This could be the last year that Ricci’s Barbershop will be in its familiar location next to P&G’s on Main Street in New Paltz. If all goes well, in December Cindy Ricci will move her business of 24 years over to the lot where Oasis was until this year. Getting there will mostly involve Ricci watching from the sidelines as her current and future landlords perform the complicated dance that is seeking Planning Board approval for their projects.
P&G’s owner Mike Beck wants to expand the kitchen and needs the barbershop space to do it. His approval will signal when Ricci needs to vacate her current location. Bobby Downs, meanwhile, wants to construct the commercial space of Oasis Cafe into which Ricci’s business will be relocated.
It might be easy to see Ricci as a victim, forced to move her business due to factors out of her control. However, she’s got nothing but praise for her longtime landlord and friend, Beck, calling him one of the most generous people she knows. “I can’t say enough about him,” she said. Relocating her shop is a minor challenge to someone who not very long ago couldn’t even walk, and wondered how much longer she might even be alive. Ricci has chronic Lyme disease, which differs from the acute version in both the type and severity of symptoms. While she’s back on her feet after a year and a half, she’s still in pain every day from a syndrome that evades diagnosis and avoids insurance coverage.
Asked about Beck’s planned expansion, Ricci will say that she’s surprised it took him this long to ask her to leave. With the kitchen behind her tiny space and the restaurant’s entrance just next door, it’s been obvious to her for many years just how inadequate that space was given the number of customers through the door. “I knew they’d outgrown the kitchen for many years,” she said. “I wasn’t shocked. I told [Beck], ‘you should do it.’ I would never stand in his way.”
When Ricci left C&C’s in Kingston after eight years, she had a following of customers who were among her first customers in New Paltz. Twenty-four years later, some of them are still regulars, and she has quite a few more that will almost certainly follow her down the hill and up the alley next to Gourmet Pizza. Her credo, which she shares with every new employee, is “if a customer arrives here without a smile, he better leave with one.”
She and her two employees are barbers, and they all prefer to cut men’s hair. There are already plans in the works to make the new spot something of a man cave, with tables made from tires, a tire-and-rim clock and motorcycle parts repurposed around the shop, but Ricci isn’t just pandering: she owns two motorcycles herself, and arriving on a pink hog with pet chihuahua in tow has long been part of her persona. Bellalee, her dog who died more than two years ago, rode over 90,000 miles with her mommy; Sharilee is just learning her way around a motorcycle.
Based on Downs’ plans, the new Ricci’s will have room for a fourth barber chair, and will sport a front porch she imagines will become a social nexus. The expanded location will allow her to offer services her customers have asked for, such as hair coloring and chest waxing. There’s also going to be a selection of retail items, as she explained with a gleam in her eye: if anyone has ever asked her where they can buy a thing in New Paltz, she’s going to have that thing for sale.
This new space will take some work: installing a sheet rock wall for the mirrors, putting in the floor, hooking up the head-washing sink, painting. “I’ll be asking the public for help,” Ricci acknowledged. “People call me ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ but I can’t just blink and make it happen.”
Ricci found out, when she was stricken, she could not walk, and struggled to speak and even think clearly, that her following is deeply loyal, and are people to whom she can turn for help. During the year she was unable to work, they kept showing up, expressing their support and providing their patronage. “Without them, I’d be out of business,” she said.
Lyme hit Ricci hard, and for several years after she likely got bitten by a tick. Her symptoms were agonizing, yet a correct diagnosis eluded her doctors. “It was the worst pain ever . . . I was shaking like I had Parkinson’s . . . I couldn’t add two plus two.” Pain, trembling, and brain fog led doctors to that disease, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia, among others. She finally found a Lyme-literate medical doctor, who started her on a course of strong antibiotics. She was soon able to walk again, but symptoms such as pain, fear and anxiety are expected to persist until the disease can be forced into remission. There is no cure.
“It was the worst two years ever,” she said, during which she went from 128 down to 96 pounds, and found herself in a wheelchair with “spaghetti legs.” If it wasn’t for family members and close friends, she doesn’t feel she would have survived the long ordeal, which also renewed her religious faith.
Gone was her ability to ride either of her pink motorcycles, but that too is coming back. Not long ago, in consultation with her doctor, she took one out for a “ride around town,” and the joy of long miles on the road came rushing back to her. Even that small victory was built on kindheartedness: after many months of disuse, the motorcycle needed a tune-up to the tune of $400, and someone who prefers to remain anonymous asked if he could cover that bill, paying forward a kindness given to him. “I never thought I’d be back on my bike,” Ricci said. “I didn’t want to get off of it.”
In time, Sharilee will join Ricci on the road. She’s surely doted on every bit as much as her predecessor, but Sharilee has a job which Bellelee only did informally: she’s a trained emotional support dog, caring for Ricci when she’s stricken by the anxiety or fear which is all too common among chronic Lyme sufferers. Ricci recalls the first time she ever felt anxiety, which she now sees as a harbinger of what was to come. She was riding with Bellalee at the time, and when the feeling washed over her she pet the dog with one hand, and could feel herself relaxing. What Bellalee did by instinct, Sharilee does by vocation, which means where Ricci goes, her teacup dog is there in her carrying bag.
That philosophy of Ricci’s — make sure the customer leaves with a smile — has allowed her to build a following of such strength that business didn’t flag even when she did. Many of her customers start when they’re schoolboys, and no small number of them make it a point to come in for a trim when they’re back in town. She’s also cut the hair of more than one generation, boys growing into men and bringing their young sons for their first cuts. She offers as a conservative estimate that she’s done over ten thousand haircuts thus far.
Compared to what else she’s faced, Ricci has no worries about moving her business: “That’s easy,” she said. More important is her newfound role as an advocate and educator around chronic Lyme. Her social media accounts are packed with information, and once the shop is relocated, she’s going to redouble efforts to write a book about her experience with this invisible disease. “’You look healthy,’ people tell me, but what does sick look like?”
Sick doesn’t look like Cindy Ricci. On the other hand, perhaps it does.