Old Italian barber shops in the United States are on the verge of extinction. For much of the 20th century, most big cities had many Italian barber shops. These barber shops and their trademark red, blue and white helical stripes or “barber’s pole” signifying whether the shop is open or closed, was as ubiquitous as a McDonalds or a Starbucks. The barber shops were a staple to most urban cities across America and this blue collar profession was dominated by many Italian male immigrants who had learned their skill in Italy before arriving in the US.
One of the few Italian barbers still around in New York City is Michele Cataldi, who works at Sigfrido’s Barber Shop located near Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Michele, or Mike as he is known by his regular customers (and by the way one of his regular clients is the former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly as well as his son, FOX reporter Greg Kelly who is the co-host of Good Day New York, a local news program) has worked at the Italian owned shop for more than thirty years.
Mike is your traditional Italian barber. He is very unassuming, short in stature, wears a barber’s jacket with a black comb protruding out of one of his pockets and always greets his customers with a warm smile. As he creates his work of art, he is usually the one to initiate small talk. The days of a barber who chatted while you sat in a vintage brown barber’s chair with a headrest as he clipped your hair and later gave you a shave with a straight edge razor, are few and far between.
Nowadays, these business establishments are like finding a needle in a haystack or at least trying to find Donald Trump’s hairline. The few barber shops that still exist promise a simple cut as well as a place that makes you feel at home. At the same time, these barber shops are also competing with innovative hair salons that promote their en vogue hairstyles and have fancy décors that placate a cliental whose desire for pampering and opulence can only be matched to King Louis XIV days and for that matter hairstylists that dress like the French monarch as well.
In this case, simple is what I and many more seek when getting a haircut. We are not looking for the aesthetic pleasure of an inside beauty salon or want our barber/hairstylist to wear four hundred dollar cologne or perfume. If anything we want to feel comfortable with the barber who is cutting our hair. Mike is one of those barbers that customers immediately trust and if you are like me, aside from your significant other, there are at least three other individuals that you want to be able to trust in your life: a doctor, auto-mechanic, and a barber.
Many men (of course lucky enough to still have hair in their 30s & 40s) are particular about our coiffure style simply because it defines who we are. Whether you are young or old, our hair becomes a huge part of our identity. It does not matter whether you are a male seeking a fresh fade or even a woman wanting the proper tint of hair color for her mane, or have decided to make that monumental leap for a “new look”, finding a barber/hairstylist who can consistently meet your standards may be a daunting task.
In fact for some, if the slightest error occurs like a crooked hairline or uneven sideburns this could lead to a month or two of depression or at any rate a few bad hair days. Michele Cataldi has been my barber (on/off because I have moved but eventually still find my way back to him and Sigfrido’s Barber Shop) for over thirty years. I was in my teens when I first went to Sigfrido’s Barber Shop and I have been a loyal customer ever since.
We both can remember one another when the gray hairs were not as noticeable. Yet today when I sat down, we chatted (like always) about the Yankees and Mets, work, family, and I suddenly realized I did not know much about the man who I have been coming to get my haircut for decades. When I came to this realization I was almost embarrassed and decided to ask more personal questions, I then listened more intently as he spoke.
Michele arrived in New York City in 1964. “I remember the year,” he said confidently in his Italian accent, “because it was the same year that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened.” He was born in Torre del Greco and learned his craft at fourteen years old as an apprentice in Naples. “My father was an umbrella maker but there was no future in that so I decided to be a barber. In the late fifties and early sixties there were no jobs in Italy especially for young people, I decided to make a new life for myself in the United States.”
While I focused on what Mike was saying through the mirror, I also realized that his lips move almost as fast as the symphonic sound that he makes with his scissors. His chattering draws the customer into his world while he is leading and in total control of what he is doing. As he held a pair of scissors in one hand and the ends of my hair with the other, he went on to say, “When I arrived, my very first job was working as a barber at the Park Sheraton Hotel. I worked in the same spot where Albert Anastasia was murdered by rival mobsters several years before.”
Mike eventually moved on and was hired at Sigfrido’s Barber Shop whose proprietors were three Italian born brothers, Sigfrido, Bruno (both presently retired) & Andy. As their business grew, they needed another barber. Mike with his affable personality was hired. Of course being Italian did not hurt. His entire demeanor and physical characteristics fit the part of an old school Italian barber.
This is quite evident as a few years ago, one of his customers, a producer for Boardwalk Empire, needed someone to play a barber in a scene. The producer casted Mike and in essence he portrayed himself in a brief scene during Boardwalk Empire’s final season. Mike reminds me as he gestures to his photo hanging on the wall that was taken on the set of the show, “it’s the seventh episode of the final season.”
Mike as well as the other barbieri are a huge part of Sigfrido’s Barber Shop. The other reason, however, why I and so many more customers keep coming back is for the old school atmosphere that is unique and nostalgic. Sometimes when I am waiting for Mike, customers may hear the teasing between the barbers/customers, or Italian opera or Sinatra playing in the background. There are the outdated magazines piled up in a corner or the smell of witch hazel, the sound of the electric shaver, and most of all the ringing of an old cash register whenever a customer pays. In a strange way Mike and the sounds and smells at Sigfrido’s Barber Shop are what make the experience comforting and the reason why I keep returning.