“Perfect Professional Cut!”

When I first started a blog, I swore the one thing I would never do would be to write about getting a haircut. I mean, what could be more boring? But I guess rules are meant to be broken. Prepare to be bored!

For decades, anyone who grew up in New York City knew about Astor Place Hair — or as we knew it, simply “Astor Place.” It’s a downstairs, no-frills downtown barbershop with over fifty haircutters (I hesitate to call them “stylists”). For $15 you can walk right in and get a cut, all done in about twenty minutes. No need for a reservation, and the place is open until as late as 10:30 at night — perfect for getting a trim right before heading out on a Saturday night. Totally Old School, Astor Place has the requisite collection of Polaroids taped on their front windows of freshly-shorn hip-hop artists, singers, movie stars, and professional athletes — most of them sadly dating back twenty years or more. (When I first discovered Astor Place in the 1980s, they were known for their trendy cuts like boxes and fades. Later on, they offered karaoke as part of the hair-cutting experience, but I don’t think they do that anymore.) With its loud ambiance, peeling linoleum, bad lighting, and brusque employees, Astor Place always a late-night, seedy quality to it. It’s a real New York institution.

For years I went to Astor Place, and eventually found a barber who I thought did a good job with my unruly blonde locks. That’s part of the Astor Place tradition as well, finding your “special” barber. My barber’s name was Jay and he was from one of the Soviet republics. He had a brother named “Dr. Mike” who also cut hair at Astor Place. I always felt a little stupid, though, waiting behind two other customers for Jay when three barbers around him were sitting at their chairs with no clients. Was he really that superior?

Jay was known for whipping off the apron at the end of each cut and yelling out, in his thick accent, “Perfect professional cut!” He also not-so-subtly pressured over-tipping from his customers by waving the bills in the air — it seemed like some of his customers paid him a bigger tip than the cost of the actual cut. (Despite the pressure, I always stuck with $5.) By the early 1990s,when I had graduated from college and was living back in New York, I even had my roommate Jake and my girlfriend Sari going to Jay. Later, I heard that my dad and my half-brother became Astor Place customers as well.

Then Sari and I went off on our big round-the-world backpacking trip, and eventually moved away from New York. We stayed away for almost ten years.

When I did return to the Big Apple, I didn’t go back to Astor Place. I got the idea that the place was no longer “cool,” that it had become a pastiche of its former self. (Viz. the karaoke.) Also, I didn’t need the drama — all the yelling and the bad lighting. I started going to a small, family-run barbershop on 23rd Street. The guys there were also Eastern European, and the atmosphere reminded me of the first barbershop I went to on a regular basis, Lou’s, a place on Eighteenth and McDonald Aves. in Brooklyn.

After awhile, though, I became dissatisfied with my 23rd Street barbers. Like many factory-style places, they insisted on cutting my hair with electric clippers, not the traditional scissors, and I wasn’t happy with how the cuts were coming out. My wavy hair just doesn’t respond well to that method, and I was looking for a cut with a little more “character” to it. However, given that I’m way too cheap to shell out $50 or more for a high-end stylist, my options seemed limited.

Eventually, my brother-in-law Evan tipped me off to the Aveda Institute on Spring Street. Aveda couldn’t be more different than Astor Place: a view into the high-class world of the hair salon. The stylists are all students training in the patented Aveda method, with the cuts overseen by their teachers. The clientele are almost all women, a total one-eighty from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of Astor Place. Best of all, a haircut, free herbal tea, a head & neck massage, and a shampoo only costs $18!

The downside of Aveda, beyond the obvious risk of a student cutting your hair (and the attendant mistakes which may result), is the difficulty in getting a reservation — a two-week wait is standard — and the duration of the actual cut. It’s not unusual for a haircut to take upwards of two-and-a-half hours. As a freelancer, however, I didn’t mind the long time in the chair, and enjoyed bantering with the students, most of whom were just getting started on “grown-up” life.

I ended up going to Aveda regularly for about eight years, but this year it’s been increasingly difficult to find time for an apppoinment. I’ve been so busy traveling, continuing to do A.D.-related appearances, and most of all, working on my current project, The Influencing Machine, that I just haven’t been able to block out the four-plus hours — minimum — required. Throw in the fact that with Phoebe in preschool, I need to be around home more, and the fact is that life is getting more busy and complicated.

The first time I “slipped” was back in May when I was in Sydney, Australia for a week-long writer’s festival. I really needed a haircut, and I found a barber who offered a scissor cut for a slight premium. The cut turned out fine, and since then I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only made it back to Aveda once. And guess where I usually find myself instead? Yep, Astor Place. The fact is that it’s convenient, cheap, and open late — plus a scissor-cut doesn’t cost extra! Sure, I miss the homey, spa-like Aveda atmosphere, but Astor Place just fits into my current situation.

