Al the Barber: the Luckiest Man in Williamsburgby Sean Silleck
Step into Al Criscillo’s barber shop on Metropolitan Avenue, across the street from the White Castle, and the feeling you’ve entered a time warp is overwhelming. Perhaps it is the look of the one-room shop, adorned with posters displaying examples of 1950s era hairstyles (the flat top, the Ivy league, the JFK), a pair of old fashioned reclining barber chairs complete with head rests (to allow a man full comfort when getting a shave, a service Al performs with a straight razor for the nominal fee of three bucks), and the old radio tuned to a station that plays nothing more recent than Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peggy Lee.
But perhaps the time-warp feeling is extended mostly by Al himself. In his white barber’s coat and thick-framed glasses, greeting everyone who enters his shop with a smile or a friendly nod, he is clearly a man of a previous, less hurried era. A number of customers may be ranged around the shop, thumbing through the Post as they await their turn in the chair, but Al will hold a hand on your shoulder as he asks if you’d like a little more off the top. He will not rush a haircut. He disdains the factory barber shops like Super Cuts and Astor Place, where the goal is to minimize time and the work is done with electric clippers. He will not cut your name in the side of your head. Ask him to do a fade and he will politely suggest you take your business elsewhere.
He opens his shop every morning at six, walking the three blocks from his house and stopping at a deli for a bagel and coffee. He has performed this same ritual for a half a century, yet he still considers every day a gift. He knows how lucky he is to be here.
After you’ve come into the store, hung your jacket on the coat rack and settled yourself in the chair, it takes only a short time, a brief comment on the weather or the neighborhood, for Al to open up. Ask him politely and he’ll gladly tell you his story.
He was born in 1917 in Arienzo, Italy, a small village outside of Naples. Trained as an apprentice barber, he emigrated with his family to New York when he was fifteen years old. The family settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which in 1932 was as heavily Italian as Manhattan’s Little Italy. Al neither spoke nor wrote English and soon after his arrival began night classes to learn the native tongue. His uncle was a barber and helped Al to find his first job, at a shop on Kingsland Avenue, where he earned a dollar a day.
“This was the Depression,” Al says, as he carefully trims the hair above your ear. “Everybody helped out, everybody did what they could for the family.”
In 1936 he got a break when he landed a job at a shop in South Ozone, Queens run by two brothers. The commute required him to take a subway, an elevated train and a bus— 2 nickels each way— but this was worth it because he was now making twenty dollars a week, a considerable raise. He worked here seven years.
He might have stayed much longer had not history intervened. In 1943, with the Second World War raging, Al was drafted into the army and one day found himself on an overcrowded troop train headed west to Oregon for training camp. It was a rude metamorphosis for the soft-spoken Italian barber from Brooklyn. The trip took five days— the recruits packed into the train like cattle— and ended at Camp Adair, which, with its heavily traveled roads, turned to mud from the incessant Northwestern rain quickly earned the nickname Swamp Adair.
Toward the end of his training Al was struck by the revelation that he would never be able to take a human life. Every time he held the heavy M1 Garand rifle to his shoulder it trembled in his hands. With trepidation he approached his commanding officer, a captain from the Bronx, and explained his predicament. At first taken aback by Al’s confession (a conscientious objector at this time could be sentenced to prison for the duration of the war), the captain took pity on him and, considering his talents as a barber, sent him to be trained as a medic.
Ten months later, following a track that wound through numerous camps between St. Louis and Boston, Al landed in Marseilles and was attached to General Patton’s Third Army, then chasing the retreating Germans toward the Rhine. Al was part of the staff in an aid station just behind the front line, the first stop for soldiers evacuated from the battlefield. His principle job was first to distinguish who could be saved and who could not. Once this decision was made he would set about the basic tasks of giving transfusions, helping to amputate limbs, clamping severed arteries, applying bandages and injecting narcotics. Between patients he would have to mop blood and dispose of body parts and bloody bandages. And all this while being close enough to the front to be within artillery range of the enemy. It was a very different shop he worked in now.
Under these grim conditions, Al, like most of those who fought in the war— men and women who had been snatched by the government out of ordinary lives— developed a fatalistic outlook on life. In war, death can come any day, any hour, any minute, so you learn not to look ahead, to do the task at hand and to grab whatever happiness comes your way. You learn to go slowly, to appreciate every moment.
Ironically it was after the war had ended, while he was part of the army of occupation, that Al came closest to dying. He was walking up a hill to visit a young German girl he’d begun seeing when a bullet snapped past his head, singeing his earlobe. As he was trained to do he dove to the ground (to run when being shot at, though instinctive, is suicide) and lay with his face pressed to the earth, holding every muscle perfectly still, for more than two hours. Finally, after a very careful look around, he discovered the shooter was gone. Al never learned who tried to kill him, whether it was an ex-German soldier or simply a citizen with a grudge. Such was the life of an American soldier in Germany even after the war was over.
It wasn’t until April 1946, a full year after Germany’s surrender and almost three years since he’d left Brooklyn, that Al was sent home. The transition back to civilian life was harder than many of the things he had endured in the war.
“I didn’t give a shit about anything,” he says, pausing his scissors to look at you in the mirror. “I wasn’t myself.”
The shock of the war had become a part of him. After two months of listless days and sleepless nights, Al went to see Dr. Levine, a psychiatrist at the VA Hospital. Dr. Levine listened sympathetically, then gave Al some sleeping pills and a prescription that he sealed in an envelope. Wary of strong medication, Al was determined to fill the prescription only if he absolutely had to, taking the sleeping pills to get through the worst of the nights. But when his depression failed to lift and his nightmares of the war continued unabated, Al reluctantly opened the envelope. Instead of a prescription he found a handwritten note from Dr. Levine, which said, simply, “get a job and come see me again in six months.”
Al took the doctor’s advice and found a job at a barber shop in Manhattan at 28th Street and 7th Avenue, as luck would have it just two blocks from the VA. Slowly the rigors and responsibilities of full-time employment began to displace the more painful memories of the war.
On the GI bill, Al began taking night classes at a beautician school, knowing that cutting women’s hair was far more lucrative than cutting men’s. It took five years to finish his degree but he ended up working as a beautician less than six months.
“I was a good beautician,” he says almost wistfully. “But women, they’re never satisfied. They say they want you to cut their hair, but really they want you to make ‘em look ten years younger.”
Al fled the clamor of Manhattan and the demands of the fairer sex and returned to the relative peace of Williamsburg. He took over the second chair in the shop on Metropolitan when the owner, an older man looking forward to retirement, promised to sell him the business. This promised sale took four years to complete (the owner content to have Al do most of the work while he gambled away most of the profits), but finally Al had a place of his own.
With the exception of the period surrounding the arrival of the Beatles in America (when men’s hair grew shaggier and took as long to cut as a woman’s), the business prospered, allowing Al to buy a house and raise a family. But better than the benefit of financial security was Al’s great satisfaction at being able to do something he loved every day. Spending his days close to his family, talking to people who come into the shop, absorbed in the art of cutting hair and removed from the events of the larger world (and its unceasing wars), Al considers himself a very lucky man. And he is.
“This place for me has never been a job,” he says, finishing me up with a pat of gel and displaying the back of my head in his mirror. “After everything I went through, I don’t consider this work. Every morning I leave home and I come to my other home.”
So come into the shop and ease down in the chair. Talk to Al and listen to his stories and think of a different, slower time. As long as you don’t ask to him to make you look like Ringo Starr, the two of you will get along fine.
San Silleck is a writer living in Brooklyn.