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CLIPS: Keeping the American Dream alive near Farragut Square

“This stuff is good for the blood circulation on the head!” Jose says, his voice brimming with glee. “I got guys who come over here once a day; they think I found the fountain of youth!”

In our latest episode of CLIPS, our barbershop oral history project in partnership with Metro Connection, we visit a barber with the "fountain of youth"...
Ride up the escalator at the western exit of the Farragut West Metro station, and you’ll come upon International Square: a three-building complex whose 1.1 million square feet occupy nearly the entire block. Venture inside and you’ll find a soaring, light-filled atrium with a food court, offices, and the buzzing, humming home-away-from-home of Jose Rodriguez, owner of Jose’s Barber Shop.
The day I visit, the Puerto Rican native shows me an old-school, chrome device strapped to the back of his hand, and proceeds to deliver an intense massage to my head.
“This stuff is good for the blood circulation on the head!” Jose says, his voice brimming with glee. “I got guys who come over here once a day; they think I found the fountain of youth!”
At many barber shops, back in the day, this kind of massage to the scalp, neck and shoulders was par for the course after your usual shave-and-a-haircut.
And while we’re talking old-school authenticity, another classic technique Jose Rodriguez is keeping alive is the traditional, straight-razor shave.
“The reason you cut hair with a razor is because I took a course one time, and they got the microscope looking at the hair,” Jose explains. “You see the hair when they cut it with the scissors: it’s like cutting wood with a chop. By cutting it with a razor, all the hairs lay down flat to each other.”
The Fairfax County resident says he’s spent so many years cutting with straight razors, he can practically do it with his eyes closed.
“Just by the feel of it, I can do the haircut almost from beginning to end.”
And really, it’s no surprise. After all, he’s been a barber for more than half a century, and has owned his own shop since the early 2000s.
But he never expected any of it back in March of 1957, when -- at age 19 -- he left his rural town in Puerto Rico to fly to the capital of the United States.
“I got in Washington about midnight,” he recalls. “Those days, you had the flight to New Jersey, [then] come back here.”
He was supposed to get a ride to 18th Street and Columbia Road, where his uncle lived. But his ride never showed.
“I got three dollars in my pocket,” he remembers. “And I gave it to the taxi driver to take me to 18th and Columbia Road.”
Penniless and jobless, the next day Jose hit the ground running. Or knocking, rather.
“I started knocking doors in restaurants. Because that was the best way to get a job!” he says.
Making his way down Connecticut Avenue, he wound up at The Colony: a fancy French restaurant just north of The Mayflower Hotel.
“I didn’t know nothing then about French food,” he recounts. “But I found out I was knocking in the right place!”
Indeed, he was. Because here’s the thing: Jose had zero restaurant experience. Which is why he offered The Colony’s manager a proposal.
“’You don’t have to pay me,’” Jose told the man. “’You just put me to work. And as long as you give me lunch and dinner, and if you think I’m worth something, you pay me later.’”
Lucky for Jose, he was hired on the spot as a busboy.
“I was very fast!” he says with a smile.
Now, one thing we haven’t mentioned: as a teenager in Puerto Rico, Jose actually dabbled in barbering. But he couldn’t just start cutting hair in the U.S. without a license. So, after a few months in his new city, he got his barber’s license.
He met this older Italian barber, who soon hired him to work at his shop, here in the Farragut neighborhood.
“His name was Vito,” Jose fondly recalls. “He’s the one who helped me out. Later on he died. But I worked with him together for 42 years. He let me have everything I could because he was that kind of guy.”
In the early 2000s, Jose struck out on his own. He opened up this space inside International Square, and says business has been booming ever since. He even has clients who call him from overseas.
“The World Bank, and the [International] Monetary Fund, this city is full of international businesses,” Jose explains. “And [these clients] got [sic] my telephone. They call me sometimes when they come to big meetings in Washington: ‘Jose, I got your phone, it’s still here. Can you cut my hair?’”
And he says it’s his clients who keep Jose going after all these years.
“You learn so much from them,” he says. “We talk about everything! And we became just like a family!”
Jose says while some days his barber shop is hopping, other days it’s a bit quieter.
“I don’t make that much money like I used to, in the old days,” he says. “But still, I’m happy about it. I can go home any time I want to, I can come in any time I want to.”
Jose is thinking about paring down his schedule, maybe taking Wednesdays off, “and that’s good because one day I can play golf, I can go fishing,” he says.
But he isn’t about to pack up his razors and massagers for good.
“No, I keep going because I like it so much,” he says. “I could be doing something else but I’d rather do this because it’s part of my life.”
And Jose Rodriguez is grateful for that life, every day. He’s come a long way from that fresh-faced 19-year-old kid. And he has 50-plus years of freshly-shaved faces -- and well-coiffed, well-massaged heads -- to prove it.
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