The amazing thing is that my old barber Jay is still working at Astor Place! (He “found” religion while I was gone, and now sports a yarmulke. Otherwise, he seems the same. And Dr. Mike has retired.) It feels too weird to go back to Jay, though — too many years to reel in — and I’ve since found a new “personal” barber. Sarra does a good job with my hair, and even throws in an eyebrow-hair-trim when the situation requires. (The indignities of getting older…) And best of all, I’m in and out in a half hour, tops.

Sari says she doesn’t like my Astor Place haircuts as much as the Aveda ones, but to be honest I don’t see much a difference. I admit to missing the neck message and the shampoo treatment, but the fact is that the time-saving just can’t be beat.

So, Thomas Wolfe, you may not be able to go back home, but you can always go back to your barbershop.

Old Unpublished Crap!

Digging through some stuff yesterday, I found this vintage piece in an old sketchbook.

I had just returned from my worldwide backpacking adventure and had settled in Chicago. I happened to live near Chris Ware (at that time an obscure cartoonist toiling away for the Chicago alternative weekly New City), and we had a mutual friend in common (Rob Walker, actually), so I met Chris and even hung out with him a little. He showed me his “sketchbooks,” which were actually meticulously drawn studies, ideas for Jimmy Corrigan, humorous one-page narratives, and the like. I was completely intimidated, of course, but one thing that particularly intrigued me about his sketchbook comics was that he did many of them totally impromptu, with no preconceived idea of where the story was going, just ad-libbing one panel after the other. This was very different from how I worked at the time (and certainly not the way Chris did comics for publication), but I was inspired to try it.

Thus, this goofy “intro” to my sketchbook. As simple as it is, it was the first time I tried doing an ad-lib story, and I remember being actually scared as I was doing it. Of course, it was liberating to not have to worry about sharing it with the public — not that I had much a public, having barely been published at that point! Anyway, it was fun, and the piece has a refreshing looseness, but it’s not really my “style.”  I returned to my traditional method of writing full scripts for subsequent comics — except for a 24-hour-comic I attempted back in 2002.

I’m afraid this intro is much more interesting than the actual piece, but courtesy of the JoshComix Way Way Back Machine—before A.D., before The Vagabonds, before American Splendor, before Keyhole, even before Keyhole Mini-Comics — here it is:

Read more of this post

Josh… the film critic?!

I’ve been a movie fan for all my life, dating back to when my university professor-mom would screen films on a bedsheet in our living room. Years later, when I was a college student, I took a number of film criticism classes, most notably one focusing on movies about the Vietnam War (which was a special passion of mine). I wrote a number of papers about those flicks. Then, in the early 1990s, I actually published some movie reviews, in the progressive weekly In These Times.

Recently, I stumbled across some of those old reviews and papers, which I’ve added to the "And…" section of my website. It’s funny, even though only half the reviews I wrote back in ’91/’92 got published, I really got into the whole "film critic" thing, and spent just as much time on the pieces  I knew would never see print — just for the fun of it. That was a period in my life when I was searching for my true creative outlet, having temporarily given up comics in disgust (before I discovered the wonderful — and lucrative! ;-> — world of alternative comix). I distinctly recall the passion I felt about film criticism. I loved unpacking the films, trying to read their subtext, judging their socio-political relevance — essentially treating them as works of art and not just "entertainment." The whole enterprise seemed like a big puzzle, and if I could twist my brain into enough loops, I could figure it all out: the films, the world, my life. No "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" for me — I pretentiously thought of myself as a critic; not a reviewer.

Of course, looking back on these pieces now, I fear they suffer from an overdose of PC moralism (I did go to Oberlin in the late 1980s, after all!). Nevertheless, I still feel they contain some degree of insight, and thus seem worth sharing. (The pieces on Full Metal Jacket, Eating, and Star Trek VI are probably the most interesting of the lot.) 

So if you’ve got a hankering to read about a random selection of almost-20-year-old movies, take a look…

Happy Days

Last night I went to BAM and saw Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days , starring Fiona Shaw. When I was a kid, I loved Happy Days, but I had no idea it was set in the 1950s. Being only nine or ten, living in a Southern California hippie/surfer community, and having only limited access to TV, I thought Fonzie, Richie, Potsie, and the gang were just a typical high-spirited group of  teenagers. In my relative isolation from the rest of pop culture, I imagined “normal” surburban American teenagers wore cuffed jeans, rode old motorcycles, and hung out in diners run by middle-aged avuncular proprietors. It totally went over my head that the show “took place” during my parents’ adolescence.

Also, much as I liked the Fonz, it bothered me that he was clearly not age-appropriate. I could buy Ron Howard, Anson Williams, and Erin Moran as teenagers, but Henry Winkler’s lupine mug clearly belonged to that of a grown man. How come no one ever noticed that???

TOP TEN MOVIES of… 1991?

