I sit in the waiting area of the local barbershop looking at my phone. There are magazines on a table, but I’m not touching them with this coronavirus going around. I don’t even want to get a haircut, but my hair is getting kind of long, and I have a wedding to attend next week.
This shop is across the street from Dugan’s Bar, Nino’s Pizzeria, and Edgar’s bodega, which is on my corner. A diverse cast of characters in this Brooklyn neighborhood frequent all these places, interacting with each other in humorous ways.
My diminutive neighbor Manny walks in dressed head-to-toe in Dodger’s clothing. He takes off his blue jacket – with Reese and number one on it – and hangs it on the coat rack along with his blue baseball cap. Usually, that hat never comes off his head, except when he gets a haircut. Manny has patches of hair left, including one in the center of his bald spot like a scruffy little island.
He sees Jim Ryan sitting in chair number one getting a haircut from Jose and says, “Good morning, Mr. Ryan.” Manny is funny with the way he treats Ryan like he’s much older than he is. I knew Ryan when I was growing up, and he must be around 85 now. Manny says he was ten when he saw the Dodgers beat the Yankees in 1955, so that would make him 75.
Manny sits in the chair across from me and squints. “You’re here to trim the beard, Vinny?”
“Uh, yes and no,” I say. “Mom asked me to get a haircut because I’m going to my cousin’s wedding.”
Manny shakes his head. “It’s a shame.”
He leans toward me and scrunches his nose. “Your hair is like your signature; you’ll be a different person without it.”
I nod. “Yeah, I guess.”
Papi, the owner of the shop, has finished cutting Marco Riccio’s hair. We went to high school together. He stands up, brushing off his shirt. He sees me and says, “Vinny, is that you?”
Marco just got a buzzcut. I heard he went into the Marines after graduation, but I haven’t seen him in years. He’s still in great shape, and looks like he could do 1,000 push-ups right there on the hairy tile floor.
“Yeah,” I say.
“You…you look good, man,” he says.
Marco always was diplomatic. I stand up and go to shake his hand, but he puts his hands up in the air. “It’s corona-time, man.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry.”
He takes money out of his pocket and follows the waddling Papi to the cash register.
I sit down again and Manny says, “That guy’s a cop. He almost arrested my boy.”
Manny calls his son Hector “boy,” but I’m 43, and he’s got to be around my age. “I didn’t know that.”
“Can’t you see the bulge of his gun by his ankle,” Manny says pointing.
“I see it,” I say nodding. “What happened with Hector?”
Manny sighs. “Drunk and disorderly at Dugan’s. Marco’s a nice guy, though. Brought him home to me instead of down to the precinct.”
“Marco always was a good guy,” I say.
Papi lumbers back toward me. He wears a blue apron with his name on it in red script. He’s tall, overweight, and has a smile that could light a room at midnight. His hair has gone gray, but he still wears it in a ponytail. “You ready, Vinny?”
I take a deep breath and stand up. “Yeah.” Now, I usually have him trim my beard and mustache, so I don’t say anything about my hair yet.
“Excuse, me,” Manny says, “what about my appointment?”
“You have an appointment with me?” Papi asks.
“Oh, Papi,” Gisela comes running out of the back room, “I forgot to write it in the book.”
Papi looks at me and says, “Sorry, have to take Manny first.”
I look at Manny and shrug. “Yeah, sure.”
Manny’s grinning widely and shuffles over to the chair. Papi puts the booster seat he uses for kids on the chair to elevate the five-foot Manny. His short legs dangle above the floor.
“The usual?” Papi asks.
“Yes, of course,” Manny says.
Gisela says, “I can take you now if you like, Vinny.”
She is a very attractive young woman. She has long, curly brown hair and sparkling hazel eyes. She wears tight jeans and black boots, and chews gum, but not in the usual Brooklyn way. She has never trimmed my beard and stash, but I always exchange pleasantries with her.
“Look, I don’t want to sound sexist,” I say, “but do you even do men’s beards and mustaches?”
She points to the machine that warms shaving cream on the shelf across from her chair. “I give shaves too, Vinny, in case you ever want to cut the whole thing off.”
I look at the things on her shelf under the mirror: the tall sanitizing jar filled with green liquid that soaks combs and scissors, a couple of straight edge razors, bottles of Clubman lotion, attachments for electric razors, and a picture of her as a young girl with Papi.
“No, just my usual trim,” I say.
She motions to her chair, and I sit down. As she puts the cape around my neck, I shiver a bit, and she notices it. “Are you scared, Vinny?”
“I have issues with barbers from when I was a kid, so I always get nervous in here,” I say. While this is not the complete truth, I am really nervous because a person of female persuasion has never cut my hair or beard before. I figure I’ll see how she does with the beard and stash before I say anything about a haircut.
