By Cherno Baba Jallow
He was my first New York City barber in 2014. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should trust him with my hair. I doubted him. He proved me wrong.
How the Dominican Ricardo Pena became my barber was purely an act of serendipity. It wasn’t planned. He was the only one available when I walked into the Jordan MVP barbershop in my old neighborhood on West 192nd and Broadway in the Washington Heights section of Upper Manhattan, New York City.
This was in 2014. I was newly-arrived from Detroit. At first, it was a culture shock for me. Washington Heights is Hispanic-dominated with a huge influx of Dominicans. These barbers here —- their styles and ambience —- looked different, not what I was used to living in the neighborhoods of West Detroit. There, the barbershops were run by African-Americans in a predominantly black city. The music inside those shops was R&B and hip hop. I listened to Tupac, Eminem and the D12, Dr. Dre, Snopp Dogg, Scarface and Mobb Deep. I feasted on Gangsta Rap music and its lyrical portait of the hardscrabble life in the American inner city.
Inside the Jordan MVP on that fall evening in 2014, my first visit to a barbershop in New York, the music was anything but familiar. It was Bachata, this Spanish — and African —influenced, fast-paced and pulsating rhythm of Latin American music with origins in the Dominican Republic.
Ricardo was bobbing to the music in the corner. Unlike his colleagues who were all busy at work, Ricardo seemed to have a lot of free time at his disposal. He had no one in the chair. Was he a new barber starting to build up a clientele? Did he get stood up on an appointment? Was it just a dry day for him? Was he a good barber?
Subconsciously, I was already prejudiced against Ricardo even as I allowed him to cut my hair. And the fact that he spoke very little English added to my anxiety about him and the possibility that I might leave the shop simmering in a cauldron of discontentment.
But Ricardo surprised me. My haircut turned out excellent —- I loved it. I kept checking myself in the mirror, marveling at my beautiful fade with the neatly trimmed side burns and a face aglow and resurgent.
Ricardo’s dexterity took me aback. But it was his affability, more than his flair, that drew me to him. He turned out witty and hearty and open. He wanted to know about me: he asked where I lived and where I came from, if I was married and if I had kids. And if I was a student and what kind of work I did.
I wasn’t used to having barbers engage in conversations with me, exchanging wisecracks and getting to know me. I was only used to barbers who were all about business —-they said or opened up very little. Their services offered no possibilities of acquaintanceship on the chair and beyond it.
Ricardo left the Jordan MVP barbershop in 2016 and launched his own in Bergenfield, New Jersery, about an hour bus-ride away from my old neighborhood. I still visited him there every two weeks for several months. I had planned on keeping him as my barber. But wishes are one thing. And plausibilities are another. When I relocated to the Bronx, further from New Jersey, I realized I couldn’t sustain my biweekly commutes to Ricardo.
But with my current barber away on vacation, and since I don’t like changing barbers, Ricardo will be my fill-in for now. He and I have a history. More than that: it’s about his services, his good-naturedness and his delivery. I have never forgotten that.