When I was in college, a classmate who thought my hair looked terrible proposed to take me up to a haircutting place on Fifty-Seventh Street where she herself had been a customer since high school. The place is a little odd, she said, but this guys terrific.
Fifty-Seventh Street, I protested.
Don t worry about it, she said. The address is Fifty-Seventh Street, but the prices are Thirty-Fourth."
The building was directly across the street from Carnegie Hall, but the elevator was out of order. We climbed the stairs to the second floor, opened an unmarked door, and walked into a large open space with a bank of windows that looked out onto the glamorous street. The floor was covered in prison gray linoleum, the windows were streaked, the walls needed a whitewash, and the furniture and fixtureschairs, tables, lights, sinksall looked as though theyd been rescued from various coffee shop auctions. On the central window, in fading gilt letters, I read (backwards, of course) the words Tonys Beauty Home.
In the middle of the room, planted in an ancient barber chair, sat a woman with her neck swathed in a towel, getting her hair cut by a tall man with strong, handsome features and a thick shock of gray-black hair. Four or five women were sitting in these derelict-looking chairs scattered around the room, reading or chatting. The man looked at us and stopped cutting. The hand holding the scissors remained extended in the air, the other one sat calmly on the womans hair, its touch, I thought, even in that first moment and from just inside the doorway, looking as gentle as that of a doctors on a patients naked body.
Hi, Florence, he said softly to my friend.
The women all looked up.
I brought you a customer, Bobby, my friend said.
The man laughed, and looked me over, as if trying to decide whether this was an addition to his life or not. Thanks, he said, in the same soft voice.
Everyone went back to reading and talking.
Florence and I sat down and the man with the scissors went back to work. So, Laura, he said to the woman in the chair. Tell us about the scandal in City Hall. You work for that guy, dont you? One of the readers lowered her book and looked up expectantly. Yes, but I cant talk about it, the woman in the chair said. Ah, cmon, Laura, the man cajoled. Do you think he wrote the letter the cops found? the reader asked. Of course he did, scoffed another woman. Bobbys eyes flew back and forth among the speakers. I noticed that while he followed the conversation he didnt cut.
Florence and I sat down. It was three oclock in the afternoon. At six I walked out with the best haircut I had ever had. But was I grateful? Do you realize weve been sitting there for three hours! I fumed.
Florence shrugged. It goes with the territory, she said. The haircuts great, and you gotta put in the time to get it.
You mean its always like this?
I cant really answer that question. I dont know why. Its just Bobby. He loves to keep his women waiting. Talking and waiting. She stopped short on the street. Mostly talking, I guess.
Bobby was Bobby Casella, a man in his sixties whod been cutting hair in this room for forty years. Hed grown up in a tough Italian neighborhood in New Jersey, and as a kid had loved visiting Tony, a friend of the family who let him watch while he worked. The sensitive misfit from Hoboken seemed to absorb haircutting through his pores, and one day Tony invited him to cut his own hair. Bobby was home free. No sooner were the scissors in his hand than he became the artist he had never thought he could be. He went to work for Tony in his twenties, and when the master died Bobby simply stayed on. Cutting hair became an essence of life. Six days a week, he cut hair from early morning till late evening. He lived in a tiny apartment a few blocks from the shop, and he hated Sundays. One of the reasons he kept everyone waiting was that he himself never wanted to leave the place. But that was only one of the reasons.
Somewhere along the line he had discovered that work alone did not supply all of his inner necessities. There was, he had found, an edge to thingsa spark, a glow, a dazzlethat appeared suddenly and at unpredictable times, but it came only through people. It was people who supplied the glow in life. What was inside them. What came out of them when they connected with themselves in your presence. He had seen it happen. When it did it made him unbelievably happy, and he had become addicted to the happiness.