She leans down into the sink, turns on the water, and washes her hands as thoroughly a surgeon before an operation. Gisela smiles and says, “We take this coronavirus seriously here at Papi’s. She extracts a comb and scissors from the sanitizing jar and says, “Let’s get started.”
When I was a kid, my father would take my grandfather and me downstairs for a haircut once a month. I can still see Pop going down the stairs into the basement ahead of me. As I came downstairs, I’d see Dad in the corner where he had a shelf, mirror, and chair he took from the garbage in front Enzo the barber’s shop down the block. Enzo got all new chairs, and Dad grabbed an old one off the pile.
Pop would sit in the chair under a lone bare light bulb hanging over him. Dad would put an old sheet around Pop’s neck and take the electric razor from the shelf where he had scissors, talcum powder, shaving cream, and rubbing alcohol. He’d run the razor right over Pop’s mostly bald head, getting rid of what he called “the rough patches” he found. Afterwards, he’d splash the alcohol over Pop’s head, and the sweet old guy would say, “That feels nice!”
Dad would take the sheet, shake it out, and Pop would stand up. “See, I learned a skill in the Army,” Dad would say.
“Lucky me – free haircuts!” Pop would say. He’d look up at me with gentle eyes and say, “You’re next, Vinny-boy.”
Pop would walk past me with cuts on his ears, and I could hear the steps creaking as he was going back upstairs. I’d sit down, and Dad would put the old sheet around me, tightening it around my neck hard. He’d use the scissors first, then the razor. He’d always nick my ears with the buzzing old razor that he brought home from the Army. His haircuts were a painful thing.
When it was over, he’d make me clean up the hair on the floor with my ears bleeding. I’d push my brown hair and Pop’s gray hair onto the pan with the broom, and dump it in the garbage.
Then I would go upstairs as Dad cleaned up. I’d look in the mirror as I dabbed alcohol on my ears, stinging them, and I’d see my bad haircut – the crooked line across the top, the uneven sideburns, and the jagged sides over my damaged ears. I’d complain to Pop and he’d say, “Your father learned to cut hair in the Army, where all he did was shave all the men’s hair off.”
I loved my Dad, and never wanted to let him know how I felt. This happened every month until I was 12, and I couldn’t take being teased about my bad haircuts in school anymore, and my mother took me down to Enzo’s, where he gave me a good haircut but clipped my ears with the razor too. I only later learned from my Dad that Enzo had also learned his skill in the Army.
I hold the arms of the chair, the deep red leather worn a bit now, and I think about how these are the replacement chairs Enzo installed when he got rid of the old ones like the one that is still down in my basement covered by the old sheet.
Gisela is trimming my beard and doing a good job. “So, what do you do, Vinny?”
“I’m an editor and proofreader,” I say.
“Hmm, that sounds interesting,” she says as gently clips the hair around my chin.
“It’s really not because most of the stuff is so boring,” I say.
“You must be smart,” she says.
“I don’t know about that, but I did get my masters in English at night while I was working down on Wall Street,” I say.
“Wall Street?” she squeals.
“Yeah, I did that for almost 16 years after college,” I say.
“Why did you get out?” she asks.
“My Dad died in a bad fire – he was in the FDNY.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks, but it changed my life. I couldn’t go through the motions anymore.”
“I understand that,” she nods her head and starts clipping again. “My father’s always telling me to invest, but I have no idea where to start,” she says.
I glance at Papi happily laughing and chatting away with Manny. Papi knows I worked on Wall Street, but he has never asked me about investing all these years that he’s been trimming my beard. “Wow, I didn’t know Papi was interested in stocks.”
“He’s not,” Gisela says with a wave of a hand, flashing red fingernail polish that matches her lipstick. “He likes horse-racing, but he wants me to invest.”
“Well, I’d be happy to give you an idea of how to get started,” I say.
“That would be great,” Gisela says.
I start thinking about the wedding, and how it might be nice to ask Gisela to go with me and not go alone, which I’ve been dreading. I can’t believe it, but I muster the courage to say, “Uh, listen, I am going to a wedding next week, and if you’re not doing anything, maybe you could come with me.”
Gisela’s face brightens and she says, “Why, that would be nice, Vinny.”
“Look, I came in here thinking I should get a haircut for the wedding and…”
She touches my long brown hair, and I look in the mirror and see flashes of red as she puts her fingers through it. “Cut this beautiful hair?” she asks, and then shakes her head, “I don’t think so!”
I say nothing about my mother asking me to get it cut because that would be embarrassing. Mom doesn’t want me to offend my cousin Paul’s dad, who is my father’s brother and also was a firefighter. Mom said that Uncle Nick will think I look like a sissy.
“Okay, well, the hell with it,” I say. So much for me trying to please my politically incorrect uncle.
