Conversation with a Master Barber

Master Barber Boris K. has been cutting New Yorkers’ hair for more than 30 years. Today, he does so from his Upper East Side barbershop, Il Figaro II.

A few years ago, I felt confident enough as a regular customer to ask Boris if I could interview him while I got my haircut. For better or worse, here’s the minimally edited transcript of our chat. I’ve even included the songs that were playing in the background.

BORIS K: So what are we doing today? Not too short?

ME: I don’t mind it being a little shorter on the sides and back. How many inches do you think?

BK: Maybe half an inch?

ME: Okay, do you think that’ll look good?

BK: You don’t want too short, right?

ME: No, not too short.

BK: But not too long either?

ME: Right. Whatever you think will look best. So, in your 30 years of cutting hair, do you have any funny stories?

BK: Funny stories?

ME: Yeah.

BK: You mean about being a barber?

ME: Yeah. Whatever comes to your mind, if you can share it.

BK: Funny stories?

ME: Yeah.

BK: Well, I used to work in Astor Place. Do you know this place? In the village?

ME: No, what is it?

BK: A barbershop. It used to have around a hundred barbers at one time. I worked there maybe ten years. Big, big place. A couple floors.

ME: Did you have your own chair?

BK: Yes, yes, everybody had a chair. There used to be around 30 chairs. Maybe forty. If you came a little late, that’s it. Come back tomorrow—no place to work. It’s a crazy place.

ME: What are some of the craziest things you remember about it?

BK: Well, you have to work seven days a week. 12 hours, 14 hours a day. It’s too much. Too many hours. Too much pressure.

ME: Was anyone ever upset with their haircut?

BK: No, I used to do a good job. I don’t know about anyone else but I used to do a good job. I used to work on the top floor, and the top floor was very good. If somebody’s good, he goes on the top floor. If somebody’s so-so, they put them downstairs. So, you’re trying to make a movie or what?

ME: No, not a movie. It’s for a…

BK: Story?

ME: No, it’s for a zine.

BK: Mhm.

ME: Which is like a little pamphlet-sized thing…

BK: A story.

ME: Yeah.

ME: Do you miss Astor Place?

BK: Nah. I left 20 years ago. I have a couple friends who still work there. They have some nice people over there but they’re stuck. It’s not easy to leave a place when you make money. So, not too much? Just a trim?

ME: Yeah, just a trim. I have to enjoy my haircuts because I don’t know how long I’m going to have hair on my head.

BK: How old are you?

ME: 28.

BK: So you’re still young.

ME: Yeah.

BK: Don’t worry. It’s still going to be there.

ME: You think so?

BK: Yeah, it’s going to stay there.

ME: Good. I figure if I take my hair to a nice barber it’ll want to stick around.

BK: Why not? They have shampoo.

ME: Actually, I started experimenting with my own shampoo. Have you heard of this? You mix three tablespoons of rye flour with water. That’s it.

BK: Ah, nice.

ME: What do you think of that?

BK: Why not?

ME: But then the flour started to clog my shower drain so I had to switch.

BK: Mhm.

ME: And the conditioner is apple cider vinegar deluded in water. It’s supposed to help the hair shine.

BK: Ah, why not?

ME: I told my mom and she said, “Oh, god, do you need money?” She thought I couldn’t afford shampoo.

BK: No, you want to keep your hair.

ME: So what would you tell someone who wants to be a barber?

BK: If somebody wants to be a barber?

ME: Yeah.

BK: Why not?

ME: Any advice?

BK: You have to be young. And you have to love it. You can’t just be a barber. You have to love the job.

[Boris shows me the back of my head in his hand mirror.]

ME: Yeah, that looks great.

BK: I took all the curls off.

ME: Yeah, thanks.

ME: So, where does a master barber get his hair cut?

BK: Me?

ME: Yeah.

BK: My wife—she works here, she does it.

ME: Do you cut her hair?

BK: Of course.

ME: Do you have any regulars who’ve followed you to the Upper East Side?

BK: A few from Brooklyn. But, you know, nobody’s going to follow you. It’s too far away. You can’t depend on them. You have to depend on the neighborhood here. If you depend on people who are going to follow you, you’re never going to make it.

ME: Right, I went to a barbershop around here…

BK: Where?

ME: I think it was on 80th and 1st.

BK: Mhm. But not professional?

ME: Yeah, it wasn’t very good. They did offer me a shot of whiskey or vodka, though.

BK: I have those, too.

ME: So you don’t have any funny stories?

BK: Funny stories?

ME: Yeah.

BK: Every story is a funny one. That’s true, right?

ME: Yeah.

BK: Tilt your head to me. Uh huh. Good. Now, have a seat over there. I’m going to rinse your hair.

ME: How long do you think you’ll be a barber?

BK: Who, me?

ME: Yeah, man.

BK: For the rest of my life. Why not? I like it. Some people, they don’t like it. I like it. You have to like what you do or don’t do it.

[Boris turns off the blow dryer and shows me the finished result]

ME: It looks great. Thank you. I look presentable now.

BK: Take a look at the back.

ME: Yeah, it looks great.

BK: Not too short, not too long.

ME: Perfect.

BK: So, you want a shot of whiskey?