We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 4, Episode 2 in which Arun Venugopal, host of WNYC’s Micropolis series, interviews Eric Aleman, a barber at King of Kings Barbershop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In this episode, Aleman talks about how hairstyles have changed in his years as a barber and how gentrification is changing the conversation in his shop. Also, Aleman discusses his role as a therapist for some clients and why they trust him with their secrets and with sharp objects.
In this Slate Plus extra, Aleman talks about how not to be a nightmare of a client and what he believes is at the root of the beard revival. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at slate.com/workingplus.
We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.
Arun Venugopal: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Arun Venugopal, host of WNYC Radio’s Micropolis series, which takes on issues of race and identity. On today’s episode, we talk with someone who often functions as a sort of therapist with the added benefit of getting to wield sharp, potentially deadly objects. Who are you and what do you do?
Eric Aleman: My name is Eric Aleman. I am a barber.
Venugopal: How’d you get into this business?
Aleman: I started when I was approximately like 15 years old. Just hanging out in the hallways. And you know, we used to just bring—pull out the extension cord. And just hanging out with the fellows, you know. There was no Facebook. You know, none of me or my friends had any like, Internet, computers. That’s where we gathered. That was our place to hang out. So, you know, idle hands. And we just started practicing. And we were broke kids. No money and everybody needed a haircut, so.
Venugopal: Where was this?
Aleman: This was on 39th Street and Fifth Avenue here in Sunset Park.
Venugopal: So, your whole career has been right here in Sunset Park, Brooklyn?
Aleman: Yes, my whole career. Yes, yes.
Venugopal: So, tell me a little about this. I mean, you’ve been doing this since you were 15. How old are you now?
Aleman: I’m about to be 32. A month away from 32.
Venugopal: And do you like your job?
Aleman: I love it. I don’t feel like I work a day. It just feels like I’m still hanging out in the hallways.
Venugopal: Do you consider it an art form?
Aleman: Definitely. Definitely. I get lost in it. I feel like I can—You know? Let out different feelings and express myself. Yeah, definitely. Make people feel better.
Venugopal: How would you describe your clientele? Give me a sense of the people who walk in the store?
Aleman: It’s very mixed, very mixed. It goes from one extreme to the other. I could get a young kid who just—he wants like a Caesar with a design on the side of his head. To an older gentleman in his 80s getting an all-scissor haircut.
Venugopal: What do you call it? A Caesar? I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Aleman: A Caesar? A Caesar is basically putting a certain guard, whether it be a No. 1 guard or a No. 2 guard, on the clipper and just the whole head that same number. That’s usually what we call a Caesar.’ Then you just shape up the outline of the head. And then a design is like, you know, etch out like a certain drawing on the side of the kid’s head.
Venugopal: When you started out you were in your teens. What was trendy back then? Was it like, looking like a certain celebrity? Or you know, having some sort of design carved into your head?
Aleman: Yeah. Growing up here in the early ’90s, it wasn’t as mixed a neighborhood. The majority was just Latin community. We used to get haircuts just short with a fade. So, it was very basic haircuts. And the designs at the time, they used to do—I remember they used to do the Jordan logo on the side of a head. The Nike check was popular in the early—
Venugopal: The swoosh.
Aleman: Yeah, the swoosh. Yes. And that’s about it. You know, just freehanded tribal designs was always popular. You know, like some graffiti form of design.
Venugopal: It has gentrified a lot, right?
Aleman: Yes, it has. Growing up the majority was Puerto Rican and Dominican. And then when it hit like the early 2000s it became more of a Mexican neighborhood. And then that trended into like what we have now. I would say like within the last five years, more so in the last two years, you see the gentrification hitting a lot more.
Venugopal: So, you’ve seen some changes in the neighborhood. How does that affect what you do? Does it?
Aleman: It helps me out in a sense, because there’s not too many barbers in this neighborhood that specialize with scissors. They just use the clippers. You know, there’s some salons and stuff like that. But as far as barbershops go, not too many of the barbershops in this neighborhood are versatile with, you know, clipper work and scissor work. So, the scissor part helps me out a lot with the gentrification coming in.
Because you know, a lot of the people moving in they usually get, you know, short on the sides and they like to style their hair. So, kind of like the Fury haircut. You know? Long hair on top, combed back, and really short on the sides.
Venugopal: Or like Skrillex, right? And that famous look he had a couple of years go. I don’t know if he still has—I have no idea. But I’m guessing that was a popular, influential look. Was it?
Aleman: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Venugopal: Were people coming in saying like, I want that Skrillex thing?
