I haven't lived in Milwaukee my entire life, but I've spent a good chunk of it here, and if anyone ever asks where's the best place to spend that $6 burning a hole in your wallet, I now have my final answer.
Without a doubt, it's at Jose's Barber Extraordinaire, 2644 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., for a hot towel treatment, applied by the 79-year-old extraordinary barber Jose Amado Ortiz.
I'd heard about this service for years, and I've seen Jose's trademark blue VW van (painted with the slogan "Hairapy is cheaper than therapy" on its side) driving through town many, many times. But until recently, I'd never walked into the shop for this old-school pampering. When I introduced myself to him, Ortiz says it was high time I got myself barbered up.
Ortiz says that he's more of a listener than a talker, and now in his 50th year of barbering, some of his clients have coming to him for 40 years. Jose explains as he gets me ready that he's only talking to me now for the purpose of helping me with my article. Leading me to chair that's probably older than I am, he says he acts as therapist, as well as a barber.
"A client once told me I should charge $90 an hour," he says.
First, Jose lathers up a brush with shaving soap and smears some on my sideburns and neck. Then, he sharpens a straight razor on a leather strop hanging from the chair and slowly cleans up my rough edges. It's a little scary, but Jose's weathered hands are smooth and stable, like he's been doing this forever -- which he basically has.
Jose says he's slowing down with age, but he plans on working, full-time, until he's "horizontal in a box." You wouldn't know he's pushing 80, though, by looking at him. Ortiz looks and acts like someone barely 60 (he takes it a bit further and says he acts like he's 19).
Next, Jose rubs a white tonic on my face and produces a scalding hot towel from a warmer. When he lays it on my face, with only my nose and mouth uncovered, it's really hot -- almost too hot. But after a few seconds, it cools a bit, and Jose lets it sit. Then he pushes it across and rubs it on my face, eventually removing the towel and giving my head and neck a quick massage.
The last step is a bracing liquid with menthol that instantly stings my cheeks and immediately clears my nose. When I sit up, my face is pink and smooth and soft. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes. It's not a time-consuming procedure, but it doesn't feel rushed, either.
For an additional $19, I could have upgraded to a haircut, too -- Jose knows his prices are cheap; some of his students over the years now charge $50 for a cut -- but he wants to keep it reasonable.
All of this makes sense if you take a minute to let Ortiz do the talking.
"I was fortunate to work with old-time barbers in the '60s and I learned a lot from them," says Ortiz.
He's been at his current shop on Kinnickinnic Avenue for five years, but at one time he owned five barber shops Downtown and a beauty shop on the northwest side.
"In '69, I sold the shops and kept one on Jackson St.," says Ortiz. "As the years progressed, it went from basic barbering into men's hair styling in the 1970s, when men grew their hair out."
But, just as Ortiz once got away from the basic cuts, his business came full circle. "Things change; it's a cycle," he says. "I said I'd get these things back the way they are supposed to be."
And that's when Jose started the hot towel service.
"You know, basic stuff from the old days."
Old days, indeed. Ortiz says he learned his method from when he was working as apprentice at the YMCA, more than 50 years ago.
"A guy got a haircut, scalp massage and hot towel in 15 minutes."
At other places in Milwaukee, that kind of service will cost you a lot of money.
But at Jose's Barber Extraordinaire, it starts at $6.
Just walk in and ask for the hot towel treatment. You'll be very glad you did.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.