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Berger’s Burg: Whitestone barbers provide cutting edge in service

When one barber gives another barber a haircut, it is ear-rest time.

Remember to pick the barber with the worse haircut. They cut each other’s hair.

For many people, barbers, like bartenders, are their psychiatrists, confidants and sounding boards. Customers are very adept at using the Freudian method in choosing barbers, picking the one they can confide in and trust. Just as importantly, they choose a barber whom they sense would be the best at listening to their problems for the full 30 minutes of haircut time. All this is expected for the price of a haircut.

But the gnawing fear always in the backs of their minds is: What would happen if there were no barbers to interpret their Freudian slips? I could suggest Gloria, but she can’t cut hair, so these frustrated and deprived unfortunates would then be forced to talk with health spa masseurs, bowling alley attendants or even bartenders. Horrors!

Good barbers have to be special people with many diverse skills. In addition to owning a pair of sharp scissors and a pair of strong feet, the other characteristics they must possess are great patience, a good ear, willingness to listen, the ability to say, “really,” “yes” and “you are right” at exactly the right times and be blessed with the ability to end the haircut and the talk at the exact same moment.

It ain’t easy, my friend. Joe Picatagi and Leo Ferrara of Whitestone’s Classic Barber Shop have all of these barbering prerequisites.

I must have visited their barber shop for haircuts a zillion times. And each and every time, I departed relaxed and unburdened. My cares were always left in huge clumps on the barber shop floor and on Joe’s or Leo’s apron. How was this greatness developed, I always wondered? Putting my investigative skills to work, I soon found out.

I learned that “Fast Fingers” Joe (Guiseppe) was born in Baucina (Palermo Province), Italy. His father, Angelo, and four brothers were all barbers. Naturally, this abundance of family expertise was passed along to Joe. He learned the skills very well. In 1966 Joe eventually moved to this country where he met and married the beautiful Antenisca Nittoli. They have two children.

“Silver tongue” Leo, on the other hand, was born in Leoni (Avellino Province), Italy. His father, Pasquale, was a contractor. Although there were six other children in his family, Leo was the only barber. Leo immigrated to the United States in 1967 with his wife, the lovely Lena (Antenisca’s sister), whom he had known from childhood in Italy. But he was never taught the secretive art of barbering.

It was indeed lucky for Leo that Joe fell for and married Lena’s sister. This was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. Lena and Leo also have two children.

Joe taught the barbering trade to Leo and they opened their barbershop in 1970. The store began to be filled by guidance-seekers ever since. I suggested to Joe and Leo that they supply the waiting customers with couches and mood music to relax them before they faced the electric razor, but they nixed the idea. I guess they did not want customers to be reminded of a dentist’s office.

Joe proudly pointed out that their barber shop is the only establishment on the block that had not changed ownership at least once since it opened. “We must be doing something right,” Leo grinned.

“So, tell me,” I asked Leo, “what subjects do your customers talk about mostly?”

Leo thought a while and then took out his calculator. He pressed a few keys with his comb and provided the following numbers: work – 45 percent; marriage and relationships – 34 percent; and sports and other – 21 percent.

“Wow, you guys have gotten it down to a pure science,” I told them.

After Leo completed the haircut, one customer asked for a glass of water. “Are you thirsty?” Leo asked.

“No, I just want to see if my head leaks!”

I shifted to Joe, who was cutting another customer’s hair. The gentleman was in the middle of telling a heart-rendering story when suddenly he began to weep. “Don’t cry,” Joe said, trying to comfort him. “Things aren’t as bad as all that.”

“Yes, they are,” the patron replied. “You are nicking my ear.”

I noticed that the two barbers take their work very seriously. Both are extremely mild-mannered, courteous, easy to talk to and sympathetic.

“We know many personal things about our customers’ lives,” Joe whispered, “but we observe strict confidentiality, just like a priest at confession. We don’t tell anyone, not even our wives.”

“Would you tell a columnist?” I inquired. “Not even Bill O’Reilly,” was their firm reply.

I turned to Leo again, whose customer asked him to recommend a treatment for restoring hair on his balding top. “You are asking the wrong fellow,” said an embarrassed Leo, who pointed to his own balding head. “Recommend one to me.”

Another balding customer, sitting in the adjacent chair, promptly retorted, “Cheer up, fellows, God made a lot of heads. Those he was ashamed of, he covered with a lot of hair.”

Then from the waiting customers: “One thing about being bald — it is very neat.”

And another: “I wouldn’t say you were balding, Leo. You just have the widest part and the longest face I ever saw.”

I concluded that barbershops are filled with very funny people, with or without hair.

Joe and Leo agreed that it is still very gratifying to cut the hair of people from succeeding generations of original patrons. Their customers range in age from 2 to 90 and are a mix of many ethnic groups.

“They all are good customers and, do you know, they all like to talk,” Leo said.

Added Joe: “We will stay here forever, just as long as our customers want our conversation to accompany their haircuts.”

“One last thing,” I asked, “why do barbers always win races?” Leo and Joe looked puzzled. “Because they take short cuts,” I laughed.

I promptly left when I saw both of them hurriedly sharpening their razors.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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