But Bobby didnt know how to be with people. He had, in fact, no intimates and hardly any acquaintances at all; no one, actually, except the women in his shop. They were his people. (Let me amend that: we were his people. Although I walked out grumbling that first day, I, too, became one of Bobbys regulars; the cut and the price together were irresistible.) He couldnt really talk to us either, butand this is the vital buthe found that when he had us in the chair, he could prod us into talking about ourselves in such a way that something said, or responded to, would be taken issue with, and in no time you had a conversation going in the shop. When that happenedwhether the atmosphere turned warm, brittle, or confrontationalBobbys face became ecstatic: the promise alone of the expressive magic to come made him high.
How he got the person in the chair going was always something of a mystery, but his need was pressing, and it made him shameless. No sooner had you become his customer than Bobby had taken your vital statisticswhere you lived, what sort of work you did, who your husband was, whether you had a husband, if not why notand registered them on a permanent Rolodex in his mind to be used for making future connections. This bit of social manipulation, coupled, somewhat eerily, with the gentleness of his touch, the crooning quality of his voice, the way his lips lingered on your cheek as he kissed you hello once you had taken your place in the chair (all arts of seduction he practiced without restraint), almost always insured the conversational starter he craved.
So, Stephanie, he would say, his voice liquid soft, as one of us was sinking into the chair, tell us about your husband, the Nobel Prize winner.
Or, Gloria, that job of yours as vice president of a major Wall Street firm. What is it again, that you do there?
Or, Hows your new book doing, Vivian? The one on why women dont trust men. Someone told me she saw a not-so-good review in Time magazine.
Each and every one of us, whether we responded with amusement (Bobby, for goodness sake) or exasperation (For Gods sake, Bobby, stop it!), was, inevitably, cajoled into replying. I realize now that the relationship with Bobby Casella was one of the most complicated I have known. I was one of the ones who were always exasperatedthe sheer insinuation of his style got under my skinbut his need compelled response, and he had something that we all wanted badly enough to meet that need on terms that he alone was setting.
The women in the room ran the kind of New York gamut that Central Casting might have supplied. On any given day, youd have sitting in those chairs a Republican committeewoman, a Lincoln Center dancer, an Upper West Side activist; someone in banking, marketing, or business; and, of course, a librarian, a therapist, or a teacher. We ranged in age from twenty-five to eighty; we dressed in everything from Bergdorfs to thrift shops; we read Proust, the Wall Street Journal, self-help books, and The New Yorker. A single element of interest unified us. The conversation might range from electoral politics to city life versus suburban living to the newest novel to whether Japanese got more heart attacks than Americans, but ultimately what made it come into vivid focus was the question of how men saw it as opposed to how women saw it, with most of the evidence being drawn from direct experience. This, finally, was the frame of referenceour life with menfrom which nearly all questions were considered with shrewdness and vitality. When I think back on those long afternoons at Bobbys, I see how reflective they were, decade by decade, of the inner mood of the time in which we were living.
In my twentiesthis was in the Sixtiesthe atmosphere often resembled the kind of Forties movie that was more likely to make its way to the stage than to the screen. A situation would be posed, personal testimony given, and while the judgments ranged far and wideHow interesting. He said that, and you didnt leave him to O-mi-gahd, isnt that rho-maaan-tic to Well, I do think people should be reasonable about these thingsalmost invariably they would end with some smartly dressed woman in her fifties rattling the pages of the Times while she pronounced, Forget it, theyre all a bunch of shits. You dont reason with them, you isolate them in a laboratory.
It was as if Bobby wasnt there, wasnt one of them. And indeed, no matter what was said, his eyes glowed with interest and gratitude. Once the women started talking, he ceased being ringmaster and became mascot.
As the years went on, and I passed out of my twenties into my thirties, the script began to change. The womens movement had now declared the personal political, and the conversation at Tonys Beauty Home was altering. There was still always someone moaning, O-mi-gahd, thats so rho-maaan-tic, but, interestingly enough, the knee-jerk man-haters no longer had the final word. The situation induced opinionated response exactly as it had before, only now the anecdotal evidence often triggered theoretical speculation instead of sit-com conclusions. Journalism was being traded in for philosophy. Bobby was out of his mind with joy. His scissors would stop in mid-air for minutes at a time as he listened mesmerized to some position paper being delivered by a young woman in jeans with Sisterhood is Powerful in her lap, while the Repub-lican committeewoman opened her mouth two or three times but somehow failed to speak. Now, it was clearly cultural history that was in the dock, not simply men. How exhilarating the woman in jeans made it sound! We were all implicated. It was sexism that was guilty, not men as such. I remember she was forever saying men as such.
