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Early in my first semester at Fordham I desperately needed a haircut. The weekend was right around the corner, and I needed the girls at Tinkers to give me the time of day, so I consulted my neighbor Fr. Phil about where I should go for a cut. He didn’t hesitate to recommend Maximum Barber Shop on Fordham road, next to what is now The Blend “Café” (wink wink — no one knows).
Like a meek fowl wandering around uncharted parts of the forest, I wandered into the barber shop, unsure of what to do. Upon seeing my confusion and discomfort, a bear of a man reached his hand out to me and said, “My friend, I can take you right here.” That man was Freddy, Freddy the Barber.
The first thing he said to me when I sat down was, “Okay here’s how this works: if you don’t like the cut, you don’t have to pay for it. A barber’s like family, we gotta trust each other.”
If you’ve been to Maximum for a cut, or simply walked past on your way to Ram’s Deli for a reluctant meal, chances are you’ve seen Freddy. He’s a commanding presence on the floor, exerting the same bravado as a silverback gorilla monitoring his troop.
During my cuts, Freddy advises me on all fronts: education, girls, travel, the neighborhood. When anyone walks into Maximum, half of the time they’re just looking for Freddy’s advice. On Thursday I decided to be one of those wisdom-seeking patrons. I paid the Oracle of Fordham Road a visit.
When you talk to Freddy you quickly realize that he is totally and completely at peace. His demeanor is such that he will gladly accept anything or anyone that comes his way, and you know what? It won’t ruin his plans. It won’t interfere with whatever he’s doing. He’s forever present.
Looking back on his life Freddy said, “There’s nothing I would have done differently. I think I did everything right.” How fucking cool is this eh? I’m a neurotic 21-year-old doing everything I can to avoid regret, and here this barber sits, wholeheartedly content with all of his life choices.
Freddy attributes this solace to self-awareness.
“You gotta be exposed to certain things, man. Nowadays, these kids have no guidance. Happiness starts with the self, and you get to know yourself through education. It’s so important.”
He then recounted his early life for me. Freddy grew up in Brooklyn, but then moved to Puerto Rico when he was 10. “As an American immigrant, I actually faced a lot of racism from native Puerto Ricans. I didn’t really expect that.”
“Don’t worry about the next step. The next step always finds you, not the other way around.” Freddy learned how to cut hair when he was 17 in Puerto Rico just so that he could always have something to fall back on, something to sustain him going forward. From then on he immersed himself in whatever came his way. He was an English teacher; he worked in hospitality. He lived in Florida, Spain, and Germany. He visited Morocco.
Freddy mentioned that he lived in Florida in the 80’s, so I had to inquire about that time, because you know, I’ve seen Narcos. “Oh Florida was crazy. Lots of cocaine. But in a weird way, it was tranquil. Not at all like it is now. Too many buildings.”
He’s also had a handful of wives all over the world. Not at the same time of course.
“It was actually a woman who convinced me to come back to New York.” I always try to get some girl advice from Freddy when I’m in there, because there’s no doubt he was an international love guru in his prime. I have never learned any of their names, but I know that “the Italian” was his favorite and “the Latina” was a lot of fun. “You gotta have a Latina at some point, my friend.”
Freddy admits to chasing a lot of tail, but in hindsight he says he was “young and ignorant.” In a moment of zen, I couldn’t help but ask him what the most important factor was for a relationship. (Yeah I don’t know man Freddy had me all up in the feels). He responded, “There’s not one thing, it’s multiple things. You’ve gotta respect me. I gotta respect her. There’s a mutual trust, but above all, just look out for each other.”
And in recalling his sexcapades he was sure to remind me, “You might like two girls, but you can only have one.” Amen Freddy, amen.
This jam-packed topic then transitioned into his role as a barber in this neighborhood. Freddy sees himself as a mentor to whomever seeks his thoughts. He’s never aggressive in his pedagogy; he waits for the opportunity to come to him. “Most people ask me about jobs, like, ‘hey Freddy I don’t know what to do next man,’ and I do my best to point them in the right direction. The direction of a job that means something to them.”
Believe it or not, towards the end of our interview, a man came up to Freddy and told him that he had found a gig where he could work for a man in exchange for housing, that it was close by, and everything was working out. As he calmly puffed his cigarette, Freddy patted him on the shoulder in congratulations.
“Listen man, I had it all as a young man. Cars, women, money. But that wasn’t my happiness. Money doesn’t make anyone happy. I realized this through my experiences. It’s all about knowing the self.” Throughout our conversation, Freddy repeated many of the same ideals similar to the preceding statement. I never doubted his sincerity, for I truly felt like I was in the presence of a man that legitimately knew his identity…that is until I asked him for his full name.
“Well…everyone just calls me Freddy.”
He reluctantly handed me his driver’s license. Taking the name with me to the grave. (Don’t even bother asking him yourself he probably only tells his best friends like me).
His closing remarks to Fordham students were, “Keep achieving like you’ve been doing. The experiences here won’t be anything like the workforce. Anything you need to know for work, you’ll learn on the job.” Freddy believes that the reason we go to school is to understand ourselves and to appreciate all that we’ve experienced.
“Everyone wants to be number one. That’s a mistake. Why do you think you’re better than him or her? You’re not. The goal is to be your best self.” The Oracle of Fordham Road indeed.
“A barber is like family, but a weird kind, because people tell their barber what they won’t tell their family.” And even though I asked, like the great barber he is, he did not share any of the possibly scandalous information that he’s heard.
At the end of our talk, we had to take some pictures of Freddy. At one point he said, “Why don’t we get one of me pretending to cut his hair” (as he pointed at me). Then, like the caring dude he is, he continued, “Might as well just clean you up a little bit.” He shaped me up, seeming to forget there was a camera focused on him.