Barbers EJ Ghazal, left, and Jose Cisneros, right, work with customers Guss Ibarna and Patrick Garcia at Elephant in the Room, located in the SoBo bar district.
I’m no stranger to talking about the ongoing makeover occurring in and around downtown Tulsa. That’s what this column is all about. It’s the bread and butter.
But this time, I’m not talking about the beautification of city streets and neighborhoods. This time, it’s the beautification (attempted, at least) of yours truly.
Located on the periphery of downtown Tulsa, in the SoBo (South Boston) bar district, a new men’s grooming lounge (not salon, not barber shop) called Elephant in the Room is making a play for the modern man. But not too modern.
The lounge opened in mid-February. Soon before opening, I was invited to partake in “The Experience.” I’ve never been one to spend very much on haircuts or pursue any other nonessential services in the vanity department.
For example, when I lived for a short time in San Antonio, my haircut destination of choice was a tiny spot run by a lovely Mexican family. They didn’t speak a word of English and charged only $5 for a haircut (cash only). Because I’m frugal bordering on cheap and don’t really like to engage in frivolous small talk, it was a perfect fit.
So, the idea of getting pampered at Elephant in the Room made me a bit nervous. Not because I don’t enjoy nice things and relaxation — I do. But the populist blood running through my veins filled me with some sort of guilt. This kind of thing is reserved for that much-derided 1 percent, right?
What was I doing getting a “tailored” haircut, shampoo, hand massage, paraffin wax treatment, essential-oil scalp massage, straight-razor shave and the like?
Immediately after entering the establishment, which is cozy in a masculine way, I was greeted by owner and operator Justin Moore.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked. “Water? Soda? A cold beer?”
Seeing that it was still early in the afternoon and I needed to head back to my day job afterward, I opted for the water.
But Moore, a former baseball player and trained cosmetologist, informed me that the lounge will soon offer locally brewed beers and grow its current offerings to become more of a social gathering place.
The barber assigned to me was Jose “Junior” Cisneros. Cisneros looked the part, well put together with a perfectly coiffed do and a sharp outfit.
“The Experience” took longer than I anticipated, but this was about relaxation. When Cisneros rubbed the peppermint oil into my scalp, placed a hot towel on my face and dipped my hands in wax, I nearly fell asleep on the spot. I’ve never gotten a professional shave before. Like the haircut, shaving is something I usually dread — getting through it as fast as I can to move on to the next thing. I never thought it would be something I could enjoy.
Barbers have been around forever. Relics of the trade can be traced to 3500 B.C. It’s only in these last few decades that barbers, male barbers specifically, have become somewhat rare. I asked Cisneros whether he ever desired to live in an earlier era.
“Sure. All the time,” he said. “I’d love to live in a time when people really cared about how they look.”
As I sat there being treated like a king, I was still feeling conflicted about my crazy political issues. Was I partaking in some sort of elitist activity? Does enjoying this make me care less about the common man?
But the more I talked with Moore and Cisneros, the more things made sense. I calmed down. These guys aren’t elitists — far from it. They’re barbers.
There might not be a spinning red, white and blue striped poll outside, but this is basic Americana, with a touch of class. Not to mention, if Elephant in the Room can maintain this current energy — there is now a waiting list for memberships — and succeed in the long term, it will be a great sign that the local economy as a whole can support niche businesses.
As I walked out into the blustery, sunny day, my face cool and stinging from the closest shave of my life, I imagined a man in the 1950s in downtown Tulsa doing the exact same thing. Everyone says that those were downtown’s glory days. I think history is poised to repeat itself.