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Way Out in Brooklyn

Posted By Alex Belth On July 28, 2006 @ 6:11 am In Bronx Banter,Life in New York,Memoir,New York Minute,NYC | Comments Disabled

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Every time I approach my barber’s shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn, I expect to be greeted by awful news. My barber is too old to work anymore, or worse, he’s dead. I lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn from 1994 through 2000. One day I was looking for a barber shop, and I ran across Efrain. He came to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico in 1955. His father was a barber and his three older brothers were barbers too. He cut my hair with such care and patience that I have been a loyal customer ever since. It’s worth the two-plus hour roundtrip commute to the Bronx. Efrain, a silver-haired man with kind eyes and soft, smooth hands, no longer owns his own shop—he had to give his up five years ago, a victim of Smith Street’s rapid gentrification. He’s past retirement age but still works six days a week.

Now Efrain has a chair up the block from his old place, in a barber shop run by Ray, a self-absorbed Puerto Rican man in his mid-fifties. Ray’s shop is no longer cluttered mess it had been for years, as Ray’s daughter and her boyfriend use the space one a week to give dancing lessons. Three chairs stand in the middle of the space, and both walls are covered with mirrors. Ray has a trim mustache and likes to pontificate authoritatively about boxing, salsa music and women. When he is not holding court, he is sullen and removed as he works. Rays’ son Macho, a plump man in his early thirties with a thick scar on his left forearm, cuts heads too, his chair situated between Ray’s and Efrain’s.

It was overcast and muggy last Saturday morning when I arrived. Macho was walking out as I was walking in. I said my hellos and Efrain motioned to me, tilting his head forward and looking over his glasses, a pair of scissors in his raised right hand. Only three heads waiting in front of me, not bad for Saturday. I stuck my nose into my book. Old Salsa music played over the stereo. I didn’t recognize the tunes, but they were familiar anyhow. This was the music I heard up and down Amsterdam Avenue when I was a kid: Ray Barretto, Willie Bobo, Willie Colon, and Mongo Santamaria. Not ten minutes later, I was pleased to discover Efrain calling me to his chair.


Ray’s other son, Macho’s half-brother, a blubbery dark-skinned teenager named Joshua walked in the store. Ray asked where Macho was and his younger son told him that Macho was outside talking on the phone. “He’s talking to his friends on the phone?” Ray said accusingly. “We’ve got customers waiting here.”

“I didn’t say he was talking to his friends, I just said he was talking outside.”

Ray let it drop and became quiet. A few minutes later, Macho’s two boys, Luis and Aaron, both wearing shorts and new sneakers trooped through the shop. Luis looks to be about twelve. He is thin with a short, spiky haircut. He carried a toy air gun, with a long, clear shaft, filled with ping-pong balls. On his right hand, he wore a batting glove. His brother, no older than five or six, with a bushy head of dark hair, rambunctiously walked in front of him.

“Joshua, go outside and tell Macho we’ve got customers,” said Ray passively. All three boys noisily went back outside.

Efrain complained to me about a pain in his lower back. It was the first time in all the time that I’ve known him that I remember him complaining about his health. Maybe he’ll be dead next time I come, I thought. He told me that his son took him and his wife to see the new Superman movie in 3-D. I asked if he enjoyed it, amused by the thought of this kindly old man wearing 3-D glasses. He told me that it was garbage. “I prefer the cartoon,” he said. After a few moments he added that he liked the end of the movie when Superman discovers that Lois Lane’s child is his son.

Macho was gone for more than twenty minutes when the skies opened up and a hard summer rain began to fall. The boys, squealing with excitement buffaloed their way back in the shop. Their grandfather told them not to go back outside until the rain stopped. A few minutes later, Macho returned, completely dry. He brushed himself off, commenting loudly on the severity of the storm, wiped off his chair with a rag and called the next customer. His father remained silent.

After a few minutes Ray asked Macho what he wanted to order for lunch. Macho repeated the question to his sons, now huddled in the far corner of the shop next to the bathroom. Macho suggested rice and beans.

His eldest son walked past me and said that he wanted chicken and broccoli.

“We had that yesterday,” Macho said.

“No, YOU had that yesterday,” his son said pointing at his father his batting glove hand. He shot me a glance, aware that he was being a wise ass.

