- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

Phillip Rascona rarely has a bad hair day, and when he does he keeps it to himself for the sake of the customers.

Being a barber has as much to do with upholding a series of generations-old traditions as it does with cutting hair. Mr. Rascona and his partner at the Watergate Barber Shop, Melo Smillo, have mastered them all.

There is the art of small talk. Every customer who sits in Mr. Rascona's or Mr. Smillo's chair faces a barrage of friendly questions.

"How's the family?"

"Hot enough for you?"

"Planning any trips this summer?"

There is the art of knowing when to shut up. For many customers especially the retirees with a nagging wife at home a visit to the Watergate Barber Shop is a chance to get away from it all. They sit with their eyes shut and occasionally drift off to sleep while their hair is trimmed. The barbers are careful to not disturb them.

The shop, run by Mr. Rascona, 48, is one of the original businesses in the downtown Washington building made famous by the Nixon-era scandal. His father opened the shop in I966 and Mr. Rascona worked alongside him for many years before taking over in 1986.

"It's a good business to be in, especially if you were hard-headed in school like I was. The job isn't too hard. It's nice to be your own boss," Mr. Rascona says.

He is too modest.

Besides perfecting one's chairside manner, there is the all-important art of promoting your famous customers. One wall of the Watergate Barber Shop is lined with photographs of the notable men who regularly pass through its doors, including television weatherman Willard Scott and former Republican senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole.

"We get some real big shots in here," Mr. Smillo says.

Mr. Rascona and Mr. Smillo started their day Wednesday about 8:30 a.m. The customer flow is slow but steady. Rarely are two customers in the chairs at the same time.

The routine is almost always the same. A customer, usually an older gentleman who resides in the Watergate condominiums, walks in. Mr. Rascona or Mr. Smillo ushers them to a chair. Small talk ensues. The clippers work furiously. Hair falls on the white-tiled floor.

When it's all over, the customer pays and departs, usually with a friendly wave and a "See you in a few weeks."

Then the next customer walks in. The routine starts all over again.

"I plan my entire life around this haircut. I have to think before I take a vacation, 'Is this going to throw off my haircut schedule?'" says Don Morency, a retired public relations executive who visits the shop about every two weeks.

Mr. Rascona's father, a Sicilian immigrant named Giuseppe, was one of the few Watergate tenents to sign a long-term lease when he opened the shop in June 1966. For 20 years, Giuseppe Rascona paid $6 a square foot for his space. Today, the rent is closer to $45 a square foot, his son says.

Haircuts cost $2.50 when the shop opened. They cost $18 today.

Aside from the inflation, the shop has changed little since it opened. It seems frozen in time, from the politically incorrect calendar of a bikini-clad woman that hangs behind the cash register to the dated magazines that sit on the bookcase in the waiting area.

The sounds of the Beatles and Martha and the Vandellas waft from a small radio behind the bookcase. The radio stays tuned to oldies music station WBIG (100.3 FM) at all times, Mr. Rascona says. "They play a lot of Elvis Presley. I love Elvis.".

Mr. Rascona made Mr. Smillo a partner in the business several years ago. They are not related, but they consider each other family.

The two men complement each other well. Mr. Smillo is the flashier of the two. He wears a black silk shirt that exposes his chest hair and the thick gold chain around his neck. His hands gesture wildly when he talks.

Mr. Rascona is more understated. He talks affectionately about working alongside his father, beginning when he was a teen-ager shining shoes in the barber shop.

After he finishes trimming one customer's hair, Mr. Rascona pulls a photograph of his father off the wall and wipes away the dust. A visitor asks if the older man has died.

"My dad? Oh no. He just retired. He lives in Ocean City now," Mr. Rascona explains.

The visitor is surprised. He assumed barbers were like soliders who died with their boots on, or in this case, with clippers in their hand.

"No. I don't plan to do this forever. I might retire in another five to 10 years. It's a job. It's not my whole life," Mr. Rascona says.

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