Aleman: Yeah. I actually had some people point out certain movie haircuts that popped out. There’s a couple of movies or TV shows that really pushed forth a lot of these haircuts right now.
Venugopal: Like which?
Aleman: Like the show Mad Men. A lot of guys come in wanting that look. You know, very cropped on the sides, but you know, the length on top. Or, I want the haircut that Shia LaBeouf had in Lawless. You know, I had that happen before. You know, that was when the undercut was in style more.
Venugopal: What’s undercut?
Aleman: Undercut is something like—it’s a specific number or like a length on the sides. It remains the same length all the way to the ridge of the head and then it’s a disconnection. It’s like a contrast of the long hair and then extremely short on the sides.
Venugopal: So, what is like the trendiest thing you’ve had to deal with? Like, where people kept on coming and saying, I want that look?
Aleman: The haircut that’s consistently, as far as in the urban community, I would say is, you know, the skin fade. You know, with the number—whichever number, No. 2 or No.1, on top. That never goes out of style.
Venugopal: So, who am I supposed to imagine? Like, who’s a famous person with that look?
Aleman: Wearing that? Nas. You know the hip-hop artist? Nas always gets the skin fade with the No. 2 on top, and he puts in the part. Like a swoosh on the top.
Venugopal: Oh, I see Illmatic sitting around here somewhere, right?
Aleman: Yes. Up right here. Up above the mirror here.
Venugopal: You’ve got a good vinyl collection here.
Aleman: Oh, yes. I love music. Love music.
Venugopal: Do you have people placing requests?
Aleman: Yeah, all the time. As far as records, yeah. Like the Beatles. Salsa, some old salsa stuff. I have some classic stuff that I just play as background noise. You know, for different occasions. Sometimes you just want some background noise. Sometimes you just want some music to get people’s feet tapping. Or you know, get people in the mood for conversation. That’s it.
Venugopal: Do people come here—I mean, they’re not just looking for somebody who knows how to cut their hair. There’s something more than that, right?
Aleman: Definitely. Definitely. I feel like it’s the whole thing. It’s the ambiance.
They look for a platform, you know? I mean, I feel like every man—especially now—they want to interact with other men, you know? I think that stuff is coming back around. I think it got lost for a while. As far as barbershops go.
Venugopal: What do you mean?
Aleman: I feel like salons were trendy for a long time—these salon style barbershops. It’s just very cold, I feel. I don’t know. I’ve worked in a couple, but I don’t want to mention names. But it was just cutting their hair, people in and out.
There was no platform for people to talk about issues and just open up and just mingle, you know?
Venugopal: Yeah, yeah. So, the salon sort of conveys a certain aesthetic. It’s all about style.
Aleman: Yes, yes, yes.
Venugopal: And here, the barbershop. You call yourself a barber, right?
Venugopal: You think that that word conveys a certain thing as well?
Aleman: Yeah. Once you call yourself a barber, you have to take this—it’s like an unspoken oath.
You’re part of the community, so you have to be conscious of the guys and what takes place, and the conversations—not really control the conversation. But you act as a bridge, as a safe ground. Everybody looks at you as the stitch between everybody else in there. You’re the one thing, the one element that they all have in common. And it’s almost like, if they’re here, there’s some type of character. Because I like to build relationships with my clients.
So, if one of my clients is sitting there, I could almost guarantee he’s going to get along with the next guy next to him. You know?
Venugopal: So, that’s interesting. I guess there is a certain classic sort of idea that this is where the community gathers. And it’s still the case even now, even despite all the changes in the neighborhood, the gentrification. But there’s still sort of that continuity there.
Aleman: Yeah. I like to think so. Yeah.
Definitely. I see it happen firsthand. I’ll see some guys who just moved into the neighborhood. They’ll be shy for a while. But then, they’ll meet certain guys that grew up in this neighborhood that I would assume that they wouldn’t get into long conversations outside of the shop, or at least be introduced to one another to allow that to happen. And I see it get from that to just them hanging out outside of the shop. Or saying hi, stop for a talk. I’ve seen that.
I’ve seen guys that, you know, guys with scars on their face that don’t look like approachable guys. And getting along with some guys from a whole different walk of life.
Venugopal: So, when you say scars on their face, somebody who might’ve been through tough—
Aleman: Yeah, definitely.
Venugopal: Tough times.
Aleman: Tough times.
Venugopal: Maybe they’ve served some time or something.
