A Tale of Two Barbers: Frank’s Lives On, But Rocco’s the Boss

Since my freshman year at Stuyvesant High School in 1975, I’ve been getting my hair cut at Frank’s on Spring Street. It’s an unassuming barbershop just east of Sixth Avenue, complete with a revolving red, white and blue pole and metal folding chairs out front for the locals to gossip in Italian as they watch the customers come and go. The key figure at Frank’s has always been Rocco, a white-haired, elfin man with a perennial glint in his eye. I had always assumed the shop was called Rocco’s, until one day I looked on the awning and noticed it wasn’t. Frank, a dark-haired, stocky man, was also there, but seemed to play straight man to Rocco’s rat-a-tat storytelling.

All New Yorkers get inured to change. Yet each of us finally cracks when some key landmark of our youth is casually overthrown and replaced with something designed to demean that precious memory. For me, it was the Gap that replaced the Saint Marks Cinema. Eventually, however, anger is replaced by resignation, and we promise ourselves never to get so attached to anything in New York again.

But that’s easier said than done. And for me, Frank’s is a time and a place that I don’t want to let go of. When you could see the real Divine live in Woman Behind Bars in the East Village, rather than the Harvey Fierstein imitation at the Neil Simon Theatre. When you could spend the entire night watching Roman Polanski movies at the Elgin Cinema on West 19th Street. When you could dance with a waitress at 3 a.m. in the cavernous Changes bar on Broome Street, before Paul Schrader filmed Fingers there and it closed down.

At Frank’s, part of my fond memories involve the feeling that I was invisible to Rocco and his crew, who seemed to exist in a parallel Italian universe. Except once: I had a friend at college who was having an affair with a wealthy, elderly Italian count who spoke no English. She told me that whenever the count would manage to penetrate her, he would proudly exclaim: ” Che cazzo !” During one haircut, Rocco noticed a flash of recognition cross my face when he used the term cazzo as he told an apparently ribald tale. He launched into a long story in Italian. I laughed along, feigning understanding. It was a moment of intimacy with Rocco that was not repeated, but that I will always treasure.

Over the years, there have been changes, to be sure. John (Lafave Santo on his barber’s license) joined in the late 80′s. Then, more dramatically, Irina, a Russian émigré (who was actually a better barber than the rest) came on board when Frank retired and moved back to Italy in 1993. The essential feel of the place stayed the same, however.

Then, one Sunday about three years ago, I biked down to get my hair cut and saw Rocco sitting outside of a trendy hair salon called Anonymous, around the corner from Frank’s on Sullivan. When I got to Frank’s, I asked Irina what had happened.

“It’s very sad,” she said, clearly upset. “I don’t want to talk about it.” All I could get out of Irina was that the store had been sold and that there had been an angry disagreement between Rocco and the new owners. The salon around the corner had taken Rocco in and was allowing him to perform his $10 haircuts alongside their $50 “treatments.”

This posed a dilemma. Having my hair cut by Rocco at a fancy salon just didn’t seem the same. But Frank’s without Rocco-particularly with a banished Rocco plying his trade around the corner-just felt wrong. I hoped it would all be resolved by the time I had to get my next haircut.

But when I came back, Frank’s was closed. A makeshift sign suggested unconvincingly that it might reopen. I went around the corner to Anonymous and found no Rocco, only $50 haircuts, although the hairdresser there said she thought Rocco still came in sometimes. After that, I tried to avoid the area entirely.

Then, one day during the summer of 2001, I found myself on Spring Street and couldn’t help going to see what had become of my little barbershop. As I approached, I could see that it was no longer called Frank’s, but the Hair Box. The interior had been redone, including tacky new oversized tile on the back wall purporting to show hairstyles through the ages. Even the barber chairs had been moved from one side of the shop (where they charmingly blocked the door) to the other.

Just as I was about to walk away in disgust, I saw Rocco emerge from the back of the cramped shop. I went in immediately to get a haircut and ask Rocco what had happened. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t make heads or tails out of what Rocco was saying. I could see from their barber licenses on the wall that John and Irina were back as well. So I ignored the new décor and fell back into my familiar pattern, coming for a trim and a shave every few months.

Still, I was curious about what had really happened. Irina had intimated that the owner of Anonymous had bought the place, so I went over there to ask. What I heard was an unusual New York story: It has a happy ending, and the landlord is one of the good guys.

Pat Winters has owned Anonymous for 16 years. It turns out that the reason they called the barbershop Frank’s is that it really was Frank’s. When he retired, Frank gave the lease to his brother-in-law, and Rocco became his employee. This went along fine, until Rocco and Frank’s family had some kind of disagreement. Pat didn’t know what it was about when she took Rocco in, and all I could make out from what Rocco said was: “They threw me out.”

Business suffered from Rocco’s absence, and then the rent on the lease went up.Frank’sfamily stopped paying rent, and the marshals came to shut the place down. The landlord, who was aware that the location had been a barbershop for most of the century-dating 60 years beforeFrank’seven opened in 1971-approached Pat to see if she would take over the lease. Pat offered it to Rocco, who complained that he was too old to take on the responsibility, but agreed to work there if Pat took it on. The landlord, Martin Herzog, agreed to a reasonable eight-year lease with only 1 percent annual rent increases.

The place re-opened in May 2001. Pat has heard a lot of complaints about the new décor, but she has no apologies: “It was a disgusting place: filthy, cockroach-ridden-even though it was ‘charming,’” she pointed out.

As for Rocco, according to Pat, he just turned 73 and is working as hard as ever, arriving every morning at 8 a.m. sharp.

“Some days, he won’t eat. He worries the customers won’t wait. I tell him: ‘Rocco, they’ll wait.’”

Pat says she’s actually making a little money on the place, but that isn’t why she did it.

“It wasn’t right,” she explained. “Frank should have left it to Rocco. Now Rocco is the boss.”