I follow Gisela over to the cash register, watching her walk in those jeans like a model down a hair-covered runway. After I pay and tip her, she takes out her phone and says, “Let’s exchange numbers.”
I give her my number and enter hers into my phone. “We’ll talk about the investing thing soon,” I say.
“Sure, we can meet for coffee or something,” she says.
“Fine,” I say. I turn and say goodbye to Papi, Manny, and everyone else, and then I cross the street and walk down the block like I’m floating on a cloud. Edgar comes out of his bodega for a smoke and sees me.
“Vinny, I haven’t seen you look this happy since…”
“Yeah, never,” I say.
“Well, did you win the lottery?” he asks with a laugh.
“Uh, yeah, I did in a way,” I say. “I have a date with Gisela.”
“No way,” Edgar says. “Good for you, man.”
“I know I’m a little old for her,” I say.
“She’s 31 and a good girl,” Edgar says, “but age is only in your head, my friend.”
“I’m surprised someone so beautiful doesn’t have a boyfriend,” I say.
“She had one,” Edgar says, taking a last drag on his cigarette and then throwing the nub away. “But he promised her a ring and dragged it out for six years. Then she caught him with another girl, and it just broke her heart. She hasn’t dated ever since.”
“See, we have something in common,” I say.
“You getting your coffee?” he asks.
I look at my watch. “Crap. I’m late for a call with one of my clients. Gotta run.”
“See you later, man,” Edgar says.
After the call with the more than nutty professor whose book I am editing, I go downstairs and find Mom watching Judge Judy and eating potato chips. Mom has been depressed these last six years since Dad died, but I try to spend time with her and cheer her up. I sit next to her, grab a chip, and look at the screen. Judy is yelling at someone as usual.
“Mom, are you feeling okay?”
She glances at me. “Yeah, sure.”
I figure she hasn’t noticed that I didn’t get the haircut. I hug her and say, “Mom, I didn’t get the haircut.”
“I know; I notice everything about my son.”
I lean my cheek against her soft gray hair. “Why aren’t you upset?”
“The wedding was canceled,” she says.
“What happened?” I ask. “Paulie got cold feet?”
“No, the caterer went out of business because of the coronavirus.”
“Holy crap!” I say, truly stunned.
“Why are you surprised?” she says. “Schools and colleges are closed, the big retailers too, and the city is shutting down. People are too afraid to go out!”
“Is Aunt Minnie upset?”
“Of course, but she said so many people cancelled their weddings, the hall couldn’t afford to stay open.”
I think about the shops along our street, and hope that they can make it through until this coronavirus is over. The people of our neighborhood will keep going to them unless they are quarantined or something.
Then, I think about Gisela. I was supposed to take her to a nice fancy place out on Long Island, and now the wedding’s cancelled. I don’t know what her reaction will be or even if she’ll believe me.
I text Gisella. “Bad news. The wedding was cancelled because of the coronavirus.
Gisella texts back. “What? How can they do that?”
I text. “Place went out of business.”
She texts. “What happens to your cousin now?”
I text. “They have to try to get the money back.”
“Probably won’t,” Gisella texts.
I text a thumbs up to her.
“Are they still getting married?” she texts.
“I don’t know. I guess.” I text. “I’m really sorry about this.”
“Not your fault,” she texts. “Still on for coffee?”
“Yeah,” I text.
The next evening, I get dressed in a blue collared shirt, gray slacks, and black shoes – my usual uniform is a T-shirt, cargo pants, and sneakers. I slip on my dark blue sports jacket, go downstairs, and knock on Mom’s door. She looks at me and asks, “What’s the occasion?”
“I just wanted to let you know I have a date,” I say.
She hugs me hard and, when she pulls away, I see tears in her blue eyes. “I’m so happy.”
“It’s just a date, Ma,” I say.
After I kiss her goodbye, I go outside, and Manny is walking along the street and stops dead in his tracks. “I see it, but I don’t believe it,” he says with a big smile. “You look presentable.”
“I have a date,” I say.
Manny waves his hand. “I know, I know, with Gisela.”
“How do you…”
“Everyone knows, Vinny!” he laughs.
That is how things are around here. We are a tight-knit community and, even though this thing about the date may seem annoying, in truth this is also our strength.
“That’s my neighborhood for you,” I say, taking my car keys from my pocket, “and that’s why I love it.”
As I turn to walk to my car in the driveway, Manny says, “And remember to respect personal space. There’s still a virus out there.”
I hadn’t thought about the virus and going on a date. I get in the car, look at myself in the rearview mirror, and I think I look okay. I’m not going to get too close to her or even try to hold her hand or anything. I’ll just play it cool and talk about the market and investing.
As I pull the car out of the driveway, Manny yells, “Good luck.”
I wave and smile and drive away thinking that this my first date in five years since Emily broke up with me because I quit Wall Street. Good luck? I’m going to need it.