I just found this in some old computer files, so in homage to the de riguer tradition of year-end top ten lists, here are my…

TEN BEST FILMS OF 1991! (compiled in 1991, when I was 24 years old)

Barton Fink (dir. by Joel Coen)
Cape Fear (dir. by Martin Scorsese)
Cyrano de Bergerac (dir. by Jean-Paul Rappeneau)
Dead Again (dir. by Kenneth Branagh)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. by Nicholas Meyer)
The Silence of the Lambs (dir. by Jonathan Demme)
The Double Life of Veronique (dir. by Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Thelma and Louise (dir. by Ridley Scott)
Truly, Madly, Deeply (dir. by Anthony Minghella)

I fancied myself a bit of a film critic back then, and even published a couple of reviews in the lefty weekly In These Times. All the same, my tastes were fairly unsophisticated  (as they still are now!), tending toward the mainstream.

Some of these films I hardly remember anymore, not having seen them in 16 years. But some – Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise, for example — are considered modern classics. At least one film, Barton Fink, has not in my mind stood the test of time. I’m a big Coen Bros. fan, but that particular film doesn’t do for me what it did back then. (To give Sari her props, she hated it at the time!) And as a kid who grew up during the Cold War, I still love Star Trek VI, with its un-subtle allusion to Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And, just to be fair, here are what I considered the…

TEN WORST FILMS OF 1991!

Blowback (dir. by Marc Levin)
Defending Your Life (dir. by Albert Brooks)
Delusion (dir. by Carl Colpaert)
The Doors (dir. by Oliver Stone)
Eating (dir. by Henry Jaglom)
The Fisher King (dir. by Terry Gilliam)
Green Card (dir. by Peter Weir)
Jungle Fever (dir. by Spike Lee)
The Last Boy Scout (dir. by Tony Scott)
Regarding Henry (dir. by Mike Nichols)

What’s notable about this list is how many bad films there are by good directors. Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, Peter Weir, Spike Lee, Mike Nichols — they’ve all directed many great films. But none of these are them! (And Tony Scott deserves mention just because his brother made the top ten list for that year, while he made the bottom ten.)

VWs, CHiPs, and California Paranoia

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI was reading a review of the new CHiPs DVD in The Times the other day and came across this observation, “In nearly every episode of the first season of ‘CHiPs’ a Volkswagen Beetle the color of a blood orange putters somewhere in the background, riding down the highway or parked at an illicit auto chop shop.” Suddenly, I had this flashback to fifth grade in San Diego. All during that year I kept seeing the same “flower power” VW bus (similar model to the right), whether it was driving by when I came out of school, or going the other way on the highway, or parked nearby when I went out to dinner with my mom. I just couldn’t shake it.

Growing up as pretty much the only Jewish kid I knew in SoCal, and never having watched any Woody Allen movies, I still had a finally developed sense of paranoia: I was sure that bus was following me! Maybe it was residual guilt I felt from my minor shoplifting career at Safeway (comic book digests, the ocassional Hotwheels car or toy motorcycle, and candy), but I definitely thought the brightly colored hippie bus was after me. It didn’t help that I never saw the driver, or that my friends or my mom didn’t take my fears seriously. But I was never really scared of the bus. I mean, what could someone driving a car as goofy as that do to a little kid? I think I just liked the idea that someone out there thought I was important enough to keep me under surveilance. And when I moved to San Francisco the next year, I never saw that bus again.

But what was the deal with that red VW Bug from CHiPs?

Expense Account

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI haven’t kept a journal or a diary since about 1981 (and that one only lasted about four months), but my obsessive record-keeping sometimes fulfills the same function. I recently came across some “expense accounts” I kept in the 80s when I first went away to college. What they are is item-by-item lists of everything I bought while at school that I was hoping my dad would reimburse me for.
Read more of this post

20 years later

In commemoration of my 20-year high school reunion, I thought I’d post this piece, verbatim from June 1985. I’m sure it’ll be of absolutely no interest to anyone out there other than man_size, eyehawk, comfortslut, thamesrhodes, larrondo, and al_monster… or any other graduates of Music & Art/LaGuardia from that era.

Read more of this post

This Time I DID Leave My Heart in San Francisco!

Sari & I couldn’t get out of town fast enough when we left San Francisco in September of 1999. It was the height of the high-tech bubble, and the whole town seemed obsessed with stock options. We lived in a dark, wall-to-wall carpeted railroad-flat on a sleazy, crack-ridden back alley. Our pleurisy-ridden upstairs neighbor woke us up every morning with vomiting sounds from the airshaft. We had endured two years of El Nino weather (one stretch of 55 days featured 50 days of rain) We missed our own (East) coast and were looking forward to heading back home to friends and family. I didn’t expect to think much about SF after we were gone.

That was mostly true for a long time, but in the last year or so, I found myself reminiscing a bit, mostly about the food and my beloved baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. So when I considered going to APE this year to promote A Few Perfect Hours, I convinced Sari to come along for a mini-vacation. I also saw the Giants would be in town, and I vowed to see a game. I’ve already talked about APE, but I want to recap the good times we had on our return to the place I had spent two previous two-year stays, in the late 70s and late 90s. People always say that cities like Frisco and the Big Apple are better places to visit than live there, and I wanted to see if that was true. Plus, as New Yorkers, Sari & I love walking, and San Francisco is a great walking city.

Read more of this post