Jack Tame: One man out of 100 is a cut above the rest

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Ilyusha's Barber Shop in Harlem, New York. Photo / Jack Tame
Ilyusha's Barber Shop in Harlem, New York. Photo / Jack Tame

In the window are photos of haircuts, itemised, laminated and fading. On the wall inside are about 100 more heads, each with a different design.

Each cut is assigned an identical square plot and some plots have numbers in the corner like a menu at a Chinese restaurant.

Ilyusha's haircut posters are purely practical; the photos are grim. In the half dozen times I've been to his Harlem barbershop, I've never seen a customer order a haircut from a photo. Radicalism is a rarity in Ilyusha's barbershop. A haircut is a haircut.

"Short but not too short," he said in his throaty Uzbek accent, as I plonked myself down in his seat. It's up to the customer to challenge his styling assessment and it's better to simply agree.

Ilyusha charges $10 for a haircut. If you come during his lunch break he re-seals his Tupperware and leaves his leftovers on the bench for later. Lunch smells like oily cabbage and onions. Ilyusha doesn't wash his hands afterwards and the floor often has lots of hair on it.

Ilyusha's barbershop is not a Jandal-friendly environment.

Unlike some glitzy salon, conversation is generally limited to the essential, as $10 doesn't buy glossy magazines and certainly doesn't buy gossip. The man before me this week had a cut-throat shave and I could hear every scratch of Ilyusha's blade, both men absolutely silent.

Ilyusha's Barber Shop has a certain slow, reflective charm. It's not for everyone.

Ilyusha knows though, when he cuts my hair, I like to ask him questions. He's never in a hurry to answer, but he is intelligent and considered and interesting.

"Are you a political man, Ilyusha?" I ask this week, as he oils his clippers with spray from an aerosol can.

A pause. The buzz of the clippers.

"Of course."

Ilyusha always looks weathered. He wears heavy clothing. His body looks heavy, too, but he's not fat. His hair is white and grey and going. It's always two days since he shaved. Ilyusha has the look of a man for whom life has at times been trying. A man who has seen some shit.

"2008 was my first election," he told me, cutting a perfect straight line across my forehead. Ilyusha's regular customers know it's best to keep some hair product at home - he favours the "Friar Tuck" fringe.

"You must have been happy to vote here?" I asked.

"Of course."

Ilyusha told me how he left Uzbekistan and a town near Tashkent in 1991, just as the Soviet Union broke up.

He told me he believes house prices are still crippling the middle class in his adopted home, that he can't understand why he should pay a higher tax rate than people who are richer. He told me what he considers to be defining issues for November's election. "In America there is opportunity," he said. "But the poor number many more than the rich."

"Of course," I replied.

On Ilyusha's wall of 100 heads and haircuts is a singular standout.

It is a photo cut neatly from an old newspaper, of a man with a trim haircut and a clean shave.

The page is browning but its photo and caption are spread perfectly flat across Ilyusha 's mirror by seams of Sellotape along the edges.

Indeed, it is a prime position.

Eye-level for a standing man, directly above the barber's chair. Ilyusha passes it by every time he lifts his eyes from a scalp.

It is the only smiling face on Ilyusha's wall of heads. It is a photo of Barack Obama.

- Herald on Sunday

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