Aleman: They grew out of it. Yeah. Guys who just grew out of the after effect of old Sunset Park. You know? You see it all over the place. It’s now, you know, it’s now. It’s just nice. You can walk around. But it was a different world then.
And you have guys that progressed. The guys that woke up and guys who actually became successful, and guys who are doing well for themselves before the gentrification. So, you get that. You see.
Venugopal: So, you have the hipsters who moved here, the professionals. But you also have people who’ve maybe served time.
Aleman: Definitely, yeah. Definitely.
Venugopal: But they trust you, so they trust each other?
Aleman: I don’t want to say trust to the point of like, you know, hey, here’s my keys to the house. But you know, normally they wouldn’t speak.
But then this allows guys to find common ground. That’s all it’s about is common ground. Once they have common ground, that’s it. They can just have conversation.
Venugopal: So, there are certain things we’ve heard our whole lives that you should never talk about with strangers. Religion is one of them. What are the things that you think are things-
Aleman: Like, taboo?
Venugopal: Yeah. What’s taboo?
Aleman: I’m not sure if anything is really taboo. That’s where being conscious—that’s where my job kicks in.
I have to be conscious of who’s in the room at all times. I’m not going to talk about certain things if, let’s say there’s kids here. If they walk in, that’s it. They have all say. Let’s say we have a movie—we have Godfather playing and the kids move in, or let’s say a violent movie and if kids come in, everyone knows I have to change that. And I’ll put in something that, you know, caters to the kid. But you know that’s when the barber has to be a barber. You’ve got to be conscious of what can be said and when it can be said.
But I don’t think anything should be taboo if the setting is asking for it.
Venugopal: What happens when like—what about, I mean, say religion and politics, right? The classic taboos. But here you’re saying that it’s not necessarily.
Aleman: Not necessarily, not always. But there’s times, yeah, that you can really, you know? I’ve had a couple of days—every day there’s a movie here. But I had this one time that stands out right now.
Venugopal: And so, when was this?
Aleman: This was a few weeks back. There was about three Spanish guys sitting here, about three black guys, and about four white guys.
You know, guys talking about sex. There was no kids here, so they started talking about sex, different things like that.
Venugopal: Like what?
Aleman: Picking up girls and—you know, stuff like that. Just normal guy talk. And the thing was, one of the guys that was sitting, he was a homosexual guy, right? And he was a black guy. The rest of the guys in the barbershop didn’t know that he was gay. I did. You know, I built a relationship with him. He’s a cool dude. And these guys are all talking about like picking up girls and stuff like that. Everybody’s sharing stories.
It hits his turn and he starts talking about his encounter with a guy going up to him and offering him money, right?
Venugopal: For sex?
Aleman: For sex. So, now everybody in the shop—you know, they didn’t expect it. And I remember before he did it, I remember seeing that moment when he thought about even sharing the story, you know? And to me, that’s the part that sticks out the most, is that I remember seeing that face. I could be wrong.
But I remember seeing his face. He was not hesitant, but he thought about it. But then he did it. And everybody’s reaction—it shocked me. You know? It shocked me because I thought at least one of the guys would be like—you know, but everybody was just cracking up. Because they know what the platform is. And everybody was just cracking up. And one of the guys looked like the type of guy who would say a certain comment, like a funny comment. He basically said, “I hope you took that money.”
You know, it shed light to the whole situation. I’m sure if the guy in the chair was even thinking anything, I’m sure at that moment he felt relieved. You know?
Venugopal: Did you have any anxiety about how it was going to go down as he was saying this?
Aleman: No. No. Not at all. Not at all. I try to tell everybody, you know, as I build a relationship with them. You know, they can say anything in the shop, pretty much. And I saw that the setting was—you know, it was okay. We had people asking—everybody was getting along already, talking. And some of the guys already had bumped into each other previous times in the shop. And then it went from other things there, as well. Then it started becoming a race thing. I remember the blacks guys that were in the shop, they were asking the white people in the shop, or everyone else in the shop, they were asking them about suntans. They actually told them—they were asking, does it actually burn when you get red?
And it was hilarious. And then everybody was just asking each other questions. I guess questions that are dwelling in their heads. Things that if you see them on TV it’ll be probably offensive. But you know, in a barber—now, I ‘m sure it’s not just in this shop. But I’m sure in plenty of shops, it’s just—you know?
Venugopal: It’s just natural.
Aleman: It’s just natural. It’s just natural, you know?
Venugopal: I mean, that’s the thing. It’s like you were saying. On TV or in certain situations, it wouldn’t be politically correct.
