Mark Willen


I walk down eight stairs and back four decades to get to my barbershop. The shabby door with the wire grille always sticks, and it takes a good shove to get it open, but I’m rewarded with the tinkle of the tarnished brass bell that is attached. No electric eye here. I peer into the semi-darkness; the fluorescent lights sticking out from the ceiling can’t compensate for windows that are half-underground. The smell of cumin and ginger from the ground-level Indian restaurant tinge the air.

Mr. Shin, who has only worked here a few months, peers around the corner hoping to land a new customer, but when he recognizes me as one of Nick’s regulars, his smile droops and he goes back to his chair and his Korean newspaper. I say a loud “Good morning,” trying to include Mr. Shin in the greeting, but he’s lost interest in me and doesn’t look up.

I’ve been coming to the Sifnos Barbershop for eight years, since I stopped trying to ignore my spreading bald spot. No point paying for a fancy hair stylist when there is so little to style. I had been walking past Sifnos for months, wondering about the submerged entrance marked only by a small sign and a barber’s pole, a relic of a bygone era not completely gone by.

There’s something oddly romantic about the no-frills shop, a reminders of simpler days and simpler people. Nick, my barber, lives in that era. At 84, he still trudges into the city six days a week to cut men’s hair from eight in the morning until five-thirty at night, later if there’s a customer to be served. His only vacation is a week at Christmas when he visits his sister back in the old country. I think of him as a hero from a Chekhov story, but his name is Nick, not Grigori, and he comes from Greece, not Russia.

Nick is the owner of Sifnos, or at least it is his name on the lease, and in the eight years I’ve been coming here, a progression of other barbers have presided over the other chair in the shop, working independently of Nick but sharing the rent.

Mr. Shin is the latest to take a turn, and I wonder just how long he’ll last. He doesn’t have many customers, and while he and Nick are cordial enough to each other, I can’t see how they coexist. Mr. Shin often talks loudly in Korean on his cell phone, even when he’s cutting hair, and he and Nick rarely have much to say to each other. But then I’ve never heard Nick say much to anyone.

Nick always shrugs off his age and says he’s fine, but he shuffles rather than walks, and his hearing isn’t very good. I trust his eyesight, though I always pick the electric shaver for the back of my neck rather than the straight razor he offers.

Nick calls me Mr. Mark, and I never know whether that’s a joke or if he thinks Mark is my last name. I call him Nick, in part because I don’t know his last name. I used to think it was Sifnos until he told me Sifnos was a town in Greece. I asked him if he was born there, but he just shrugged. I don’t know what the shrug meant. Communicating with Nick can be hard, either because he doesn’t hear or understand my questions or because he’s governed by rules from an earlier day when it was best not to reveal too much about yourself.

The first time I sat in Nick’s chair, I was a little nervous, surprised at how old he was even then and not sure what to expect in the way of hair-cutting talent. I urged him not to cut my hair too short. I wanted it to cover the tops of my ears, which strike me as funny looking. He seemed not to understand, and we settled on a description of “Not too short, not too long.” Now every time I get in the chair, he repeats it. “Not too short, not too long,” he says with a little laugh. Nick then proceeds to cut my hair the way he thinks it ought to be cut, which is much too short. At the end, when he hands me the mirror and asks for my approval, I’m always surprised at how severe it looks, but I still say, “Fine, that’s good,” and then hold the mirror high to see the top of my head and tell my own stale joke, accusing him of making the bald spot bigger.

The shop is in an expensive part of the city, but there is nothing expensive about the shop. It is tiny, with room for the two barber stations and half a dozen unnecessary chairs for waiting customers. The old wallpaper is yellow with red flowers, and it is everywhere, even on the restroom door, with the doorknob sticking out perversely as the stamen in one of the flowers. Dirt and smudges are a permanent part of the design. They help cover the seams and the peeling.

I once asked Nick if he had plans to retire, and he shook his head. “When they bury me,” he said. He likes to keep busy, a widower for two decades without children or family nearby.

On this cold winter afternoon, I shrug off my coat and shake hands with Nick, who offers his chair and then flaps the sheet in the air before placing it over my clothes and around my neck. “Not too short, not too long,” he says with a short laugh. I say something about the weather being nasty and he grunts in approval. It is early December, and I ask about his Christmas plans, and he tells me the dates he’ll be gone.

He settles into cutting, and I stop trying to make conversation. My eyes traverse the magazines in the stacks. There seem to be at least six different issues of Playboy, with multiple copies of some. I wonder if barbers get complimentary subscriptions the way doctors do. I stare reading the headlines—“How to Keep Her Happy in Your Bed,” “The Perfect Breast,” and the old standby, “10 Ways to Last Longer”—when I hear the bell’s tinkle. All three of us—Nick, Mr. Shin, and I—look to the doorway and a tall black man enters. His eyes take in the dimly lit scene and I can tell he’s never been here before. He hesitates, and Mr. Shin moves closer and asks him if he wants a haircut.

The man looks around again and mumbles something inconclusive. I recognize it as the point where a customer tells a pushy salesperson that he’s just looking and then heads for the exit. But Mr. Shin presses on, saying his next appointment isn’t for half an hour and he can cut the man’s hair now. I doubt there is another appointment, and I think the customer does, too, but he doesn’t want to be rude.

“How much?” he finally asks.

“Seventeen dollar,” says Mr. Shin.

“Okay,” says the young man. “I’ll be right back.”

“Cut your hair now,” the barber says, a little too insistently.

“I need to go to the ATM and get some cash,” the man answers. “I’ll be back.” I can see he is desperate to get away, but Mr. Shin is just as desperate not to let him leave, knowing that if he does, he won’t be back.

“No, no,” he says. “I cut hair now, you come back, pay later.”

The man hesitates, not sure he’s heard correctly. I steal a look at Mr. Shin, whose face is tense and twisted, and then look in the mirror at Nick, but he just keeps cutting my hair as though he’s oblivious to what is going on around him.

“I give you haircut now, you pay me later,” the Korean says again.

“I’ll go to the ATM and be right back,” the would-be customer says, a pained expression on his face. He is embarrassed for the barber but unwilling to give in.

Fifteen dollar,” says Mr. Shin, “No tip. You will look good.”

“I’ve got to go to the bank anyway. I’ll be back.” The man has found his voice and made up his mind.

Fifteen dollar. You look very, very good.”

But the young man picks up his pace, as though he has to outrun the pleading barber. We hear the door slam and the hollow sound of the bell tinkling.

Mr. Shin walks back and settles down in his empty barber chair. He says nothing. After a moment, Nick turns my chair to get a different angle on my hair, and I get a better look at Mr. Shin. But there is nothing to see. He has picked up his newspaper and is staring at the pages. It is as though the young black man had not entered.


Mark Willen received a Master of Arts in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. His short stories have appeared in the Corner Club Press and as a journalist has been published by Kiplinger, Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg News.