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Barber behind bars: Auburn's 'Mr. Paul' cuts hair at county jail
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Barber behind bars: Auburn's 'Mr. Paul' cuts hair at county jail

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

SENNETT — It sounds like any other barbershop. 

One clipper gives way to another, a musical scale of motorized hums. The shearing of hair interrupts like bursts of static. And while some clients make conversation, others just murmur instructions.

For 50 years, these sounds would have located Paul Saltarello in Mr. Paul's Barber Shop, his longtime place of business on Owasco Street.

For the last several months, however, the now-retired Saltarello has been taking his clippers and scissors to a new clientele: the Cayuga County Jail.

The Cayuga County Legislature awarded Saltarello the contract to cut the hair of the jail's inmates in June. Saltarello beat four other bidders for the contract, succeeding Diego's Uppercuts in Auburn.

The Citizen met the 71-year-old barber Wednesday at the jail, where he arrives at 8 in the morning once a month with his briefcase of tools in hand. Saltarello typically stays there for five or six hours, fitting as many as 40 haircuts into his workday. For that reason, he waited until he retired to bid on the contract despite considering it while he was still running Mr. Paul's, he said.

"I was too busy to spend a whole day here," Saltarello said in his thick Italian accent. "But I have more time now. And I want to continue hair cutting." 

Sheriff Custody Officer Suzie Fiduccia escorts the barber through the jail. Wednesday, she took him to the program room in the blocks, commonly referred to as "the old part" of the 1988 jail. First in the chair was inmate Emmanuel Walls. Saltarello said the plastic or metal chairs at the jail are one of the biggest departures from the barbershop experience, where cushions set the client at ease.

Inmates can't ask Saltarello for any haircut they want. Mohawks, for instance, aren't allowed, Fiduccia said. And if there were no restrictions, Saltarello wouldn't be able to cut as much hair as he does. Still, he tries to be accommodating. So when he asked Walls if he liked his sides at 1/2 inch, and Walls asked if the barber could go shorter, he obliged. He reached for the 1/8 inch clippers.

Previous barbers at the jail weren't so accommodating, Saltarello said. They'd use one clipper and move inmates through their chair like Marines at Parris Island. But with Saltarello, they can get the same trendy high-and-tight they'd get outside their sterile gray confines. Most inmates appreciate that, he said. Some, though, get a little too particular about what they want.

"Even here, guys are still fussy about their haircuts," he said.

"I don't complain," Walls chimed in from the chair. "I like getting my hair cut." 

Inmates who have money in their commissary accounts pay for their haircuts, Fiduccia said. They cost $13 for men, $15 for women. Beard trims are $3. Inmates with no money can still get haircuts, but not beard trims. If they work in the kitchen, however, Fiduccia encourages trims. And all inmates have to sign up in advance for their time in Saltarello's chair so she can keep his day orderly.

"I always ask him if he wants to take a break, but he doesn't," she said.

Saltarello had no women's hair to cut that day. Currently, they comprise 15 of the jail's 130 or so inmates, Fiduccia said. The latter number is down from 180 to 190, partly due to the state's bail reform law that took effect this year. The officer added that women on their way to prison often ask to have their heads shaved so as to deny corrections officers the satisfaction of doing so there.

A few minutes after Walls left, another inmate entered.

Saltarello said he talks with most of his clients at the jail, though not at much length. Some he knows from outside. He doesn't care why they're in jail, he said, just that they're in his chair. 

"When I do the haircut, I relate to the person," he said. "The same as it was in the shop."

It's with the inmates Saltarello sees more than once that he develops the most important rapport between barber and client. After brushing off the current inmate, who declined to be identified, the barber handed him a pocket mirror. The inmate looked over his tightly clipped sides and modest bangs. Hunching forward to leave the chair, he said with surprise, "It looks just like last time."

"See, I remembered," Saltarello exclaimed. 

After that inmate and a few others, Fiduccia escorted Saltarello to a newer part of the jail, where its kitchen and other workers reside. An inmate would sweep the clippings in the program room later. In the next room, the barber unspooled his towel on a table and laid out his tools there. The light in the room was brighter than that of the previous one, he noted with a satisfied grin.

Among the next inmates was William Burgdoff, who spied some grays in the hair tumbling to the floor. Fiduccia said it could be worse: He could be going bald. Burgdoff agreed with a laugh.

Then, Saltarello offered some words of wisdom that appear to be his own, or at least not widely used. Either way, they sounded like words he's been saying to young men in his chair for years.

"The hair on young men is like the ocean," he said. "It can be all waves, and then it can be all beaches, too."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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