Quick question for anyone who frequents barbershops: Does anybody actually talk baseball where you get your hair cut? I’ve been hearing all my life about guys sitting around barbershops mulling the state of the world, particularly baseball. It’s never happened to me.
I went to the same barber, Mario, for 21 years, from 1974 to 1995. Never once did Mario engage me in baseball talk. It’s not like I didn’t give him clues, like wearing a Mets jacket and — because my hair was so unruly by the time I rolled in to see him — a Mets cap. But nothin’. Our entire two-decade relationship was amiable but rather limited.
Fine. How are you?
I’m fine. Howyoufamily?
[A specific inquiry regarding one of my parents or my sister’s marriage]?
The haircut would proceed without comment. Other guys in other chairs chatted. Mario did a little crosschat with those barbers and those customers. Me and he, despite our longstanding relationship, never had more than two dozen words for each other. We always smiled, but then went shtum . It was never weirder than when we showed up at the same wedding — my friend married his partner’s daughter for a couple of months — and we greeted each other warmly before lapsing into absolutely nothing to say. Other than there being no scissors, no comb and no tall bottle of blue-green liquid  on a counter, it was pretty much like all our transactions.
When the silent haircuts were finished, he’d joke about how much better I looked now (the joke part was what I looked like when I came in), I thanked and paid him, he’d urge me to send my regards home, perhaps ask whenyoudaddycominin? and that was that.
Satisfying enough from a folliclesque standpoint. But not one “how about those Mets?” To which you might say, so? Maybe he wasn’t a Mets fan. He probably wasn’t. Except I remember distinctly before Game One of the 1988 NLCS going into get a haircut because I had gone in to get a haircut before Game One of the 1986 NLCS. And in ’88 there was a kid, probably in his teens, getting a haircut from Mario before me and he was a Mets fan and was getting all kind of Mets inquiries from my barber. Mind you I was in the same jacket and cap as I had been two years earlier when I received not a nibble of baseball acknowledgement. Then it was par for the course. Now I was vexed.
This is it, I thought. This is my chance. Mario’s into it. The Mets fan teen is done. My turn. Mario and I exchange pleasantries, we have the haircut, we finish up, he wishes me well and then I hit him with “you know, I came in here before the playoffs started two years ago and the Mets won the World Series, so I figure this will be good luck.”
He smiled and nodded and said goodbye.
This barber shop was run by Italian men who were big soccer fans. Every four years during the World Cup they had TVs blazing. The rest of the time, it wasn’t all that sports-crazed. Except my friend Fred also went to this shop, had a different barber, Dom, and swears Dom consistently engaged him in baseball talk. About the Mets even. Fred was barely cognizant of the Mets.
Me? I got nothing but a haircut.
I hate getting haircuts. I’ve hated getting them since what I’m told was my second haircut when I was two. The first one I sat through calmly. The second one I went nuts, running around George’s Madison Avenue Barber Shop which was on Park Avenue (or Park Street…they never could keep that straight) in Long Beach. I don’t remember the first one. I do remember the second one. Perhaps I’m subconsciously expecting a replay of the second one every time I put off a badly needed haircut as I seem to be doing now. I think I reacted violently in 1965 because I was subject to George trimming my sideburns with that electric contraption they use and a pinch on my right cheek when he was done. “No machine, no pinch on cheek” was my insistence to my parents. They thought it cute. George thought it cute. I was serious.
No machine. No pinch on cheek. Got that?
George gave way to Leo, a nice German man. Leo cut my hair from the time I was, I’ll say, three until I was about ten. Then my mother got it in her head that I needed to have my hair styled at Andre’s. The place stank of hairspray and low-fat frozen yogurt. The haircuts weren’t particularly stylish either. A year later I wound up with Mario. He, like George, like Leo, like the stylist — some machine, no pinch on cheek, no baseball.
Since my 21-year barber retired to Florida, I’ve drifted from chair to chair, settling in for a year or two here or there sometimes but never wanting to get attached like I was to Mario. When Mario left town, it was tough going. Now I leave them before they leave me. But I’m still waiting for that baseball talk that might win me over for the long haul, that baseball talk I’m always hearing about. Bill Gallo  from the Daily News insists it goes on full-force where he gets his hair cut (then again, Bill Gallo insists it’s 1942). The last haircut I got, up the street from where I live, there was some lively chatter…into cellphones. One guy was lying to his wife about where he was. Swore he was picking up his car at the garage and would be home soon. Somebody else was getting the number of the shop wrong. It was right there in neon in the window. Look at it in the mirror, I was thinking, you’ll see it plainly. But he kept giving it out wrong and wondered why somebody couldn’t reach him. He needed the number because his cell was on the fritz. I’ll bet he didn’t know how to turn it on.
One barber where I used to live had a series of those neat Bill Goff  prints on the wall, the ones of ballparks and ballplayers. But we never talked baseball. Once he told me he was having a tooth problem. I recommended a dentist. He said he wasn’t interested in helping make some Jewish lady — the dentist’s wife, in his mind — rich. If he didn’t give such good haircuts I would have been more offended and stopped going sooner.
Eight springs ago my hair was as out of control as it is now. I was in the city on a Saturday and had no chance of getting back to my neighborhood barber with the vaguely anti-Semitic leanings that hadn’t yet revealed themselves before he closed, so I stopped in at a midtown hotel barbershop. It was an expensive haircut by my suburban standards, $25, but it was there and it got done. As I was paying, I noticed an obituary  from the Times taped to the wall above the register. It was M. Donald Grant’s.
“Did he get his hair cut here?” I asked, pointing to the obit.
“Oh yes,” the barber said with some reverence. “He was such a nice man.”
Maybe I’m better off not talking baseball in barbershops after all.