A Hairy Story of Shooting a Barbershop

[NOTE: I wrote this email from Buenos Aires where my wife & I were living in 1998. It was near the end of our expat stay and we were getting ready to move back to the US. This was one of my many “Griswald” stories and it is so old that I noticed today that some of the email recipients had Compuserve addresses. Wow. That’s really old, now isn’t it? Also, please excuse the poor quality of the images; sadly, the only known existing copies were on printed emails so, what we end up with is an iPhone 5s shot of an email image printed on a dot-matrix printer that was taken with a low resolution Sony digital camera by a guy who was so excited to be in the digital age not knowing the image quality would be laughable in 2014. If I find the originals – which should be a little bit better – I promise to trade them out below. ]

I was on a photography outing in San Telmo today. San Telmo is one of the older, traditional barrios in Buenos Aires. Here you will find many colonial buildings, not unlike much of the architecture you encounter in Old San Juan. Narrow, cobblestone streets, antique shops, art galleries, cafés, tango bars and a Bohemian lifestyle sum it up.

The original barrio was one of Buenos Aires’ first slums and due to poor sanitation, there was a major outbreak of yellow fever in 1870 which virtually emptied the neighborhood. Afterwards, it was cleaned up and immigrants moved in giving it new life. It remained unchanged until the 1950’s when it became a fashionable place to live and modernization crept in from the fringes. Today, it still retains much of its character and you cannot escape the impression that you were reliving the past as you walk its streets. Just recently, Yoko Ono, whose art exhibit is currently in the old brick building of el Museo de Arte Moderno, spoke of how impressive was San Telmo’s  authentic character.

On Sundays, life in the barrio centers around Plaza Dorrego and it’s Feria de San Telmo – a Sunday flea market. Here you can find just about anything old, as it is primarily an antiques market. Old Victrolas and 78 RPM tango records, antique irons, bottles, silver gaucho knives, movie posters, candelabras, old coins, silver jewelry, antique clothing, and more…There are also art shows, street musicians and dancers with tango as the preferred theme.

I guess for me it’s all part of a frantic coming to grips with leaving Argentina: I am doing things that I never got around to doing. Rather than look at the whole, I am seeking out the details, the fiber…things that will be totally unique to my experience here.

The only way to experience San Telmo is on foot. My journey began down Calle Defensa. Armed with my digital camera and 35mm loaded with black-and-white film, My eye turned to the storefront windows of the many antique shops. They are a potpourri of treasures and junk – a visual feast of ready-made, dusty still lifes. The photography of Marie Cosindas comes to mind. The streets and sidewalks are narrow and I realized I needed a wide-angle lens. I dropped my day pack and scrambled through it to pull out my 35mm which was sporting that much needed wide angle lens.

I am a person who tends to overpack. In addition to the two cameras, I was hauling my portable Mini Disc player with headphones and a stereo microphone. It serves a separate purpose: I have started recording street sounds in Buenos Aires. The stereo sound is incredible and a five-minute recording inside a Porteño café or taxicab turns the ordinary into extraordinary. My pack was a maze of wires and cases. It is times like this that you wish you had simply grabbed one camera. Preparedness often complicates things. My digging attracted attention from passerby’s. I heard several men talking in a storefront doorway. It was then that I looked up and saw my subject: an old – really old – barbershop.

The place was oozing with character. And I was still outside, looking in. Two of the three men talking were obviously the barbers. They wore white barber’s coats and looked like Argentine versions of Mayberry’s Floyd. I had a sense they were brothers; my hunch later proved to be right. I’ve got to get in here, I thought. How do you get into an old barbershop to take photos and not unsettle the dust or disturb the peace?

Simple. You get a haircut.

