Gregory Greenberg, his hair neatly trimmed as he roamed the tiny, marble-and mirror-filled Broadway Barber, tried to express why it mattered so much that Kay Demetriou was retiring after 56 years of clipping and shaving.
He'd stopped by the shop the day after returning from a TV-script writing gig in Los Angeles, his hair scraggly because he refused to let any California barber touch it.Demetriou had seated him in the porcelain, wrought-iron and leather-seated barber chair, a chair the scriptwriter had sat in many times since childhood - one of five chairs in the shop dating back to the turn of the century.
"He put on witch hazel," Green-berg said. "He wrapped my face in a hot towel. He worked up a lather and pulled out his straight razor - he's probably the last in the city who still uses one. QXR was playing Rhapsody in Blue. It was one of those perfect afternoons when I know I could never live anywhere but New York City."
Just about everybody in the crowd blocking the sidewalk at Broadway and 103rd Streets had memories like that.
From 8 in the morning to 8 at night, six days a week, Kay told courtly stories along with his trims and shaves, stories of the neighborhood and its inhabitants who had come to him for grooming: Gershwin, Bogart, Eisenhower a regular customer when he was president of Columbia University but a lousy tipper, Truman and Kennedy, and his favorite, Aaron Copland. "Delicious," Kay said dreamily.
He had to be dragged recently, clippers in hand, from his final customer to cut his cake and listen to his customers repeat, over and over, that an era had ended and the neighborhood would never be the same.
Gifts were pressed into his hands.
As he brushed his eyes, his wife, Niki, rubbed his back comfortingly, and he returned to David Punzi, a delivery man from Baldwin, saying, "I'm sorry to keep you waiting."
Stores on upper Broadway came and went, but Kay refused to change his shop or its fixtures. "Marble never gets old," he pointed out. "Look at the Parthenon or the Acropolis."
The result, finally, was a barbershop worthy of a museum.
Kay has donated the finer pieces to the Museum of the City of New York - the 80-year-old striped barber pole that revolves, the pendulum clock that has run since 1907 steadily without needing repair, the beveled marble-framed mirrors and marble cabinets, the ornate brass steamer that heated a half-century's worth of towels.
The rest of the shop, including the tiny intricately patterned floor tiles, will be sold intact by Irreplaceable Artifacts on Second Avenue.
Meanwhile, the shop's patina and beauty and authenticity had drawn attention from movie and TV commercial producers, who wanted to shoot there. If the film people were polite, Kay refused politely. If they insisted and upped their offer, he threw them out.
"I can't close," he said indignantly. "This is a barbershop. What about my customers? This is my living."
Customers - many of whom, as children, had leafed through the worn Spiderman and Archie comics and had later brought their own children to do the same - were alternately weepy, nostalgic and indignant.
"My therapist gives me more warning when he's going away!" one man said, making it clear that Kay's clippers and conversation were at least as important to his mental health.