Aleman: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I think because of that—you got to understand something. Everyone now, we’re all forced to, before we say anything right, we pass whatever thought we have in our head through a hundred filters before we even—if we even say it. And I feel like it’s unnatural. And I feel like that in itself is what makes the situation even worse.
Venugopal: For you, the fact that guys can come and sit in here-
Aleman: And not worry about political correctness or anything? Yeah, it’s amazing.
Venugopal: Do you think it’s especially—I mean, you’re dealing with guys. Do you think that for them it’s especially kind of like difficult for them to find places like that where they can just be themselves?
Aleman: Definitely. Especially nowadays, yes. Especially in the city. Yes, I feel so.
Venugopal: Why especially nowadays?
Aleman: Because of the media. They just focus on everything that offends people. So, if you’re constantly seeing that day in and day out, day in and day out, something that might have not offended you before, they’ll probably put something in your head.
Hey, you should find this offensive. You know? And that’s why especially now. It’s just hypersensitive. And I feel when men get together, man, we’re simple. We can figure out without all that headache. I feel like leave us be, as we are, and you’d be surprised. People have a lot of good in them, you know? And if you just allow men to be men amongst each other without worrying about that, without worrying about offending the next man, I feel like amazing things happen.
Venugopal: Do people confide in you?
Aleman: In what sense? Yeah.
Venugopal: Yeah. I mean, tell me. Are you, to some people, sort of like the therapist?
Aleman: Oh, definitely. In that sense, yeah, definitely. I take things to the grave, you know. Somebody tells me something in confidence, it stays there. I feel like I would betray my craft if I don’t. I betray my customer if I don’t. So, definitely. They definitely confide in me.
I have guys open up to me. I have guys tell me everything. And it stays there, you know. Sometimes that’s all they need, is just an ear. I’m not a professional. I’m just me. I’m a great listener and I just try to be honest. If you ask me for an opinion, I’ll give it. Just be prepared to hear it. That’s it, you know?
Venugopal: What are the kinds of things that you think people need to talk about, need to unload on their barber?
Aleman: I hear everything. I hear stuff from like a sixteen year old kid who’s been having a crush on this girl in his school, and asking me opinions how to approach it. I get stuff like that. I’ll get an old gentleman who just wants to be heard, who wants to share his stories of, you know, his prime. And they just open up. And I really love moments like that, like when I get people who in other settings would be so uncomfortable.
And just, you know, will be able to confide in me, to open up and share things with me that they won’t normally share with anybody. And those moments are what makes my job amazing. I love it.
Venugopal: What do you think it is? I mean, it’s sort of any intimate relationship of sorts. I mean, you’re actually touching their hair, their scalp. I mean, what exactly happens here that makes people open up to you?
Aleman: I’m not sure. It goes way back.
You know, this profession goes back to the Egyptian days. I feel like it’s just something embedded in us. You figure you’re trusting somebody with a sharp object, especially like, let’s say, a straight razor and this person’s neck. And not a bit of tension, you know? Just more relaxed than anything. There’s very few professions that they’re allowed to actually have their hands on somebody with sharp objects.
Anything outside barbers, you know, you got the barbers, you have the tattoo artists. And then from there it’s high professionals. Like doctors, or dentists. And I guess like barbers and tattoo artists, we’re very similar in that sense. You build that relationship. The thing with barbers is you got guys coming in here on a weekly basis. So, you’re bound to build a relationship and a sense of trust. Not just them for me. But there’s a whole bunch of clients that I trust in as well.
They become my therapist too, as well.
Venugopal: That’s interesting. I never thought about that. I mean, there’s only so many people that you will have that level of trust in. To touch them, but also you could conceivably hurt them, if you were to—
Aleman: Oh, yes. Definitely, you know. God forbid, but yeah.
Venugopal: Has that every happened? Have you ever accidentally hurt anybody?
Aleman: Thank God, no. No. When I first started cutting hair, I’ve hurt somebody’s haircut really badly. But as far as physical damage, no, no. I haven’t.
Venugopal: Do you think you have a different attitude or philosophy about what you do than you did earlier in your career?
Aleman: I definitely do. I always had a love for the craft. But my attitude towards my craft, it’s not just a craft.
I feel like it’s a lot more. It’s a lot more. I have my own shop a few blocks from where I grew up, and from where I was cutting hair in the hallways. So, it’s not just where I went, as far as like financially or as far as stability goes. It’s just a reminder of, you know, mentally and just the way the neighborhood was as well. Where I was mentally has definitely, definitely changed a lot. You know, I thinking about it now and it’s a huge blessing.
