When I first started a blog, I swore the one thing I would never do would be to write about getting a haircut. I mean, what could be more boring? But I guess rules are meant to be broken. Prepare to be bored!
For decades, anyone who grew up in New York City knew about Astor Place Hair — or as we knew it, simply “Astor Place.” It’s a downstairs, no-frills downtown barbershop with over fifty haircutters (I hesitate to call them “stylists”). For $15 you can walk right in and get a cut, all done in about twenty minutes. No need for a reservation, and the place is open until as late as 10:30 at night — perfect for getting a trim right before heading out on a Saturday night. Totally Old School, Astor Place has the requisite collection of Polaroids taped on their front windows of freshly-shorn hip-hop artists, singers, movie stars, and professional athletes — most of them sadly dating back twenty years or more. (When I first discovered Astor Place in the 1980s, they were known for their trendy cuts like boxes and fades. Later on, they offered karaoke as part of the hair-cutting experience, but I don’t think they do that anymore.) With its loud ambiance, peeling linoleum, bad lighting, and brusque employees, Astor Place always a late-night, seedy quality to it. It’s a real New York institution.
For years I went to Astor Place, and eventually found a barber who I thought did a good job with my unruly blonde locks. That’s part of the Astor Place tradition as well, finding your “special” barber. My barber’s name was Jay and he was from one of the Soviet republics. He had a brother named “Dr. Mike” who also cut hair at Astor Place. I always felt a little stupid, though, waiting behind two other customers for Jay when three barbers around him were sitting at their chairs with no clients. Was he really that superior?
Jay was known for whipping off the apron at the end of each cut and yelling out, in his thick accent, “Perfect professional cut!” He also not-so-subtly pressured over-tipping from his customers by waving the bills in the air — it seemed like some of his customers paid him a bigger tip than the cost of the actual cut. (Despite the pressure, I always stuck with $5.) By the early 1990s,when I had graduated from college and was living back in New York, I even had my roommate Jake and my girlfriend Sari going to Jay. Later, I heard that my dad and my half-brother became Astor Place customers as well.
Then Sari and I went off on our big round-the-world backpacking trip, and eventually moved away from New York. We stayed away for almost ten years.
When I did return to the Big Apple, I didn’t go back to Astor Place. I got the idea that the place was no longer “cool,” that it had become a pastiche of its former self. (Viz. the karaoke.) Also, I didn’t need the drama — all the yelling and the bad lighting. I started going to a small, family-run barbershop on 23rd Street. The guys there were also Eastern European, and the atmosphere reminded me of the first barbershop I went to on a regular basis, Lou’s, a place on Eighteenth and McDonald Aves. in Brooklyn.
After awhile, though, I became dissatisfied with my 23rd Street barbers. Like many factory-style places, they insisted on cutting my hair with electric clippers, not the traditional scissors, and I wasn’t happy with how the cuts were coming out. My wavy hair just doesn’t respond well to that method, and I was looking for a cut with a little more “character” to it. However, given that I’m way too cheap to shell out $50 or more for a high-end stylist, my options seemed limited.
Eventually, my brother-in-law Evan tipped me off to the Aveda Institute on Spring Street. Aveda couldn’t be more different than Astor Place: a view into the high-class world of the hair salon. The stylists are all students training in the patented Aveda method, with the cuts overseen by their teachers. The clientele are almost all women, a total one-eighty from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of Astor Place. Best of all, a haircut, free herbal tea, a head & neck massage, and a shampoo only costs $18!
The downside of Aveda, beyond the obvious risk of a student cutting your hair (and the attendant mistakes which may result), is the difficulty in getting a reservation — a two-week wait is standard — and the duration of the actual cut. It’s not unusual for a haircut to take upwards of two-and-a-half hours. As a freelancer, however, I didn’t mind the long time in the chair, and enjoyed bantering with the students, most of whom were just getting started on “grown-up” life.
I ended up going to Aveda regularly for about eight years, but this year it’s been increasingly difficult to find time for an apppoinment. I’ve been so busy traveling, continuing to do A.D.-related appearances, and most of all, working on my current project, The Influencing Machine, that I just haven’t been able to block out the four-plus hours — minimum — required. Throw in the fact that with Phoebe in preschool, I need to be around home more, and the fact is that life is getting more busy and complicated.
The first time I “slipped” was back in May when I was in Sydney, Australia for a week-long writer’s festival. I really needed a haircut, and I found a barber who offered a scissor cut for a slight premium. The cut turned out fine, and since then I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only made it back to Aveda once. And guess where I usually find myself instead? Yep, Astor Place. The fact is that it’s convenient, cheap, and open late — plus a scissor-cut doesn’t cost extra! Sure, I miss the homey, spa-like Aveda atmosphere, but Astor Place just fits into my current situation.
The amazing thing is that my old barber Jay is still working at Astor Place! (He “found” religion while I was gone, and now sports a yarmulke. Otherwise, he seems the same. And Dr. Mike has retired.) It feels too weird to go back to Jay, though — too many years to reel in — and I’ve since found a new “personal” barber. Sarra does a good job with my hair, and even throws in an eyebrow-hair-trim when the situation requires. (The indignities of getting older…) And best of all, I’m in and out in a half hour, tops.
Sari says she doesn’t like my Astor Place haircuts as much as the Aveda ones, but to be honest I don’t see much a difference. I admit to missing the neck message and the shampoo treatment, but the fact is that the time-saving just can’t be beat.
So, Thomas Wolfe, you may not be able to go back home, but you can always go back to your barbershop.
8 thoughts on “"Perfect Professional Cut!"”
Man, I went to Astor Place Hair for years. So, did most of our high school and college pals [for all the reasons you list]. I was just talking about that place the other day, declaring it the only place I ever cried getting a haircut. Yeah, unfortunately, my last Astor Place haircut made me cry. It was whak. Still, I have many fond memories. Thanks.
You CRIED?! Man, that must have been one bad haircut! Any photographic records?
I think the trick at Astor is to find your personal barber and stick with ’em, even if it means waiting your turn…
Re: Astor Place
Ha, great story! Glad you enjoy the occasional ramblings here
I remember that joint!
Back in the ’80s I thought I was cool ‘cuz I was hopping on the subway to get my hair chopped in the village. Man, was I wrong. I didn’t establish any kind of relationship with any of the barbers there. I just took whomever was available at the time. And as a result, I always was disappointed when I left – but what could I do? Go back in and retrieve the clippings from the floor?? Now that reassembly would have made for a groooovy look! Yikes!! So, I’d just hop back on the 1 and sulk for a bit. My Rush jersey, bandana on my belt loop, and my crappy haircut. Yup, I was cool.
Funny, but nowadays I actually wouldn’t mind an Astor cut. However, I don’t believe I have enough hair for it to be worthwhile. At least I still own a bandana!! HA!!
Good blog you have here, keep it up.
Any chance you’ve got Sarra’s mobile number or know how to get in touch with her? She’s now left Astor, and I’ve stupidly misplaced her business card. Thanks a million.
Sad to hear Sarra has left Astor Place. Because of an injury, I haven’t been able to visit Astor Place for almost three months, so I totally missed that. Wish I had contact info for her, but sadly I don’t. Guess we’ll both have to find new people at Astor Place…
Count me as another customer of Sarra’s (10 years? at least) who misses her work. Drawer full of business cards of people I’ve met once, but hers is missing.
I went to Dr. Mike for years at Astor Place. He didn’t retire though. He opened up his own place down on Chambers Street with his son, Dr. Mike and Son. Wow. I can’t remember the last time I stepped foot inside of Astor Place.