I saw handwritten sign that said, “Haircuts, $7.00” [in 1998, the US dollar and Argentine peso were basically in line – 1 Argentine peso was $0.99 US]. I walked up to them in the doorway and the three faces went silent as they waited to hear what I wanted. “Good afternoon,” I said, “I’d like a haircut.” They returned a courteous greeting and one of them invited me inside. The place was really old. Three old barber chairs – really old barber chairs – were the focus of the shop; they were like sculptures in a living, San Telmo museum of history. The walls were filled with fading black & white photographs – celebrities, politicians, friends, neighbors, customers; in between the memories were certificates, diplomas, and licenses. You could spend an entire afternoon browsing the wall…

A Flash Gordon-looking stainless steel contraption was situated next to a mirrored wall. A dirty coffee cup and saucer sat it it’s base; I assumed it was some sort of coffee urn.

I vaguely recognized a smell of a particular hair creme – something that my grandfather may have used – something that is no longer made – much less, used. I had the feeling I was the first customer since 1953. I wondered if I had made a bad call.

The barber introduced himself as José. He was 80 years old and wore an ascot under his barber’s coat. He was quite a gentleman and had an air of formality as many Argentine men do. He noticed me looking at the barber chairs and said, “Son de Norte America, un modelo de 1925.” He motioned for me to sit in one of them. There was only two choices – the one on the far end  was occupied by a strange, child dummy – like a Charlie McCarthy -or- maybe he is Carlos Macartí? ‘Carlos’ shared the chair with some odds and ends and was probably a catch-all for wayward bills, etc…

José, Felipe, and a friend in their San Telmo barbershop.

José, Felipe, and a friend in their San Telmo barbershop.


I had the digital camera in hand. This is going to be great, I thought. José offered to put it up for me but I declined, knowing that I wanted to take pictures while sitting in the chair. He gave me a puzzled look like why would anyone want to hold a camera bag while getting their haircut? At that moment, I reached for my pack to pull out the Mini Disc and microphone. I thought about the tangled wires and thought, No, too much technology overload; Keep it simple. In retrospect, I wish I had pulled it out and recorded everything.

José carefully draped a barber’s cloth over me. It was way too small and I assume the remainder of my afternoon was going to be an itchy one. He pulled out a comb and began to comb my hair. Maybe it was due to his age but his movements were slow and clumsy as you would imagine a small child combing her tattered doll’s hair. I realize later that perhaps the better description is ‘deliberate’. Still I was a bit worried about the outcome of my haircut. But what the hell! I’ve lost a bit of vanity with age and besides –  if the haircut is that bad, I can always shave my head and still look somewhat stylish!

This haircut was certainly a change of pace. Vicky and I use a trendy hair salon a block from our apartment building. We do it out of convenience. Vicky seems to like to spend an entire afternoon in the beauty salon and I guess she figures it is better to walk a few steps rather than listen to me groan about having to kill time in a shopping mall. The salon does a good job but they are expensive. Vicky complains about the prices. I lead lead her to believe that my haircuts there are a much better bargain. [She pays a lot more but please don’t tell her I am paying $27 for mine!]

Now I am getting a $7 one. Vicky will be proud. But no shampoo? You mean, I don’t get to bend over backwards and strain my neck to fit my head in a sink and have some guy (yeah, I rarely get the pretty girls) spend an unusually long amount of time washing my hair?

Hey, but I did get free coffee. “Would you like a cafecito?” José offered. “Please,” I answered, “I’ll take it black.” José summoned Felipe to get me a coffee. Felipe returned moments later with it. My espresso was black but loaded with sugar. Nobody in Argentina drinks coffee without sugar and I always forget to ask it for it sin azúcar. I sipped the overly sweet brew and carefully guarded it against falling hairs.

“Es un Norte Americano,” José noted to Felipe. Yeah, like the barber chairs, I mused. And thirty one years younger! “And where in the States are you from?” Felipe asked me. “Miami,” I told him. It’s easier. You would be amazed at how many Argentines recognize Miami but not Florida…

José introduced me to his older brother, Felipe. Felipe is 83. “But you look like the younger one,” I told him. He beamed.

“And which hotel are you staying in?” José asked. I lied, as I often do when questioned by locals. I play the American tourist. It gives you the innocence to do and react to things in a sort of stupid way. It’s also a more comfortable excuse for my bad Spanish. And not wanting to come across as the kind of person who spends $27 on a haircut. I told him I was staying at a friend’s house. We talked about my impressions of Argentina and I also told him I thought life here was expensive. This barbershop was an exception. I wonder if a $3 tip on a $7 haircut was too much in a place like this. I didn’t want to be a tightwad but I certainly didn’t want to offend him. I figured I would just give him a ten peso note when it was time to leave.

