On a mid-July day last year, one of the hottest in New York City’s history, I wandered down Suydam Street in Bushwick, sweating from the unabating sun that left the white, cotton tee draped about my shoulders soggy and bothersome. As I continued my walk, I stumbled across the tiniest barbershop I had ever seen: it took up no more than the space of a single garage. “Lalo’s Barber Shop” was printed in red capitalized letters on window.
The door was locked. Confused that a sign on the door said “open,” I looked at my watch and noticed it was 12:35 p.m.. I figured the shop was closed for lunchtime, so I waited for someone to return, imaging the character that might own the place.
Peering through the window, I noticed a variety of Puerto Rican curios: flags, an old license plate, a guitar with the Puerto Rican flag painted on its body, and a piece of timber crafted in the shape of the island. As a Puerto Rican myself, I hoped to relate to Lalo. If he wasn’t much of a talker, I could always challenge him to a game of dominoes, a pastime in our culture, to help break the ice.
After a half hour of peaking inside the shop and waiting patiently, a short man who looked like my grandfather appeared from around the corner. He walked to the barbershop, unlocked it, and with a hearty laugh, asked if I had come to trim my overgrown and untamed beard. I jokingly responded, “My beard is in fashion.” We stepped inside and I began to ask him about the story behind this tiny shop at 397 Suydam St. This was obviously the man I had been waiting for.
Lalo has been cutting hair for the last 40 years at his Bushwick barbershop. He opened it at a time when the neighborhood was known less for its artistic residents and more for its wild energy.
Clipper guards of various sizes and brands lay scattered on the shelf amongst photographs. Lalo spoke softly, smiling as he recalled some of the crazy events that would take place in front of his shop back in the 1970s. He told me about the gunfire and commotion that filled the air of the neighborhood and the salsa that would blast out of Chevy Bel Airs.
Lalo also told me about the relationships he has with loyal customers, some of whom have been coming for haircuts since he first opened for business. We talked in his shop for several hours and I didn’t leave until after the sun had slipped below the apartment buildings which sit along the M Train tracks.
All photos by Jose Alvarado for Bushwick Daily