Ray told his fat, dark-skinned son to make the call.

“He wants spare ribs,” Macho says about his half-brother, laughing. “And pork fried rice.”

“I know that, but he’s not supposed to have that stuff, it’s not good for him,” Ray said to nobody in particular.

Efrain had finished the first part of my haircut with the electric buzzer. He excused himself and made a phone call in the corner, next to the bathroom, the children horsing around nearby. The little one was the loudest. He brushed past the barber chairs without a care. I tensed my body with each pass, waiting for him to knock into the chair, but it never happened.

The rain had now stopped. The little boy walked outside and Ray locked the door behind him. Everyone chuckled as the boy’s loud voice can be heard muffled outside. He banged on the door and pleaded and hollered. Several minutes later, his brother let him back in.

Efrain returned from his call and thanked me for my patience. The boys were back inside, screwing around. They were bored and restless and it was just a matter of time before a fight broke out. Efrain said something in Spanish to Macho, who then scolded his boys lightly (Efrain clearly didn’t approve of Macho’s lax parenting but knew that it was not his place to lecture the kids). Efrain redressed my apron, and then pressed a palm full of shaving cream into his hand from an old silver machine on the counter in front of my chair. The boys became louder. Efrain applied the shaving cream around my forehead and on the back of my neck and then put a new blade in his straight razor.

Just as he begun to work again, the youngest let out a cry. It is a short, loud burst, followed by a pause and then, boom: the waterworks. The boy walked slowly toward his father, arms by his side, mouth wide open, wailing.

“What happened?” says Macho.

The boy held up a pair of broken sunglasses.

“Who did this? Did you do this,” said Macho to his son with the batting glove. Luis confessed that he had broken the glasses.

“Why did you do it?”

“Dad, he was cursing at us.”

“I’m telling mom,” Macho said as if he were his son’s brother and not his father.

“Dad…he was cursing at us.”

Aaron leaned against the full-length mirror, just a few feet away from me. He was still crying when Macho suddenly walked across the room, grabbed his son’s air gun and violently snapped it in two over his knee. Ping Pong balls and fragments of clear plastic burst into the air. The young son did not dare move, tears still running down his face.

“You can play with your fucking dick now,” said Macho.

The shop was still. Macho picked up the parts of the gun, crossed the room and stuffed it in the garbage.

“How do you like it when someone breaks your toy?”

Aaron looked up at his father and said nothing. Salsa music played in the background. A calm settled over the place. Nobody said anything. Efrain, straight-razor still in hand, continued to work, unperturbed. It wasn’t until later that I even recognized that I was in a potentially dangerous position. But I have never thought twice about being cut by Efrain.

After a few moments the youngest returned to the corner and then let out six loud sneezes. Nobody responded. They were exaggerated. “AAA-Cho.” Finally, his grandfather said, “Are you alright, Aaron?” Aaron did not respond, but seem content that he had been noticed. He stopped sneezing. His brother commiserated quietly with his fat teenaged uncle in the corner, pleading his case, probably wondering what punishment his mother would have in store for him.

As Efrain finished my cut, Aaron spoke to his older brother for the first time since their father’s explosion. “Daddy is gunna fix my glasses.”

“Good for you.”

Joshua began sweeping up hair on the floor, and when his broom brushed against a stray ping pong ball, the clacking of the balls echoed throughout the shop.

II

On my way to the subway I decided to stop in on my favorite pork sausage store in the neighborhood. Run by two brothers, John and George (who took over the family business from their parents), the shop was a regular part of my weekly shopping when I used to live in Brooklyn. They have wonderful pickled eggplant and though I was short on cash, I just couldn’t return to the Bronx without a quarter pound for myself. As I walked to Court Street, I was reading an old Gay Talese essay about George Plimpton and the Paris Review posse called, “Looking for Hemmingway.”

 

And in giving so many parties, in giving out keys to his apartment, in keeping the names of old friends on the Paris Review masthead long after they have ceased to work for it, George Ames Plimpton has managed to keep the crowd together all these years, and has also created around himself a rather romantic world, a free, frolicsome world within which he, and they, may briefly escape the inevitability of being thirty-six.
 