I realize things had gotten quiet. The conversation lulled and José and Felipe were standing there looking at me. José was waiting for me to finish my cafecito. I gulped it down. José went back to work. He cut big chunks of hair in single swipes with the scissors. I felt like a sheep getting sheared.

The third man came in from where he had been standing outside in the doorway and sat down and watched me as he spoke to José. He was in his late 40’s and appeared to be a regular at the barbershop. He asked how José was, how business was doing, how Felipe was, how business was doing, how José was, and how everything was – in general. Their conversation was simple, easy-going and unrushed. Kind of like barbershop talk, I guess – nothing more than what you might hear Barney Fife and Floyd discussing. He was a nice man and I asked him to take a picture of José, Felipe and I – which he did.

José and Felipe opened their shop in 1931. Carlos Gardel, the famous Argentine tango singer, died in a plane crash in 1933. His picture was among the relics on the wall. I wanted to ask if they ever had cut his hair – but didn’t – feeling that that was a little bit before their time. I was still nervous that I was going to walk out of there looking like Carlos Gardel – slicked back hair full of bear grease (or whatever they used) and slightly resembling Bela Lugosi in “Count Dracula’s San Telmo Photo Adventure.”

Now, those trendy places always cut your hair the same length all over. José was cutting mine along the sides and in the back leaving the top long. I call it the Johnny Weissmuller cut. A popular style in the 30’s and 40’s – when Tarzan fought the lion and his hair got messed up and it fell the one side, it was extremely long and fell almost all the way down to his chin.

José stopped cutting my hair momentarily and with a smile on his face, stepped back and gestured his hands in the air as he asked me:

“And just what is all of this noise over Clinton?”

I gave a diplomatic smile back that revealed no opinion either way.

“The guy has sex with a young girl and now the whole country is all over him! That’s not such a big deal here in Argentina – it happens all the time. It’s nobody else’s business!” José continued with his bandstanding and my Spanish quickly lost him. I couldn’t keep up. And I would love to have understood the entire bit…

José completed his work and proudly handed me the mirror. I looked like a mix between Archie, Jughead, and Charlie McCarthy with a prominent box cut in the back. Box cut. Now there is something I haven’t heard in a long time. When I was in the sixth grade in 1968, if you didn’t sport a box cut with a Hang Ten t-shirt, Levi’s cords, yellow Gold Cup socks, and desert boots, you were not cool. Oh yeah, I forgot the 007 cologne/aftershave – chicks dig it.

He brushed me with talcum powder and shook the towel. He snapped the towel back and it popped loud. I suddenly realized I hadn’t heard that sound in years. A cleaning woman wandered in with a broom and looked at me suspiciously. Like, can I get lice from sweeping this guy’s hair up off the floor? “Es un Norte Americano,” José proudly told her, possibly adding another country to his list of international jobs. Yeah, like the barber chairs you’re sweeping under, I thought as I smiled to her.

“How much is it?” I asked as I pulled my wallet out. As though he were dealing with this stupid, tightwad tourist who couldn’t read signs and was bad with numbers, José walked over to me and pointed to a ten peso note in my wallet. “One of these will cover it,” he said with a helpful smile.

I asked if I could take their photographs and they politely obliged. They seem flattered that some fool would want to take pictures of their humble workspace…

José told me that I could get an excellent shave there and invited me back. He patted the stainless steel coffee urn as he spoke and I realize that it was something used for shaving – not for making  cafecitos. I am dying to get back in there and take more photos and perhaps record some of their stories on the Mini Disc…

Maybe I will take him up on the offer…

"Dorothy, we're no longer in Mayberry anymore!" Getting my haircut by José. Felipe brings me cafecitos...

“Dorothy, we’re no longer in Mayberry anymore!” Getting my haircut by José (left). Felipe(right) brings me cafecitos…

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