Friday, June 24, 2011

"You're only as good as your last haircut": Rafael's, the best barber in East Village

My high school yearbook quote was probably the worst out of the 660 people in our graduating class: 
“Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... now you tell me what you know.” ~ Groucho Marx 
About an hour before I submitted it, I was grappling with an alternative:
“You’re only as good as your last haircut.” ~ Fran Lebowitz
I couldn’t decide. The Groucho quote was so funny and flippant that, as a friend pointed out, it might have been the “sleeper” quote for our class. Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that the Marx quote would be a complete flame-out, too try-hard and weird to warrant anything other than an irreverent remark. 

The Lebowitz quote was more true to myself: after a trim, Asian-barber $12 haircut, I always felt like a superstar. The only problem was that the quote was too narrow in scope; I wanted to capture the world, but all Lebowitz gave me was a quip about confidence. 

I ended up sticking with the Marx quote for a now-nugatory reason: the Marx quote had more words, and I wanted to own more "yearbook space." Of course, when the yearbook came out, I couldn’t stand to re-read my quote; and, double of course, nobody really cared. I hope it never gets brought up at my high school reunions.

The Lebowitz quote, though, still rings true to this day. It was ringing in my head this Wednesday, when I decided to stop by Rafael’s for a friendly neighborhood haircut. I had last cut my hair May 6th, at Phil’s on Wall Street, by a Filipino barber who was great the first time (I told him, “This was the best haircut I’ve received in college”) and hasty the second. I found Rafael on Yelp – typed in "barber," and his name showed up for East Village with a 5-star rating. The reviews were uniformly awe-inspiring. I was sold.

I arrived at 6:30pm. Rafael was busy with a customer, so I waited for 20 minutes before popping into the chair. He brings out his Eastern European (?) accent and asks me, “How long since your last haircut? A month? I can tell, it's been a month. So how do you like your hair? Listen, at Rafael's we’re going to try something a little different. You had your hair cut like this before, so we going to try a little this instead, and you tell me if you like it.” 

I asked him how my head shape affected hair style, how my slightly curly hair affected ideal hair length, and how many regular customers he has. Unlike any other barber I’ve been to, he stopped cutting and answered my questions until I was satisfied. He threw out dulcet words like “blend,” as in, “For your back of your head, I’m going to do a blend”; “natural,” as in, “It’ll look natural, this blend”; and "smooth," as in, "This natural blend, it looks smooth."

The haircut took 40 minutes, and at the end he trimmed all my awkward neck hairs with a razor and shaving cream, in what looked in the mirror like slapdash swipes but felt like a baby's breath. (Reminds me of that story, “Just Lather, That’s All.” Is that weird?) After I paid and gave him a 29% tip, he shook my hand four different times in a minute and said four variations of the sentence, “Thanks for coming, I’ll see you in a month.” Crazy thing is, I think he does this with everyone.

It's two days later, and I can still rub my hand against the back of my head and hear the carpet-like bristles swish. The lines are still visible. Most importantly, the ratio of hair-length on the side of my head to the top of my head (1:3) makes my face look less round and more oval.

Plus, it’s $14. $11 for newcomers. Damn. Fran Lebowitz would be proud.

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