The Future

‘It took me 10 years to get to where I got’

A New Jersey barber on the toll that COVID-19 is taking on his life.

The Future

‘It took me 10 years to get to where I got’

A New Jersey barber on the toll that COVID-19 is taking on his life.
The Future

‘It took me 10 years to get to where I got’

A New Jersey barber on the toll that COVID-19 is taking on his life.

As Told To

Stories about the way the world works, in the words of people living in it.

Zane Keyes is a 26-year-old barber based in Montclair, New Jersey. He spoke with The Outline as part of “As Told To,” our ongoing series about how the coronavirus is reordering peoples’ lives. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Keyes has been cutting hair for 10 years, when he began working out of his mom’s kitchen and his high school gymnasium. At Rutgers, he cut hair in the dorms before partnering up with Rutgers alum and NFL player Tim Wright, with whom he opened a barbershop in New Brunswick in 2016. Last year, he moved to Montclair and began working at a local shop, V Sosa Grooming Bar, where he’s cut hair ever since. At least, until now. You can find Zane’s work on Instagram, and pay him to teach you how to cut your hair properly.

Everything was going great — the economy, my clientele base, barber shops in general are booming, and then all of a sudden this happens. In the beginning, when we saw what was going on with China and Italy we were paying attention because we’re in the shop, and all our customers talk about news and sports all day and everyday. News, sports, and what’s going on on instagram. And we’re monitoring it, and my boss kept talking to us, like, “what would make you guys want to close up shop? Do you guys feel comfortable working? I’m not forcing you to work, I don’t want to make anyone come to work who doesn’t want to, and I understand because I’m starting to feel anxious at work.”

It was around two weeks ago, around March 7, when we started having conversations like that. And when things got serious around the 18th, my boss just started talking to us about options and whether we wanted to stay open. And we stayed open, but we had masks on, gloves on, purell at all our stations, spraying the bathroom, wiping down door knobs, etc. Just trying to not transmit anything.

And one of our coworkers, she became ill, but she's someone with a lot of sinus infections and she got checked out at the doctors [who said she didn't have COVID-19], but she said “I’m already freaked out and I wanna stay home.” No one judged her for it. Everyone else, we kept working until we were told not to.

And when Gov. Murphy made the announcement for businesses to close at 8 p.m. last Thursday, on March 19, we were relieved. We were anxious in the shop, but we also dreaded that day because we knew we weren’t like some of the corporate people who were gonna get paid every day. We knew we were going to have to file for unemployment, as independent contractors, and that’s what we had to do. We don’t have any work available when we’re legally told we can’t work right now.

Of course, there are tons of barbers who want [keep working and] to stick to their private clients, or are just advertising to the entire public that they are cutting hair and doing house calls.

I have no interest in cutting people’s hair right now, because at the end of the day, this is holding up from me seeing my mother. She lives in Long Branch, and I have to keep a specific distance from her and it sucks because my birthday is tomorrow. The only thing I think about and worry about is my mom. Our industry is going to be booming when this thing ends. And yeah, money is tight no matter how much you have saved up, and you have to be way more conservative with it, but for me I just man… I wanna know that my mom’s okay. She lives 50 minutes away from Montclair in Long Branch. Not being able to see her, to hug her, while she’s getting updates from work about whether she’s getting paid or a salary cut.

What do you want to do while you can’t cut hair?

The first thing is, I’m filing for unemployment. I’ve helped other people file for unemployment, but I’ve never done it for myself before. The second thing is to look at my taxes, and make sure everything is in order, and then to hold myself accountable to social distancing.

For income, I thought about driving delivery for DoorDash or GrubHub, because to be honest, I’m not that scared to drop food off at people’s houses. You don't have to come in contact with people, and they can tip you in the app or by leaving cash at the door. And as for industry work, for all the moms who want to go to Target and buy some clippers and cut their kids’ hair, maybe I can do some online tutorials.

I know some barbers and shop owners are asking people money to donate to their staffs, but I don’t want to do that because it feels like begging, and I don't want people to just send me money to feel sorry for me. I’d rather work for it, or just file for unemployment because that’s what it’s there for, because my government is supposed to have my back when things go wrong.

I’m not mad about going hard on social distancing. What gets me frustrated is the president we have in office right now, who has poor leadership skills across the board. It took me 10 years to get to where I got. I used to work 60 to 70 hours a week to make a teacher’s salary of like, $3,200 or $3,600 a month. At my most recent shop, a true grooming bar, I make around $6,000 a month. I had turned my life into exactly what I envisioned. And this really threw all the work I put in….. It doesn’t feel like it’s been wasted, but this all feels so big like it’s off the Richter scale.

Noah Kulwin is the Future Editor of The Outline.