By the late Eighties we were all familiar with the charge against cultural history, and keenly aware that its implied revolution had not exactly been accomplished. Especially not on the second floor across the street from Carnegie Hall. For many of us, it was as though enlightenment had taken two steps forward, one step back, and, in an oddly telling way, the atmosphere in Bobbys shop reflected the strong discomfort of this provocative juncture. Conversations that seemed to be going down a familiar road would suddenly veer off in an unexpected direction, take a startling turn, drop into a cul-de-sac: developments that inevitably reminded one of the changing yet unchanged times, or, conversely, suggested that the times often looked the same but were in fact not.
One day during this period I took a seat at Bobbys while a woman with a mass of gray-brown hair sat in the barber chair, talking about how impossible her daughter was becoming, she just didnt know what that girl wanted. To my left sat an elegant-looking woman reading the Times, to my right a woman in jeans with a pop psychology paperback on her lap and, further down the row, two others gazing quietly off into space. One of these two was a woman in her seventies, beautifully dressed, her hair strikingly thick and white, her skin soft and quite unwrinkled. She was the next one to take her place in the chair. When she did, I saw her eyes. They were blue, cold, and bright as sunlight on water.
Bobby smoothed back her hair with a tenderness born of long familiarity.
How are ya, Rose? he breathed softly, his lips close to her ear.
Oh, Bobby, for Gods sake! she said sharply, pushing his face away.
He laughed. Same old Rose, he said.
Her lips narrowed, and she shrugged one shoulder.
He began to cut her hair.
For a while the room was silent. But for how long could Bobby maintain silence?
So tell us about your marriage, Rose, he said.
Two of us looked up, startled.
For Gods sake, Bobby, the woman in the chair said. I will not.
Aw, cmon, Rose, everybody would love to hear about your marriage. He turned to us. The Times reader looked over the top of her paper. Its a very romantic story, he said.
Youve heard it a thousand times, Rose sniffed.
Yeah, but they havent.
What am I? A performing animal? I have to tell that story every time I come here? Please.
Ah-h-h, dont be that way, Rose, Bobby pleaded, his hands cupping her head.
Just cut, Bobby, okay?
Ah-h-h, Rose, dont be that way, he said again, his voice now a liquid sedative.
The woman in the chair shrugged, but clearly the fight had gone out of her.
Well, as you know, she said, bringing her fingertips together over her lap, her head inclining toward Bobby, I was living in the Bronx at that time. When I first met him. Her eyes landed on the woman in jeans, who was still holding her book but now looking up. In those days there werent so many of us who went to business, you know, she said to this woman. This is fifty years ago were talking about.
So if you wanted to stay respectable, and of course I did, you lived with a family. Either in the Bronx or in Brooklyn. I would have lived in Brooklyn with my sister but my brother-in-law wouldnt have me in the house. He said I turned her against him. All I did was give her another pair of eyes to see what any child could see, how rotten he was, but thats another story. So I went to live with this very nice family in the Bronx, where I had a room and a toilet all to myself, and the subway two blocks away. In fact, it was the last stop on the line, so every morning I sat five or ten minutes in the train, waiting for it to start, enjoying my paper.
One day, I see a nice-looking gentleman is sitting across from me, reading the same paper, and hes smiling at the same story Im smiling at. The next day hes there again, again across from me, again reading the paper. This goes on for a good few weeks. One morning I look up, and he nods at me. Im a little startled, but I nod back, after all, were human beings, arent we, and after that, every morning he sits across from me, and we nod to each other. This goes on for a good few weeks, maybe even months. Then he comes across the aisle, points at the seat next to me, and says, May I?Well, by this time, it would have been funny for me to say no, right? So I said, Its a free country. Be my guest.
With those words Rose fell silent. The woman with the Times started reading again.
Yeah, Rose? Bobby prompted. What happened then?
