Claudio’s Siege Holdout Ends Last Day

Claudio makes final appeal to judge in vain

But writing was on wall: new shop already prepared

Neighborhood pitched in to aid one of its own

As we have noted earlier, Claudio “The Barber” Caponigro has to vacate his storied East Harlem premises before the New Year, according to the agreement he signed last July, after his new Chinese landlord reduced his rent increase from $1650 to $1200, still double the rent that Claudio had been paying before his little building extension on 116St off First Avenue was taken over, unbeknownst to him, a year and a half ago. But yesterday he made a last ditch effort to stay longer, which failed.

The neighborhood rallied round and helped him move his stuff to his new premises, a frontage basement owned by a Mt Sinai surgeon, Alex Greenstein, who bought a nearby house recently on the same side of 116St but nearer the center of the block. A local carpenter and other neighbors helped undo the mirrors from the wall that had been dowelled there 110 years ago, when the barber ship first started up, eventually to become a gathering place for the wise guys of the neighborhood when it was mostly Italian.

Claudio came across from Italy when he was 19 63 years ago and two years later was working at the shop, which eventually became his when his partners retired. He has never shown the slightest desire to leave, his loyalty to his premises, his neighborhood and his clientele as high as that of his customers. It is not just that he has kept his price at the pre 1980 level of $10, clearly, but that he liked his way of life and became rooted in it.

After all, he was king of all he surveyed, in his territory. He could close down and sleep in his armchair during the day if he wanted; he could refuse and sometimes did refuse customers he didn’t like, sending them around the corner on some pretext that his scissors needed sharpening or somesuch. He could leave and come on his own terms, without having to coordinate with other barbers using other “chairs” in the same shop.

He formed his connections throughout the neighborhood and further, as the Italians started leaving for the suburbs, but would return for their haircuts as they checked in with other old friends. The network crossed generations, too, as fathers brought in their children as early as age one.

And given that the place became a social node for the East Harlem version of the Godfather, this led to an embarrassment – best forgotten as far as Claudio is concerned – of the Feds insisting that he identify from photos the customers who were involved. When he naturally claimed the professional privilege of barbers to keep the confidence of their clients as much as psychiatrists and priests they then included him in the trial, a dastardly act which resulted in Claudio standing his ground and being convicted and out on probation for standing in the way of law enforcement.

All in all, it seems that Claudio the Barber’s chief character virtue is immovability, and faithfulness to his past, a trait which has resulted in him becoming an oasis amid the tawdry landscape of cheap storefronts that have taken over his neighborhood, including a number of unisex hair salons where the tool of choice is the machine clipper rather than the skillful use of scissors. In this regard it seems clear that Claudio has now become one of the very few people in Manhattan outside a few hotels who knows how to give a man a decent, layered but conservative cut, suitable for people of high station such as bank presidents and Wall Street.

Add that to his anachronistic price and it is clear that his appreciative clientele will remain loyal even after the moves to his new, smaller, basement level but newly painted and cleanly installed and outfitted premises. But it didn’t prevent Claudio from making a last ditch attempt yesterday to save himself from moving from his current shop with its window sign in attractively traditional font visible from a hundred yards in any direction, even though even the huge candystick spiral red CKCK and white pole outside his door had been dug up and prepared for reinstalling along the street.

According to Tommy the owner of the pet store next door and also of Italian heritage, when Claudio returned from his trip downtown yesterday, he was “a beaten man.” After five hours, including a three hour recess taken by the judge before he would hear the case, Claudio pled his case without a lawyer and it was summarily rejected. He had already signed his agreement to move, and he didn’t know any lawyerly tricks to extend his time in his old place. Parking cost him $40, and eh spent $25 for lunch, and he lost all his afternoon business. But as Tommy advised him, he could now accept his fate, secure in the knowledge that he had done everything he could.

Today, we found Claudio in a much more cheerful mood. Charles Rangel had come by in support and to enjoy a last haircut in the old place before it was turned into a Chinese takeout, to join the 15 or so Chinese takeouts within striking distance (though opinion in the neighborhood is that its quality may be higher than the rest). Local news crews and reporters from NY1 and Channel 7 Eyewitness News had come and interviewed him at length, as well as the good surgeon who will be his new landlord (at $1050 a month, less than he is now paying).

He greeted us with a glad cry (having accompanied him uptown after his first cpourt appearance, we earned his undying respect and gratitude by showing him the Lexington subway Canal Street stop, which he realized would save him driving down and paying a parking fee (yesterday Alas he was unable to save because he had to carry a passenger down in the form of the customer who encouraged him to make a final stand). Would we like to see his new place?

He took us up the street and unlocked the grill (which will be done away with) and we took pictures of him with Felix, a young man who uses him every one or two weeks to keep his hair length the absolute minimum. Claudio, shorn of his space and some of the convenience of his location, will nonetheless stay in business until he decides for himself when enough is enough, and a man in his eighties, though young in spirit, perhaps doesn’t want to stand on his feet for ten hours a day.

But till then, he has been rescued by the neighborhood he served for so long.

ABC Eyewitness News Video and Transcript

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