Veteran hair stylist Albert Naglieri works magic on New York City’s soon-to-be-more-beautiful people at Tosler Davis, a boutique salon on Fifth Avenue near Union Square in Manhattan. The salon has been described as “high-end and low-key,” a place where female and male clients are both comfortable and coddled. Naglieri’s bag of beauty tricks is bountiful: hair coloring with techniques such as balayage, hair painting and foil highlighting; and hair cutting, with layer-graduated cuts, curly-wave texture cuts, long soft layer cuts and haircuts intended to either create volume or take out bulk. His skills have been honed by decades of meticulous work in tony Manhattan salons.
Still, nothing in Naglieri’s background could have prepared him for the upheaval in Manhattan for the past few months. The borough has been jolted by one seismic shock after another: the pandemic, the tumultuous Black Lives Matter protests, and a devastated local economy. Like his fellow New Yorkers, Naglieri unexpectedly found himself confronting these multiple challenges in America’s COVID-19 epicenter. The following is an interview with Naglieri about his life at the height of the crisis in New York City, and his jubilant, if unorthodox, return to work last week.
Your salon suddenly closed because of COVID-19 in March. What was that like?
“The last week that I was there, friends were calling me and telling me, ‘You’re crazy to be going to work! You shouldn’t be around people. You should not be working!’ Then on March 14th, I got a phone call from the salon: ‘Today’s the last day. We’re shutting down.’ I was in my living room at home. My phone kept ringing, with friends calling me to say, ‘Get out of New York! They’re going to shut New York down!’ My sister on Long Island was calling me, saying, ‘Come out here!’ I said to myself, ‘I’d better get out of here,’ I grabbed my small suitcase and I went to work thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to go back.’”
“When I got to work, everybody was freaking out, including the clients. I kind of lost it, because people were saying to me how scared they were. I was like, ‘Why are you here? I shouldn’t be here.’ I grabbed all my valuables, put them in my suitcase, and went home. I thought, ‘I’m staying put in my apartment, in my own sanctuary. I don’t want to be a displaced person.’ I love my family, but I thought, “this is an opportunity to get organized, watch movies, do some yoga, meditate, maybe read some books.” And that is what I did.”
“I treated it like it was a vacation. I thought, ‘This is a respite, and I’m going to take advantage of it.’ I was very positive at the beginning. I attacked my photo albums, which was a project that took me almost two weeks. It was a very emotional process going through all of the photos and looking at my life and the people who passed in and out of it. There were a lot of amazing times in New York. Friends who I was really close to have just moved on, or moved away, Also, people who had passed away. Sometimes I would laugh, sometimes I would cry. I finished the project, and I thought to myself, when I looked through the books, ‘Wow, your life has been really rich. You’ve done a lot of things, traveled and seen a lot of people; you’ve had a good time; you had a couple love affairs.’ I crowned myself Elizabeth Taylor—no marriages, but there were some love affairs! I also watched a lot of movies, I worked out a lot, I cooked up a storm and was creating all these things. I made my own pizza, and that was really fun.”
“But all of a sudden, everything came to a crashing halt, and a huge wave of uncertainty and anxiety came in. Not having medical insurance, because we were laid off on furlough. Having a hard time trying to get unemployment. At the same time, I felt really lucky, because I had squirreled some money away and I was safe. I thought that was really good, because I wasn’t in a panic mode. But the anxiety factor of the uncertainty kind of got me in a state the last couple of weeks.”
“I finally decided to go out to my sister’s place on Long Island and take a break. I felt I needed to be around people. I went out there for a week. My sister’s really funny—very loving. She’s built an apartment in her house and she said, ‘If anything happens, you’re coming here.’ Then she said to me, ‘I went and spoke to two salon owners who I know, and I told them my brother’s a hair stylist in Manhattan. Would you talk to him?’ It was fun to be out there—the kids, who are 17, 19 and 22—were excited when I arrived with hair lightener. They wanted their hair done. Everyone was thrilled that I was there—they were following me around. It was fun to do some hair, because I hadn’t had my hands in any hair for weeks.”
“Then I came back to the city, and everything started with Black Lives Matter. Down here, there were helicopters and sirens. After a week of that, I went back to Long Island and camped out for another week there. Then I went to Fire Island, and my friend there said, ‘Just stay here. Why are you going back?’ It was nice to be outside, but at the same time, there was all of this underlying anxiety happening What’s going to happen when you return to New York? What’s everything going to be like?”
“When I came back here, though, and I walked into my apartment, I felt a sense that there was this energy that kind of ran off of me, and I felt like I was back in my cave. My stuff is here, and my vibe is here, and I’m back in New York. But still, I’m looking around at the city and feeling so sad. I’m walking around and I’m seeing the little shops in the neighborhood that were there forever are gone, and there’s are FOR RENT signs. And the restaurants, are these guys going to be able to survive? What’s going to happen to my city? I was looking at everything boarded-up.”
“But then I thought, “You survived 9/11. You’ve been a New Yorker all your life, You watched the Towers crumble from Fifth Avenue. You lived through those three months of uncertainty, of looking around at the streets and seeing how dead they were. You held out through that, And you lived through Sandy. And now, this!’”