It’s insane. And I’m here doing something I loved when I was a kid, when I was fifteen. And now I’m feeding my kids with this. And I get to help out and meet amazing people. So, yeah. It’s more than just a craft. I got to meet a lot of amazing people through this. So, I’m very blessed.
Venugopal: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think you still want to say?
Aleman: Yeah. I got married. I have two kids, two beautiful kids. My son Aiden, he’s 9.
And my daughter Lillian will be 6 in two days.
Venugopal: Would you like either of them to carry on the family business?
Aleman: Yeah, I would love that. But you know, I would love them to do greater things. But I definitely tried teaching them the trade. I have a picture teaching my kids how to shave. I have this picture of my daughter with a straight razor to my face when she was 3 years old. It’s super important that they pick up the trade. Even if it’s a little bit. You never know.
Venugopal: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast.
You can email us at email@example.com. And dig through our first three seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Jayson De Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo. And our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Arun Venugopal. See you next time on Working.
This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.
Venugopal: What’s the worst day you’ve had?
Aleman: The worst day? In the shop? I’m sure it’s like right after a hangover or something.
Venugopal: I mean, have you ever had a really difficult customer who just like—
Aleman: Yes. OK, I got one. I wouldn’t say a worst day, but if you allow somebody like this to continue being the way—well, he’s going to be the way is. But not in here. If you allow it, it can mess up your whole day. I had this one client. This was about two years ago. I had this one client. He came in.
And he was always very difficult. I understand some people are anal with their hair. You know, I understand that. I get it. You got to wear it. And that I don’t mind. The more detailed you want to explain it, the better. The better for me. That way I can get it right, first shot. But this one guy, he was very difficult. He came in a few times with me, always gave me a hard time. And it would take a long time to get it to how he wanted. And he came in one time, and I sent him to my barber, because honestly, I’m sorry, but I didn’t want to cut his hair that day. So, I sent him to my barber. And he sits and he pulls out a photo, OK? He gives it to the barber.
Venugopal: Oh, so your barber’s right here?
Aleman: Yes. I’m sorry. The barber that works for me here.
Venugopal: Got it.
Aleman: OK. So, the customer gives him a photo of, you know, the haircut that he wanted. You would think that’s what it was.
So, the barber that works here, he’s studying the picture. He’s studying it. OK. You know, he’s analyzing it. And he’s analyzing it, he’s looking at the customer’s hair. And about five minutes he’s looking at the photo, and the customer says, “You see that picture?” He goes, “I don’t want it like this.” And—I don’t know. My brain just wanted to jump out of my skull. What was the whole point of the photo? You know?
But that’s not even the worst of it. Then while he’s cutting his hair, he tells him—every snip, he would stop the barber and look in the mirror. You know, touch his hair. Every single snip. And he finally, he tells him, “I want it short long.” He said he wanted short long.
And at that point, I told him, “Man, what’s short long?”
He goes, “I want it short long.”
And at that moment I had to tell him. I was like, “Listen, I’m sorry. Every time you come here, there’s always a problem. I don’t think this is the place for you. There’s some type of communication problem over here.”
So, you know, I nicely told him. You know, I told him he didn’t have to pay. I finished his haircut. We can’t take him again. I’m sorry.
Venugopal: So, just kind of coming off—you’ve got a beard.
Venugopal: Beard is sort of a look that’s sort of been revived in the last 10, 15 years, especially in certain neighborhoods.
Hipsters, you know, they’re kind of working big beards and all that. Why do you think that is? I mean, what is it—what do you think it says to the world? Where did this come from?
Aleman: Where does it come from? What I think, I think it’s just an expression of man, you know? Even if they don’t know it. You know, even if somebody doesn’t know it. I feel like if you can grow it, grow it. But keep it clean. Clean it and shape it. Don’t just grow it wild, you know?
Venugopal: Sort of reasserting masculinity, in a sense.
Aleman: Yes, yes. Definitely.
Venugopal: Do you think that’s especially in a time where you said people are otherwise maybe tippy-toeing around being a man, just being themselves in a sense? You think that this is sort of part of that?
Aleman: Maybe subconsciously. You know, I don’t think anybody is like, oh, I’m going to grow a beard to show how manly I am. Then again, yeah, maybe some do. But it’s definitely associated with masculinity. There’s guys who always comment on it. Guys who don’t grow a beard, they always say, “Ah, man. I wish I could grow a beard.” Kids, they don’t want to shave those couple of whiskers they have. You know? So, definitely, it is. Yeah.