Meet Claudio, the last Italian barber of East Harlem

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.


7 thoughts on “Meet Claudio, the last Italian barber of East Harlem

  1. Paolo says:

    Thank you for this touching story, Federica.
    Claudio comes from Eboli, in my same province, Salerno.

  2. adriano says:

    Complimenti, una storia davvero bella.

  3. christine Wien (Alvino) says:

    I’m not sure how I got to this page but i am sitting here with tears in my eyes. If Claudio could see this. My name is Christine and I lived in Harlem with my family.
    Claudio was my dad’s barber and he also came to my house to give my brother a hair cut and to shave him. His name was Joseph and he had cerebral palsey and could not walk or talk. Claudio was very kind. Our famiilies came from the same town(Salerno) in Italy.
    When my dad was in the hospital for many months Claudio came to the the hospital to shave him.
    That’s the way things were in thos days.
    Thank you Claudio
    Christine Alvino
    Charlie’s daughter

  4. Christine, I do not know how you found me, but I am so glad you did.
    Thanks for writing such a nice note, I would love to talk to you sometimes and maybe meet you in persona if you live in the NYC’s area?
    Please contact me again so we can plan it and you can tell me more. Also, if you need me to tell Claudio about this I can go into his store again or we can go together?
    Whatever you prefer. In the mean time, thanks so much for sharing your story on my Blog.

    • christine Wien (Alvino) says:

      dear Federica
      Thank you so much for your kind reply.
      i live in Westchester(Scarsdale) and would love if you could let Claudio know that Christine Alvino(Charlie’s daughter thanks him for attending to my brother Joseph when he was unable to walk.
      I remember Claudio well.,
      In reading you bio I note that you went to AU. What a small world as my son also graduated from AU. However he is 44.
      He also said he would take me down to see Claudio one day.
      Perhaps you could meet us.
      Federica my health is not the best and I have a difficult time breathing so I would like to keep in touch with you.

      Thank you again

  5. Manago Family says:

    I am happy to see that Claudio is still in business. However My grandfather Sally “the barber” Manago was the original owner. He opened the shop many years before Claudio came to America, 1930’s/early 40’s. My grandfather gave Claudio a job as a barber when he come to this country in the 1950’s. My family gave Claudio the shop when my grandfather died in May of 1970.

    • Hello, thanks for your latest reply. I had no idea Claudio’s business was first your grandfather Sally Mango. I wish I could have met your grandfather at this point.
      Was your grandfather Italian too? And what is your family’s business, but most of all, how did you find this blog about Claudio? I am still researching and trying to find more ex-Italian barbers or others to photograph.
      Thanks a lot for contacting me…
      All the best,
      Federica ~

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