shoulders. A lot of barbers went out of business then."

          By the time the trend came back around to short hair, a lot of the barbers were gone. The younger barbers that adapted survived.

          "I was a young man and I liked it," says Marrer. "I can still remember the argument at the union meeting. The young barbers were telling the old barbers, 'You gotta do styling.' The old barbers didn't want to change."

          Some just got out altogether, like Polito, who took a 21-year hiatus from barbering.

          "Well I didn't adjust," he says, "because I got out of the trade. That was the main reason I got out. I didn't wanna get re-educated in cutting long hair. I didn't care for it. Now it's almost back to where it was. The way it used to be."

          Despite waffling trends and established barbers like Orlando retiring, there's still a demand. And it's all in the title: barbershop.

          "My father told me never ever get rid of the word barber on your sign out front," Orlando says. "Because 90 per cent of the people just want a haircut. They don't want it washed. They don't want it teased and fluffed and blown. They want a haircut."

          Though some men may not admit it, a little exclusivity and pampering --- oh, let's say something like a manicure or a pedicure --- can be pretty sweet as well.

          Just over a year ago, The Men's Room opened on Monroe Avenue offering "an old-world barbershop for today's gentleman," according to owner Sherry Giler. "There's already enough for women," she says. "Men are special, too." The Men's Room is more of a spa, really, what with all its services and contemporary comforts. But its male-only clientele keeps it a barbershop.

          In the barbershop'sgolden age, shops were more ethnically centered simply because groups of immigrants lived within the same neighborhoods. You went to the neighborhood barber who usually spoke your language and shared your background.

          "A barbershop was more defined by neighborhood than the barber's origin," Orlando says.

          Within the black community barbershops seem to be popping up on every block. And though these shops are a little more flexible --- staying open into the evening, offering styling, braiding, and cutting women's hair, the idea of barbershop as social epicenter remains. Folks hang out at Vinney's Barbershop on Lake Avenue, but owner Vinney Dotson sets the tone.

          "I don't allow none of that knucklehead stuff," Dotson says, "cats hangin' on the corner, drinking, smoking weed." Dotson goes out of his way to help kids avoid the trouble he came from.

          "Sometimes we get parents come up in here, their kid's going through something," he says. "So we sit down and I talk to them, tell 'em that's not the road you really want to go."

          Dotson has been cutting hair since he was 13, at first practicing on sleeping drunks. He's been cutting hair professionally since 2000 after serving time in the federal pen for bank robbery. He now proudly enjoys a place of prominence and importance in his community.

          "Barbers are like community leaders," he says. "They know what's goin' on in the street. They're able to talk to kids that are going the wrong way."

          So as my hair approaches my shoulders, I ponder the options. I don't necessarily want to get a haircut yet, but I want to get the news, the what's what.

          Maybe I'll see if Orlando is willing to give me a trim in his garage someday. I suggest this to him and he laughs, but doesn't answer. Funny, his hair is getting kind of long, too.

          "I have not had a haircut since I left the shop in April," he says. "Eventually I'm going to have to go to a barbershop."

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