My Barber and Myself and a Story about New York City

Mark M Green, abstracted from “A Scientist’s View of Almost Everything”

For many decades Mr. Costa had a shop on the south side of 14th street between 8th and 9th avenues in Manhattan. It was one of those down-the-stairs shops with a low rent which allowed him to charge a low price for his haircuts. I went there as often as my wife threw me out of the house with accusations that I looked like a shaggy old dog. 

We, his customers, all loved Mr. Costa and were privileged to learn of the changes in his life—his occasional trips to Spain to visit relatives he’d left behind and that terrible time when his wife died. Mr. Costa kept on in his formal old fashioned ways and we all counted on him as the never-ending source of our looking well-trimmed. So it was shocking when we learned that our barber was to become a victim of the transition of the “meat market” area (the blocks between 9th and the river, a bit north and south of 14th Street) to a trendy expensive playground for the wealthy.

We had seen the beginnings of the change as the prostitutes were increasingly disappearing from their early morning breakfasts at the North Village Deli on the southeast corner of 14th and 8th and certainly when Manolo Blahnik shoes at near to $1,000 a pair were for sale only a block away. There could be little doubt that the tenants of the shops would be facing huge rent increases and inevitably this came true for Mr. Costa. He told us he was ready for it after being on his feet for so many years, but we, his customers, were not.

What to do—walk around the neighborhood and discover that all barbers south of 14th street, within the recognized boundaries of Greenwich Village, charged a premium for what they considered the privilege of sitting in a chair possibly previously occupied by a celebrity. We walked north up to 23rd Street and as far east as 2nd Avenue and found other barbers only to discover how unique Mr. Costa’s shop was, how special can become the relationship between the customer and his barber.

A solution was apparent. Would my wife cut my hair? Yes, she said, but we had to buy one of those electric hair clippers, the kind sold in both Canada and the United States under the trade name Oster with the remarkable logo on the device “MADE IN U.S.A.” Now that’s special. And it cost only the price of a few of Mr. Costa’s haircuts. All this happened two years ago, the length of time it took to discover that not cleaning the cut hair from the device would jam it. So I took it apart the other day to spend a weekend rediscovering something personal about myself in addition to discovering that there are pockets of the USA and Canada, once treasured, which still exist—people answer the phone.

A life making a living without using one’s hands, without being necessarily handy, the life of a professor, certainly has wonderful aspects but leaves one feeling somewhat feeble for the “real” world. Each time I face a problem of the real world, like gluing a chair back to stability or getting a door to close properly (or so much else), I feel it a test, ridiculous or not, of something fundamental about my self-worth.

Early on a recent Saturday morning, I took out the instructions that came with the Oster Adjustable Clipper and set to work taking out two Phillips-head screws to release the two cutting blades. They came out easily enough exposing the hair that was jamming the motor, which could be cleared out with a little brush. However, no matter how many ways I tried, I could not put the clipper back together again.

So much of my self-worth was tied up in being successful in that mechanical task that by Sunday evening I was in a state of despair realizing I would have to call the 800 number given in the instructions – not available until Monday morning. Damn it, why couldn’t I do this, what must be an easy task. The instructions were very straightforward—how could I be so inept? I knew for certain that there was something simple I was missing, evidence of my disconnection with the material world, a world I so much want to connect to, a connection involved with my feeling worthy, feeling like a man.

Monday morning arrived and as I dialed the 800 number I prepared myself for the expectation—pressing multiple buttons on the phone to finally end up with someone from Manila, Singapore or Bangalore with a difficult-to-comprehend accent and instructions to send the clipper to a repair place in Minnesota. Someone did get on the phone with a heavy accent, at least to my New York City ear, but she was from Tennessee, not Asia. That was great but even better for my self-esteem, I learned from talking to her that the instructions included with the clipper were entirely wrong in not informing me that a pair of needle nose pliers was necessary for a specific part of the job and that then the same pliers were necessary to adjust an almost invisible plastic screw at the other end of the device.

The instructions for the device were ideally designed to undermine a physical-world-self-judging-person: yours truly. I write with great joy that I was able to fix the clipper, listen to the motor hum like a sewing machine and be resurrected as a handy man (what all men, admitted or not, want to be) knowing how to reach for the right tool and how to use it.

I had lost Mr. Costa but gained an experience that showed me that there still exists in North America, few and far between, yes, those old time ways where someone gets on the phone knowing how to help. And very important is that I did not fail, with all that could attend that failure, to fix my hair clipper.  My wife tried it and it works. Hand me that lamp that needs rewiring—how about replacing the car’s head lamp—maybe even fix a farm machine?

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