What was it like when you walked back into the salon after more than three months away?
“It was funny—a lot of people seemed unfamiliar, after being away from everyone for so long. But everyone was glad to see each other. We had an hour-and-15-minute meeting about how we were going to take care of clients. Everyone was around the room with their masks on. We have to wear face shields or glasses. It was weird.”
“It’s been hard to be back at work. I’ve gotten into the flow of doing hair, and it’s nice that we have a longer time booked between the clients, so I don’t feel I have to rush through this. You have a little more time to be creative, to be relaxed. But it’s uncomfortable having a mask and a plastic shield in front of your eyes. It’s hot, and harder to breath. So I’ve been drinking a lot of water. I brought snacks with me because I don’t want to be going out, and they don’t want deliveries coming up. And there’s still that feeling of uncertainty—'what’s going to happen? Now we’re on a schedule where we can’t do as many people as we were doing before. We’re doing 60-70 percent of business, so I’m concerned about that, What’s that going to be like? It’s easier to be on unemployment—click the button and get a check. That was kind of nice for awhile. I’ve never been unemployed before, and I’ve been working since I was 18 or 19 years old.”
“It was a lesson learned about medical insurance and what people are going through in the country. I’ve always had some king of plan through work. It gave me a little education, It made me a little more sympathetic—we need to address that. I went on Obamacare—I read all about that. I read about all the different things that were being offered. I called up, and I was on the phone. I had a meltdown with the woman on the phone. At one point, I just got upset and said, ‘This is so humiliating trying to ask for something. I’ve worked my whole life, and now I’m in this place.’ They were incredible, the people on the phone. I talked with three different people, and all of them were so nice, so understanding. When I started getting emotional with her, she just said to me, ‘You’re allowed to be upset and I want to help you.’ It was nice to feel that people cared. I’m lucky now to be back at work. I’m back on my old plan.”
How did your clients look when they came back?
“Kind of wild, with lots of roots, just looking at me and saying, ‘Albert, please help! I’m so glad to see you!! I’m bedraggled!’ People looked like they had two-and-a-half inches of roots on their head, or their highlights had grown out, or their haircut was all over the place. So people were happy to be there.”
How does the new pandemic system at the salon work?
“People have to come in right before their appointment. Their temperature is taken at the door. Then they come in, and they’re asked questions. Every other station has been taken away, so clients are spaced apart from each another. And then we work on that client and have to finish that client before the next client comes through the door. There’s a Clorox bottle at every station, so after I’m done with a client, I spray my comb, my scissors, my clips with alcohol. I wipe everything down. The whole chair and the station top is wiped down with Clorox and cleaned. Everything is disposable; the cape is disposable. There’s no water, coffee, tea—no drinks are served in the salon. No one is allowed to bring in food, and nobody can have friends come in with them. They can’t bring their dog. Everyone has to wait downstairs. So it’s a different experience.”
“Luckily, we have a large staff room, so people can be distant. People on the staff are concerned—they’re concerned for their health, being around clients, being in the building. Luckily, the building is not fully occupied, so there’s not a lot of in-and-out traffic. The elevator is only two people at a time, and everybody has to have their mask on in the elevator.”
Will more people decide to wear their hair gray as a consequence of this experience?
“I have several clients who have told me that they’re growing their hair out. Some clients have let their hair grow out by now, and say, ‘I want to play with this.’ I’ve lost four good clients that way—when I say good, I mean they were coming every three weeks for color. I want to support people in what they want to do, but at the same time, I’m also anxious about income loss. So, yes, this is an opportunity for people to say, Let me see what I look like gray, because I’ve been forced to grow it out for three months.”
Is it the same with people now wanting their hair to be longer?
“Some people have come in with long hair and said, ‘I kind of like my hair longer. What do you think? Can we try something with a longer hair style?’ People are definitely making changes. There have also been some color disasters that have come in. that have had to be fixed. People who did their hair themselves—colors that are too dark, or some very brassy blondes. I haven’t had the following experience myself, but I’ve also seen some clients who have said, ‘somebody was in my building who was a hair stylist and I let them do my hair and look at this! And now my husband said, ‘Please, go back to Tosler Davis and have your hair done. I don’t care what it costs—now I appreciate what it looks like!’ I also have three new clients in the book for next week, so I’m curious to see why people are changing. I think for some people, their hairdresser left town or it’s a big time of change.”
“There’s going to be a lot of shifting. One of the guys who works there told the owners that he’s leaving at the end of the month. He’s decided to leave New York City and go and do his thing in New Jersey, because he doesn’t want to bother coming into the city. I think it’s going to create a lot of changes that people had on their minds, which they were uncertain about before, but now is the time to change. But I had a conversation with one of my clients who lives in Tribeca. I told her what my sister said about me going out to Long Island. She said to me, ‘Albert, I just want to say that everybody who left the city after 9/11 regrets that they left.’”
Albert Naglieri is a hair stylist at Tosler Davis in Manhattan.
http://toslerdavis.com (Salon website)
albertnaglierinychair (Albert Naglieri’s page on Instagram)