I spent the majority of my twenties in Brooklyn as a bachelor and actively played the role of master of ceremonies. I kept friends together, from high school and college: had them over for dinner, organized small parties, encouraged them to move to Brooklyn. I eventually outgrew the role and am much happier at thirty-five in a committed relationship, far less hip, and with less of a social life.

I’ve stopped in on the John several times since I left Brooklyn, but Georgie has never been around. Salamis and sausages, and cheeses hang over the counter, alongside a series of framed photographs. Closest to the register is an autographed picture of James Gandolfini with a man that I don’t recognize.

The place was busy. Both John and George were there, along with two teenage boys. A large man in grey shorts stands in the corner, next to an old wooden chopping block talking to John. He was drinking a bottle of coffee soda, a gold ring in the shape of a crucifixion on his pinky. John, a handsome, grey-haired man with strong arms and a firm handshake asks me what is going on with the Yankees?

“I’m going to become a Mets fan,” he said.

“No you are not,” the fat man with the coffee soda replied.

George is talking to one of his sons on the telephone, his back to me. I am eager to see him. He is only three or four years older than me and I always enjoyed him because he was so vulnerable. A squat, but strong man, with faded green tattoos on his forearms, George resembles a cinder block version of the actor Ray Liotta. He was always bitter, angry that his life would never expand beyond the store and the neighborhood. I remember him calling Bernie Williams “a greedy nigger” when Williams was a free agent after the 1998 season. (John may have held the same beliefs but was always smart enough not to let on in front of strangers.) But in spite of his bigotry, George was always easy with a smile and good for conversation. His frustration seemed comic, almost appealing.

I didn’t notice that his phone conversation had ended when I looked back to him. Wearing a red shirt covered by a long white apron, he seemed to be ignoring me. I said hello and he shook my hand. It was a hollow shake. After a few minutes of cool discourse I realized that he was upset that I had left Brooklyn, left him (as if I had grown up in the neighborhood, instead of passing through for a few years). I told him that I always think of him when I watch the Nets, his favorite NBA team. The fat man with the pinky ring started talking about going to see the Nets play at the Nassau Coliseum. I ask George if he still coached basketball.

“I think this might be my last year,” he said with regret. “My youngest is going into high school.”

George handed the fat man a slice of salami, then turned to me, and produced another slice, as if he were a magician pulling a card from his sleeve. It was a quick, deft move, one that he has undoubtedly perfected over the years.

George started to warm up. When I told him that my younger brother—who used to live with me in Brooklyn—has a kid, George instinctively asked when I’m going to be a father. I told him that my girlfriend has Crohn’s Disease and that it’s not likely that I’m going to be a dad anytime soon. He looked at me with pity. George could no more understand a marriage without children than he could imagine coaching a team that one of his children was not on.

I asked for four dollars worth of the pickled eggplant and Georgie smiled. I couldn’t tell if he was offended that I came all that way to only spend four bucks.

“Still love that eggplant, huh?”

He wrapped up my package in a paper bag and I asked him for a plastic bag. He placed one on the counter, next to the bag, for me to open myself. When I shook his hand goodbye, he was no longer chilly, a look of pity still in his eyes.

I left the store and walked a block to the subway. The train arrived at the station just as I went through the turnstiles. I finished the Talese story:

 

“A few blocks away, in a small, dark apartment, another exile, James Baldwin, said, “It didn’t take long before I really was no longer a part of them. They were more interested in kicks and hashish cigarettes than I was. I had already done that in the Village when I was eighteen or seventeen. It was a little boring by then. 

“They also used to go to Montparnasse, where all the painters and writers went, and where I hardly went. And they used to go there and hang around the cafes for hours and hours looking for Hemingway. They didn’t seem to realize,” he said, “that Hemmingway was long gone.”

I looked up and saw a smattering of the new Brooklyn. Young people in their twenties and thirties, looking comfortably hip. I gave the once over to a kid wearing a trendy t-shirt—they all seem to wear cooler-than-cool t-shirts—baggy shorts and flip flops. A large pair of headphones hung around his neck. As I started to scoff at him I noticed that I was wearing my navy blue “Cassius Clay” t-shirt. Jeans, new sneakers, backpack. I looked just like one of them. At that moment, I realized that even though I have moved on since I left Brooklyn six years ago, I still fit right in.


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