He opens the door of his shop with a frowning face.
“I do not want to be bothered,” he said. “I have had it with you journalists. You come here, ask me questions and I do not want to talk. I just want to be left alone.”
I lose my cool and take two steps back. My friend Roberto, instead, steps forward and saves me. He starts engaging Claudio in a conversation about the little towns in the south of Italy they are both from.
Claudio, cracks a smile when he hears their similar accents.
It’s love at first sight and the two of them get at it reminiscing old times while I snap away.
Claudio is 81 from Eboli a little town in Campania. He left Italy at 20 years old because his father wanted to open a barber store here in the “new country.”
Sixty years later, his barber shop is still here and his clients are the ones of a life time or as he likes to called them “recurring friends.”
“Times in the U.S. are tough now,” he tells us while showing us his old cash dispenser, the one that has the 1cent, $1 and $2 symbols on the keys *(he wants to give it away soon because it has been broken for many years). “Most of my friends are dead, others have lost their house because there is not more money, and I am left alone in this store.”
While I listen, I picture myself in Claudio’s shoes in 20 or maybe 30 years. I have only immigrated in the U.S. eight years ago, but sometimes the prospect of a life-time here has crossed my mind and I have not been able to entirely let it go.
Claudio keeps on talking about his youth in Eboli and Naples. He recounts of his his first years on 116th street and I catch my self stone-froze looking around at pictures of his 60 years on the job.
How did he do it? Was this man ever happy in this foreign country? Has he ever thought of going back home like I have?
I ask. He answers.
“Here or there (in Italy) it was the same,” he said. “There were people from lo paese here too, they were selling fish in wheel barrel on the streets and it was like being at home. Now, I am the only one left. They are all gone.”
I close my eyes for a second and try to picture this street in the 1970’s.
I see and hear the Italians speaking to one another. I smell the fresh fish sold on the streets. Can it really be the same taste of the Italian south?
“This was the only little Italy I knew,” said Claudio.
I want to come back to those times. I want to be an Italian immigrant who reaches the coast of a new country by boat. I want to see what it would have been to live on 116th when the street was an Italian empire. But, most of all, I want to ask Claudio a million more questions. I want to pick his brain until he tells me everything there is to know about what it meant to leave his mother-land and come here. Does he feel American or Italian? How can he still speak with such thick accent after so may years….I want to be here for days.
But, I chose not to. I choose to leave for a second come back with a hot chocolate to thank Claudio for his trouble.
The rest may be better left unsaid.
I leave my imagination to feel the void.
Meet Claudio, the last Italian barber of East Harlem