Sometimes you wake up and you know you have to do something different: walk a different street, find a new place, or just be unhinged for a while. The point: hauling yourself out of a box.
I awoke hungry, the sweet taste of McDonalds’ hot cakes on my mind. That’s all I ever eat there, and usually only when I travel. So I walked to the Broadway McD’s. The floor was wet and slippery. The place was dingy, and there were few people inside. Three people were standing in a loosely-arranged line near the registers. Then something went wrong at the register, something to do with the plastic card the customer was trying to use. And that something caused the cashier to leave her post and walk around to the customer side, where she started fiddling with the card reader. I knew this would not end well, or quickly—and I was hungry.
I gave up. I abandoned McD and walked across the street to Fresh & Co, which is a darn good fast food place, several orders up from McD. Some of their offerings are organic, and they appear to ride the current wave for good honest natural food carrying all the current buzzwords—you know, all the comforting attachments. So I ordered the hormone-free, grass-fed, free-ranging buttermilk hot cakes. I watched the guy pour the batter onto the griddle. I watched him flip them when one side was done. They came on a recyclable paper-ish plate with real butter and some dark syrup in a little unmarked plastic container, the sort of plastic that’s giving all the environmentalists fits of despair. I don’t blame them. The NY food industry produces plastic waste sufficient to create several mountain ranges the extent of the Himalayas.
I watched the people come and go in all their very human glory: the large lady in the pink dress with her huge arms and legs and their tattoos proportionately scaled (what the hell is she advertising?); the tall, fashion-conscious guy with requisite well-trimmed black beard, ankles showing above his shoes (will someone please explain why this visible-ankle business is so cool?); and the thin young girl who wore a vacant but somewhat worried look on her face, as if she were heading toward a dark and mysterious future. Some people are remarkable; many are not. All are in constant motion. They check their mobile phones while they wait. When they leave, they carry their food with them. The tables inside are mostly empty. When NYers eat out, they really eat out.
With a happy hot-cake-laden tummy, I was on Broadway again, waiting for a gap in the solid lines of students marching to class. This is the Broadway close to NYU, not the Broadway of theatrical fame. Finally, I spy an opening, and I head north toward…
Life becomes a little empty and mysterious when I don’t have something on my morning agenda. I’m in the void again, until I suddenly remember that I’d been debating having a haircut. I’d love to wear my hair longer, like those young guys who have straight hair with well-defined strands. My hair is now mostly fuzz, old grey fuzz—and I do a self-massage every morning, which includes anointing my head with sesame oil and massaging it briskly, to jump start my brain. Therefore, short hair rules. Sexy young long hair takes the hindmost.
I usually go uptown to Delta Hairstylists on Lexington and 72. All the barbers there are from Russia or the Ukraine. I feel like I’ve been going there forever, since I discovered it in 2016. They know their stuff. They have all the right moves, all the clever tricks. The man there who cuts mine knows exactly how to nudge my head so I move it to suit his angle of attack. The hot towel at the end feels so good that I don’t mind paying $37 for the haircut—cash only, no cards accepted. No cash? Hmm… It’s gotta be a front for something. Maybe this is where the Russians threw the election.
Today, Astor Place Hairstylists was too close to resist. A relatively real New Yorker recommended Astor to me. “It’s where all the movie stars go,” she said. And she named someone who she thought was the maestro there, someone named Gregorio or Vincenzo or Joey, something like that. “That’s who you should ask for,” she said. But I never remembered the name, so I took the guy they gave me. It’s a huge place, in the basement after a short flight of black-painted metal steps, at the end of which you come face-to-face with the door, which is where I saw this:
Knowing Italian as I do, I couldn’t resist il barbiere Valentino. I figured there must be some reason beyond his return that Valentino got top billing. Whatever the case, I was determined to find out. The guy at the booking desk smiled and said a cordial “Hello”. I immediately said, “I want Valentino,” and the desk guy pointed stage left and said, “There he is.”
Valentino resembled Durward Kirby, who was Allen Funt’s sidekick on “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera was great television and an honest-to-God reality show. Allen Funt was an ingeniously clever, very warm-hearted man who sent love through the airwaves by filming people caught in the act of being themselves in ordinary as well as extraordinary hcircumstances.
Well, Durward Kirby, who seemed a good-natured, genial sort, became the butt of some jokes for a while. Mad Magazine made him famous as the man who was “famous for being famous,” and a play on his name became an item on the TV cartoon show “Rocky and Bullwinkle“. The Kirwood Derby was a magic hat that conferred indomitable intelligence on the one who wore it, but it had to be discovered by the stupidest creature alive, Bullwinkle the Moose (you can go to YouTube to meet him and his buddy Rocky the Flying Squirrel).
I had to dig through a few layers to discover that Valentino was—man, what a beautiful name—in fact, Italian. So I began to speak a little Italian, but my Italian wasn’t coming out that well. Valentino was not noticeably charmed. He asked me the usual questions regarding my hair. This pre-haircut inquiry always troubles me to no end, because what do you do with a mass of grey fuzz? I usually tell the barber to “cut it short”, which is about what I said this time. I’m not imaginative. I can’t wear spikes.
I began to shoot while he trimmed my fuzz.
“Oh, you wanna take pictures?” he asked. “That’s gonna cost you money.”
The odds that he was Italian suddenly went up several points.
Then he asked me “How come you speak Italian?” I explained that I learned it all’universita, while I was at UNC-Chapel Hill. The situation was becoming much warmer. Then, as is usual with nearly everyone, he wanted to know some other stuff, what I did here in Manhattan, where I lived, nice safe stuff, right?
He got it when I said I lived in the Village, but when I told him that I taught meditation, he heard “medication.” I think that could be a generational issue.
“So you’re a doctor?”
“No, no, no. I teach meditation. It’s a thinking process. We do it with eyes closed. It’s relaxing.”
Suddenly we were playing in different fields. The simplicity of our interaction was in jeopardy. I was running out of options. But he was almost finished taming my fuzz. And still I did not have a clear admission from him that he was Italian.
He’d finished the job, and I moved a bit so he could see the back of my shirt.
“So you are a doctor.” He did seem convinced this time.
I said, “No, it’s the symbol of a car.”
“Alfa Romeo!” he said.
Those were the magic words, the confirmation I wanted.
He used the dryer to scatter loose hair from my head. We clasped hands and shook—
and I dug into my wallet for him. I left a happier, much less fuzzy man.