On the day before his 30th birthday, Anthony Cavagnuolo, 62, opened up Chic, a new hairstyling salon on the corner of Court and Degraw streets.
Neighborhood guys walked by and did double takes.
“Hey, Ant! You cut hair?” they yelled from outside.
“Yeah, I cut hair!” he yelled right back.
Anthony had spent twelve years working in the back room of an office on Wall Street, and although it was a job that paid the bills, it just wasn’t “cutting it.”
“Money and desperation led me to the profession,” Anthony admits. “But it was good because it kept me on the straight and narrow.”
Anthony’s mother was the one who told him of the available space at 306 Court Street. He borrowed five thousand dollars from one friend, five thousand dollars from another, and soon enough was making monthly rent payments of two hundred and seventy five dollars.
How the hell am I gonna pay this back? was his first thought.
Chic turned into a neighborhood hotspot. In 1983, he made more money cutting hair than he makes today. And that was when the haircuts cost you less than ten dollars.
Across the street, Anthony’s girlfriend (now, wife!), Nancy Cusumano, owned Elegant Directions – a full-service nail, tan and wax salon.
“I used to do her hair,” Anthony says. “She was a neighborhood girl. She grew up next door, in the apartment above D’Amico’s.”
But in 1986, when Nancy’s friend and co-owner pulled out of the business for monetary reasons, Anthony took over the share, and moved Chic in with Elegant Directions.
Hello, Chic Elegance.
They were together for fourteen years before they married.
“When my oldest daughter got pregnant, Nancy said to me, ‘Ant, we’re gonna have grandchildren now… we should get married, maybe.’”
He flashes a smile.
“So I got us a credit card, and we had five hundred people at our wedding. At the Puck Building in the city. Great party.”
Nancy’s mother - cute, little Rose Cusumano - saunters over to Anthony.
“Excuse me, but I need to interrupt you because I have to kiss my son-in-law.”
Born into a Neapolitan family of five, Anthony was a “street kid,” growing up and playing ball right here in Carroll Gardens.
He went to elementary school at Sacred Heart St. Stephens on Cheever Place (now, condos), and was one of the first high school students at Park Slope’s Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School when it opened in 1962.
“Not many street kids live here anymore, but this is still the neighborhood,” Anthony says with a clap of his hands. “I still hang with the guys I played football with when I was a teenager.”
On Saturdays, while Anthony is snipping, straightening and schmoozing at the salon, “the guys” are down at the Raleigh Post, an American Legion club on Third Avenue and 9th Street, playing cards, drinking at the bar and betting on horse racing and college games.
“That’s the neighborhood we were brought up in. That’s what we do,” he says.
According to Anthony, our neighborhood is the only “real neighborhood” left.
I ask him to define “neighborhood.”
“People knowing people, people saying hello to people,” he says without hesitation. “The stores don’t define a neighborhood. The people do.”
And that’s the kind of neighborhood Anthony grew up in.
The Cavagnuolo Family lived together in a house on First Place – a house that his older sister still lives in today. Her son, Anthony’s nephew, Mark Iacono, is the owner of Lucali on Henry and Carroll streets.
“He just moved back to the neighborhood. There wasn’t any room for him in the First Place house, so he’s renting up the block,” Anthony says. “He’s got the #2 pizza in America, you know.”
(Oh, I know.)
On top of hairdressing, fifteen years ago, he opened up a sports bar called Courtside Café with four of his nephews. Anthony was styling by day, and bartending by night. That bar is now Abilene on the corner of Court Street and 4th Place.
“We built that place from scratch,” Anthony says, proudly.
A familiar woman interrupts us.
“Can I just ask him a question? What do you pay for an apple turnover?” she says.
“I have no idea,” Anthony replies.
“I just bought eight of them,” she says. “I made your wife take them. Apple strudel. Eight of them for seven dollars.”
“Costco?” Anthony asks.
She nods, and he turns to me.
“See what happens here? It’s all about the food in this place. All day long.”
Anyone who walks through Anthony’s doors knows that the salon is more than just a salon. Like the Raleigh Post, it’s a sort of clubhouse for old friends. A casual meeting place where the people are fun, the stories are good and the food is shared. There’s a constant stream of people, all popping their heads in to say hello on any given day.
You’d think there was a party going on behind these old doors.
“People think we’re busy with haircuts, but no, we’re busy with our friends!” Anthony laughs.
It’s the friendships that are truly invaluable here. When Court Street fixture, Geraldine Bianchi, passed away in 2008, her nephew welded a bench in her honor, and asked to have it stationed outside the salon.
"She was a character, she’s still a character,” Anthony says with a smile and an upward glance. “Geraldine took care of this whole block, whether you wanted her to take care of it or not. If my alarm went off in the middle of the night, she was out there. She was a tough girl, but she had a heart of gold. A true friend of the salon.”
And, of course, there are no better friends than the hairstylists.
“My girls are what make this salon,” Anthony says. “Ann Marie’s been with me 29 years. Lu’s been here 11 years. Jeannie’s been with me since day 1. They were all babies when they started. They’re family now. When one hurts, we all hurt.”
I caught Jeannie in the salon recently. She left the neighborhood fifteen years ago, but is committed to making the commute from Manalapan, New Jersey every other Saturday to come and cut hair.
The salon “is a piece of home, and I can’t give it up,” she says, unabashedly.
I spy Joan D’Amico, of D’Amico’s next door, sitting in the window, talking with a friend, eating some food.
“I love it here - this is where I come to eat,” she says between bites. “I come here for the peace and quiet from my own store. Yeah, it’s crazy here but at least it’s not my store’s craziness.”
(Sounds like an invitation to go behind D’Amico’s old doors …)
With spring in the air, Anthony’s doors will literally be wide open. They are, after all, his best advertisement. Over the hum of the hairdryers, don’t be afraid to stick your head in and say “Hello.”
That’s what we neighborhood people are all about. And don’t you forget it.
311 Court Street, Brooklyn NY
Photos by Max Flatow