What happened then. What do you think happened then. We began to talk. Every morning after that, we talked for the entire hour it took us to get to 42nd Street, which is where I got off. He went one stop further to 34th. We talked and talked and talked. I can hardly believe it now, when I look back on it. How much we had to say to each other! So, as you can imagine, one thing led to another. And one day he asks me if we can have dinner together some time.
I told him straight out, then and there, it could never be. Mr. Levinson, I said. You are a married man, and I am a respectable girl.
What! the woman in jeans ejaculated. He was married?
Yes. Didnt I tell you that? Max Levinson was a married man.
This time everyone looked up.
Again Rose paused, again Bobby prompted her.
So what happened then, Rose? What did you do after that?
What did I do after that. Nothing. I did exactly nothing. We continued as we were. Except that every day now he begged me to meet him after work. Or even during the lunch hour. I wouldnt do it. For months and months I wouldnt do it. But he was at me constantly. He wore me down like water on a stone. One day I agreed. Lunch. After that, I have to admit, I got a little weaker. We began to meet almost every day for lunch, and I let him take my arm crossing the street. And I have to say I began to get used to it, and I liked it, I liked it very much. Whether or not I liked him, I dont know, but I liked it, if you know what I mean.
Every woman in the room nodded as one.
So then what, Rose? Then what?
So then we went on like that for a few months. By now, time is passing. Its more than a couple of years already that I know Max Levinson. And hes at me all the time to go with him, if you know what I mean. God, how that man hounded me. So I tell him, If you want me, Max, you gotta leave Mrs. Levin-son. This, he tells me, he cannot do. Why? She is a very sick woman, he couldnt live with himself if he left her. So, alright, I say, in that case there is nothing to be done. We have a situation we cannot solve. But still, he wants what he wants. He cannot give me up, he says. He loves me with a love he has never felt before, he says. Have me he must, he says.
O-mi-gahd, its so romantic, breathed the fourth woman in the room.
She had us all now.
So then what, Rose? Bobby pleaded.
So I determine I must leave the place I am living, and go to live somewhere else where he will not see me any more. And that is what I did. One day I got myself a room in another neighborhood, on another subway line, and I just disappeared. Max called the house a million times. He drove that family crazy. But I had left strict orders to tell him nothing. Absolutely nothing. I was gone from his life.
The room was silent.
Yes, Rose? Then what, Rose?
Five years passed. I never saw him, he never saw me. What had happened to each of us, nobody knew. Then, one day, Im walking with my girlfriend in the street in Greenwich Village, of all places, and suddenly there is Max Levinson in front of me. He takes me by the arm, asks my girlfriend to kindly go home, and marches me off to a restaurant. He sits down with a cup of coffee and a piece of danish, and he tells me hes never stopped thinking of me, not in all these years, and he begs me not to disappear again.
So it started all over again: walks, talks, lunches, and again hes begging me to go with him. I tell him Im willing to meet him for a meal and a walk, but Im still respectable and I will not go with him. In this way a year goes by. Then one day he calls me, and he says, Guess what?What?I say. Shes dead,he says. She died last night.
You could have heard a feather drop on the prison-gray linoleum.
So then what, Rose?
Then what. What do you think, then what. We got married.
Period. End of story. Rose shut her mouth as if this time she really meant to keep it shut. The atmosphere in the room grew tense. Even Bobby kept quiet. At last it was I, prodded by the irreverent times, who spoke.
So how was it, Rose? I asked.
Her lips compressed themselves into a thin line and, approached so directly, she stared into the middle distance.
I dont regret it, she said firmly, but I heard something like regretmaybe it was angerin her tone.
She turned fully toward me, and I saw that the sun had gone down on the blue of her eyes. They were no longer cold, but there was no light in them, either.
Everyone looked at the floor. The silence in the room seemed to accumulate exponentially. Somehow, the moment seemed historic. It was as though an era at Bobbys shop had suddenly completed itself.
Vivian Gornick has written eight books, including a memoir, Fierce Attachments, and two collections of essays, Approaching Eye Level and The End of the Novel of Love.