The COVID-19 Chronicles: Even Al Capone would get a haircut in Salinas

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| UNDER THE SHELTERING SKY

This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at admin@vomb.org.

By Víctor Almazán

One of the minor hassles the pandemic brought with it was the impossibility of getting a haircut; but desperate times call for desperate measures — I went for a haircut to an underground salon, speakeasy style.

Given the shelter-in-place order issued by the state, and Monterey County’s efforts to try to slow down COVID-19, hair salons and barbershops are prohibited from operating, unless they want to risk getting a fine that could be as much as $3,000. The restriction was temporarily lifted as the county entered Phase 3 of “reopening,” but was reinstated as the number of infections rose on July 13.

In May, after three months of sheltering in place and without having a haircut in all that time, I decided it was time to do something about it. I had the only two options everyone else did: cut it myself or have my shelter-in-place partner do it. But after seeing the results on social media, grouped under the hashtag #coronacuts, I kindly declined the offer, and decided to opt for a different alternative: going to an unauthorized salon.

The Speakeasies 

During Prohibition, alcohol consumption was practically outlawed, leading to the illegal establishments called speakeasies. Similarly, California’s confinement order closed barbershops and beauty salons, but did not prevent some from operating in East Salinas and elsewhere — under strict anonymity measures — to continue doing this work. If people didn’t stop drinking alcohol during Prohibition, people also didn’t stop getting haircuts during the quarantine.

Obviously, the difference is huge. In Prohibition, the winners were dangerous criminals who saw an opportunity to amass huge amounts of money by trading in liquor. One of them is quite famous in the Bay Area: Al Capone. By the way, according to testimony from another inmate, Robert Victor Luke, Capone was stabbed with half a pair of scissors while an inmate was cutting his hair during his stay in Alcatraz.

There have been no apparent winners during the pandemic, but some of the many who have clearly lost have been hair stylists and barbers who have been forced to close their businesses.

Secret location and password

I remembered that several of my students in the computer class I teach at several schools in Salinas work in salons. I decided to call one of them to ask her if she was willing to cut my hair at home. Strictly speaking, during Prohibition what was forbidden was the “manufacture, sale or transportation” of liquors, not their consumption. The shelter-in-place order does not prohibit hair cutting, it only prohibits it from happening in legally established hair salons, or so I thought.

My student told me she was not cutting hair, but she would give me the phone number of a person who would do it. “Nomás chitón, ¿eh?” she said in Spanish, meaning “be discreet.”

I called the number she gave me and a female voice answered, asking my name and how I had obtained the number. I answered her questions and she asked me what would be the best time for my appointment. I chose the next day at 10 in the morning. She told me to call again 10 minutes before my appointment and she would give me the address.

The next day I called her at 9:50 a.m. and she gave me an address and the description of the house. She told me the color of the door, “don’t ring the bell, the door will be unlocked, come and enter.” An essential requirement was to use a face mask. In the Prohibition era, the location of the speakeasies were secret, and in order to enter the establishment patrons had to whisper code words that regularly changed every day.

I reached the address, identified the house, pushed on the door, and entered. A woman wearing a face mask, gown and hair cover was waiting for me. “How would you like it done?” she asked me. I gave her directions and while she was cutting my hair I asked her if she wasn’t afraid to work like this.

“Yes, I am afraid,” she replied. “I am afraid that authorities will discover me, and fear that one of my clients is infected, but I have to feed my family and pay the rent.”

She said that she took precautions when working. She only worked by appointment, one person at the time, and that face masks were enforced. Although she did not wear gloves, at the end of each cut she washed her hands and disinfected the work instruments and the chair where the clients sat.

I assumed I would be charged an extra fee given the circumstances, but no. She charged the pre-pandemic price. When she saw the surprise on my face she said, “We all have to help each other.” I tipped her, wishing that others would do the same.

The importance of cutting our hair

There are many reasons why having a haircut is important. We cut our hair to comply with school or work regulations, for hygiene or simply to look or feel good. But the most important thing about cutting our hair is getting the right haircut. You notice if your haircut is good or bad based on what people tell you after going to a beauty salon. If someone mentions: “Hey, you got a haircut,” the cut is fine. The opposite is true when someone asks you, “Hey, who cut your hair?”

A good haircut can raise your self-esteem; a bad cut will force you to wear a hat for weeks. Twitter users have pointed out how disastrous a bad cut can be. A user said,  “You should be able to call in sick for a few days if you got a bad haircut.” Another, more dramatic, noted that “getting a bad haircut feels like part of you has died for three weeks.” Come on, it was worse for Samson when Delilah cut his hair.

The good thing is, hair grows fast after a bad cut. The bad thing is, we are still sheltering-in-place.

Re-opening beauty salons

In Monterey County, beauty salons were closed when the shelter-in-place order was issued on March 15. As the county moved into Phase 3 of reopening, the county allowed them to open, but a new order issued by the governor on July 13 closed them again. New guidelines were  issued on July 20, when California allowed beauty salons to operate outdoors.

The California’s Board of Barbering and Cosmetology states that cosmetology regulations only allow services to be offered in licensed establishments and not outdoors, so haircutting establishments must be closed.

Chris Lopez, chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, sent a letter urging them to reconsider his decision and allow the opening of beauty salons that offer services outdoors. The letter notes that “this industry strongly believes that they can safely perform services in an outdoor setting,” and urged the board to work with barbershops and hair salons to find safe ways to provide services.

“It would be perfect if we could work,” the lady who cut my hair told me on the phone. “We have to pay bills.”

Prohibition ended in 1933 and speakeasies disappeared, although the term continues to be used to describe retro-style legal bars. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not going to end in the coming months, but salons can operate safely, the workers say.

Now that the governor said we can cut our hair and enjoy the sunset at the same time, even Al Capone would get a haircut in East Salinas.

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Víctor Almazán

About Víctor Almazán

Víctor Almazán nació en la Ciudad de México, ha colaborado en periódico de México y California, entre ellos The Salinas Californian, El Sol y la célebre El Andar Magazine. Vive en Salinas y le gustan la películas de vampiros. | Víctor Almazán was born in Mexico City and has contributed to publications in Mexico and California, including The Salinas Californian, El Sol and the renowned El Andar Magazine. He lives in Salinas and likes vampire movies.