by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., and ZUCCOTTI PARK, New York, N.Y.) – The Sim’sMobile pulled out of downtown Great Barrington at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, destination lower Manhattan. At the wheel was Steve Vilot, owner of Sim’s Salon and Barber Shops in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, Mass., as well as a recognized authority on the art of shaving, who just last week was in New York City for several days on a film set working as Alecia Moore aka Pink’s shaving coach for an upcoming film in which the pop star portrays a barber.
Joining Vilot were his sidekicks BC “Dez” Desautels — affectionately known as “Little Guy” next to Steve’s “Big Guy” (if you saw Dez, you’d get the joke) – who works with Vilot in the Great Barrington shop, and Matthew Ketchum, who mans a chair in the old-school Pittsfield location on Tyler Street.
“Do you realize you guys are a bunch of anarchists?” I said, trying to get a rise out of them. For we were headed to Zuccotti Park, headquarters of the “Occupy” movement spreading like kudzu across the nation and around the world, where these three Berkshire barbers, along with a team from Springfield, Mass., were going to engage in an afternoon of political street theater by giving haircuts to Occupy Wall Street protestors to symbolize the need for big banks to “take a haircut” by providing debt relief to homeowners and consumers in the same manner that they routinely do when dealing with large corporations or wealthy clients.
“I wanna be … anarchy!” replied Dez, a longtime bass player in rock bands, spouting the lyrics to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” Born and raised in Pittsfield, with a brief stint lived in the Louisiana bayou, with a twisted sense of humor and tattoos on nearly every visible part of his body and in several ordinarily not visible locations, Dez, like Matthew – who is also a musician and, like Dez, an artist – has a heart of gold belied by his appearance, his off-color language, and his strong opinions. He’s funny as hell, too, and I couldn’t pay for a bottle of water on the whole trip there and back, as Dez made it his job to take care of me.
At Zuccotti Park, Dez, Matthew and Steve set up improvised barber stations with the help of Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, and his staff. Kink, who calls Great Barrington home, works out of a national labor union office just a few blocks down Broadway from Zuccotti Park, and his talents and an activist, organizer and media liaison were essential to the day’s event, which was the major story of the day coming out of Occupy Wall Street, receiving global coverage in print, TV, radio, and on the Internet.
“Big banks are all too happy to take a haircut when it involves the one percent, but for working families on the brink of losing their home or students trying to pay off their loans it’s an entirely different story. We’re here today to call on Wall Street to take a step toward truly jump starting the ailing economy, and take a haircut to help the 99 percent,” said Kink.
Coincidentally, the other big story of the day was the announcement of an effort by President Obama to pressure banks and lenders to, in essence, take haircuts on mortgages for homes that are “underwater,” or worth less than the value of their loans. Serendipity, or a trickle-up effect from Zuccotti Park?
With no electrical power, Dez, Matthew, and Steve, along with their Springfield colleagues, did it old-school style at the park, with scissors and old-fashioned razors. Among their “patrons,” who donned barber capes with the names of financial institutions including JPMorganChase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, were protestors who have been camped out at the park as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement for days or weeks; activists; actors; record label executives; artists; homeless people in need of grooming; out-of-towners who read or heard about the planned event and traveled to New York just to take part in a bit of history; and merely curious passersby.
The barbers worked nonstop with nary a break for about three or four hours. It was tough work, physically demanding, and they were “naked” in the sense that they were totally back-to-basics – no barber’s chair to get the client to the proper height (they just had to bend over, killing their backs and shoulders in the process); working with manual tools, resulting in blisters at best and several nicks and cuts that required bandages at worst (amazingly, none of the ‘customers’ were nicked or cut); no mirrors to hold up for the ‘bankers’ to approve or disapprove of their work.
What they lacked in the comfort and support of the tools of their 21st century trade was more than made up for in the camaraderie and appreciation of everyone involved – the ‘bankers,’ the audience that came to view this bit of symbolic political street theater, and the activists and economists who interspersed their comments throughout the day, explaining what “taking a haircut” means in the world of finance and why banks should be required to take those haircuts for the benefit of everyday taxpayers, who wind up footing the bill (plus tips) for haircuts routinely afforded to big corporations.
