For most of us, death will not announce itself with a blare of trumpets or a roar of cannons. It will come silently, on the soft paws of a cat. It will insinuate itself, rubbing against our ankle in the midst of an ordinary moment. An uneventful dinner. A drive hom from work. A sofa pushed across a floor. A slight bend to retrieve a morning newspaper tossed into a bush. And then, a faint cry, an exhale of breath, a muffled slump." *
A Ridiculous Will —Pat Jordan
The summer is almost over: The last days of Yankee Stadium are upon us. Over the weekend, my neighborhood was crowded with kids returning to Manhattan College. A few days ago I went to Brooklyn to get my haircut. I hadn’t been in a few months and was starting to look downright shaggy. When I walked into the shop, early in the morning, the owner Ray was sitting in his chair. I noticed the place looked bigger and asked where my barber, Efrain was.
"He’s gone," said Ray.
As in retired, not dead. Up and left three weeks ago. Moved to Florida with his wife. Didn’t tell any of his few remaining clients. He only gave Ray a few days notice.
"His legs have been hurting him," said Ray.
I felt stunned although not surprised. I had been waiting for the day that I walked into the shop to discover that Efrain was gone–retired or dead–for some time now. I sat in Ray’s chair and listened to him as he cut my hair. But I didn’t really hear him. I could only think back on Efrain.
I never went to a barber shop as a kid. My mom cut my hair. Oh, one time, an aunt took me to a beauty salon where a woman cut my hair, but I never experienced the culture of a barber shop until I was an adult. I started going to see Efrain in the winter of 1994-95 when he still owned his own shop on Smith street. A basement walkdown. The window filled with plants.
I was looking to get a haircut one day, found his shop, and have been seeing him ever since. I loved how time slowed to a crawl in his shop. There were no appointments. No special treatment. You waited your turn. If there were three heads in front of you, that’s how long you waited. How long did it take to cut three heads? As long as it took.
Efrain cut my hair throughout the Yankee Dynasty years, and I continued going to back to see him after he lost his shop and after I moved to the Bronx. He cut my hair for the first date I had with my future wife, for my wedding, and for just about every other big occasion in my life during that span of time.
I tried going to other barbers but it was never the same. They didn’t have the same touch, the same craftsmanship. Efrain was a gentle, measured man, with soft, but sure hands. He was even-tempered but not weak, a true man of his word. I relied on him, I trusted him. He was a sure thing, never in a hurry; he cut my hair virtually the same way every time. It was a routine that I grew to love and take great comfort in. When I got out of his chair I’d feel like Sampson in reverse–confident, powerful, better.
I thought Efrain was my father’s age, but Ray told me that he’s really 72, a year older. We never had deep conversations–we chatted about our families and told jokes, that was it–but in a very real sense he took care of me. After all, how many men can you trust to hold a straight razor to your face and neck without worrying?
Efrain had a chair in Ray’s shop for about eight years and had cut down his schedule of late so that he only worked on Friday and Saturday. He still had a handful of customers that would come to see him. "More than three or four guys came to see him regularly and he’d given them their first haircut as a little boy," Ray told me. But more and more, Efrain’s old customers left him. "They went to other barbers, you know how people are, they like to go with a younger guy. I won’t lie, it hurt Efrain."
Efrain’s three older brothers all cut hair. He came to Brooklyn from P.R. in 1955 and being a barber is all he’s ever known. I didn’t see a dip in the quality of his work, but every man has a right to retire and just enjoy himself without having to work. But Efrain never seemed to mind working. In fact, I always thought he’d go mad if he couldn’t work. To know that he’d gradually lost customers simply because he was becoming an old man breaks my heart. Just because he was old didn’t mean he wasn’t still good. But now that I think about it, I did see Efrain waiting with an open chair more and more frequently over the last couple of years when the shop was crowded with waiting customers.
When he’d finish each haircut, Efrain would hold up a mirror to show me the back of my head and wait for my approval. I’d always hold up the okay sign with my hand and smile. "Okay, papi, I think you are ready to go fishing," he’d say.
I hope he has a good time fishing now too. Ray gave me Efrain’s number but I just looked at the card over and again this weekend. I didn’t call. Last night I told my wife how much I was going to miss him. "Why don’t you call him?"
"I don’t want to talk to him I want him to cut my hair."
I felt like a selfish child as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I’m not ready for him to go yet. As if I have a choice.
* I always thought my father would meet with a violent death. He drove like a madman, he provoked people, he didn’t back down from confrontation. If anything, he seem to court it. But in the end, my dad died softly, after eating a plate of pasta, at home on a Sunday night, ready to watch his favorite TV series with his wife.