Everyone involved, that is, except one overly enthusiastic, white-shirted New York City police officer…..
At one point, Officer Krupke stood front and center right in front of Dez and Matthew, feet firmly planted on a “Banks Need to Take a Haircut” poster taped to the ground in front of them that everyone else all day were courteous enough not to step on, and told the two barbers in no uncertain terms that they were breaking the law and subject to arrest.
Dez and Matthew were stunned. Unnerved. And, frankly, a little bit scared.
“What are we doing wrong, officer?” asked Matthew?
“You are littering,” said Krupke.
“Seriously?” said Dez.
“I am dead serious,” said Krupke, not cracking a smile.
“Hair?” said Matthew.
“Hair is litter,” said Krupke.
The two barbers, in the middle of cutting ‘bankers’ hair, didn’t skip a beat, while unsure if they would be cuffed and vanned and taken to spend the night at Riker’s Island with petty thieves, drug dealers, rapists and murderers. They continued their business, as suddenly a crew of ‘sanitation workers’ miraculously appeared with dustpans and brooms and began sweeping up the hair that was on the sidewalk, Kink among them.
Krupke stood staring for awhile, and then walked off, never to be seen again.
It was the only real moment of tension and drama in an otherwise good-spirited day. The media were all over the barbers – TV, radio, print. Not even two hours into the protest, Kink pulled up an AP report posted on the Wall Street Journal’s website that told about the event and quoted Vilot. “We barbers are happy to help bankers take a haircut on behalf of the 99 percent,” he said “We won’t even charge them for it, and they don’t have to tip us. I hope that inspires them to do likewise.”
A few hours later, the story would go viral, picked up by newspapers and websites all over the world, with photos of the back of Vilot’s head, on which Matthew had artfully carved “99%” out of his hair, flying over the Internet. Do a Google search right now on “Steve Vilot” and you will be amazed – it was the biggest story of the day out of Zuccotti Park (and, curiously, Vilot’s hometown newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, has thus far failed to take any note of it, not even running the AP wire story).
The scene at the park itself resembled a blend of a squatter’s encampment, a flea market, and a Grateful Dead concert. Booths and tables were set up for various causes and concerns – bring the troops home; sustainable agriculture; anti-Communist China; the local currency movement (I told the guy about BerkShares but he didn’t seem interested to know that there actually WAS a local currency already in place).
“The vibe has changed,” said one veteran of the Zuccotti Park campground, apparently disgusted by the commercialization (vendors ring the area offering felafel, sandwiches, coffee and baked goods) and touristization of the encampment (the place was crawling with cameras, prompting one camper to put up a sign protesting, “We are not zoo animals,” and asking for donations in exchange for photos).
“If you rob a bank you go to jail; if you rob America you get a bonus,” one guy chanted, while an impromptu percussion ensemble pounded out a noisy beat.
When it came time to pack up, after hours of standing on their feet on the hard concrete of the sidewalk and bending over and cutting hair that in some cases hadn’t been washed for days and weeks, people were still coming up asking for haircuts. Some just wanted a free trim, but mostly people wanted to take part in this historic act of symbolic protest.
The barbers were hungry, however, and we jumped in a cab and made our way to Vilot’s favorite haunt in Chinatown, Hop Lee, at 16 Mott Street. Following a good meal of authentic Chinatown flavors, we headed back up to the Berkshires, arriving home around 10:30 or 11 p.m.
Steve, Dez, and Matthew were heroes – like David Bowie sang — just for one day. But it was a day that will last a lifetime for them and for everyone else that had a glimpse of this courageous, selfless action they engaged in on the part of the 99% getting screwed by a system geared to bending the rules for the benefit of the 1%.
The next morning, Steve, Dez, and Matthew were standing behind their chairs in their shops, earning just enough money to pay for food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their families, and forking over a good quarter or third of what they earned to the state and federal governments to pay for the great services our social welfare state provides. They don’t resent having to do that; they aren’t happy, however, that the 1% doesn’t pay its proportionate share.
And it irks them that, street theater aside, banks still won’t take a haircut on their behalf. Even if it’s free.