I’m at the University of San Francisco getting my nose hairs trimmed by a 19-year old when I realize that this is probably the most comprehensive haircut experience I’ve ever had. And I’m in a dorm room.
Elijah Westall, the man transforming me from a somewhat disheveled looking journalist into a clean-cut one, says, “You’ve probably never had a barber shave your nose hairs, huh?” This is after I start giggling about the fact that he’s looking right up my nasal cavity. He’s right. I haven’t.
And my nose hairs aren’t the only part of my look Westall is tending carefully to. In the hour and forty-five minutes I sit in Elijah’s barber chair, my face receives a jet of steam to open up my pores, a TOV LABS Activated Charcoal face mask (with Vitamin E), and an exfoliant scrub with a face massager. (“People think that after you open up your pores, you have to close them,” Elijah said. “But really, your pores are genetic.”). It all feels really good because I’m in the middle of a day at school, stressed as usual. And then, of course, my hair. Elijah cuts it with the precision that Michaelangelo put into David (seriously, every other moment he was checking to make sure it was even). Scissors, clippers and a straight razor. Elijah doesn’t have a sink in the room to do a wash, but he does have an emporium of pomades and gels, which he eventually massages into my hair.
I’m in a dorm room, not a bougie barber shop on Valencia Street. How did Elijah make all of this possible?
Elijah, a black sophomore at the University of San Francisco, stands about 5 foot 11 with a lanky build and calm demeanor. He grew up in Centennial Hills, Nevada, a Las Vegas neighborhood 20 minutes from downtown. His dark brown hair is shaved clean on the sides, with an explosion of curls on the top. He told me he cuts it himself.
Growing up, Elijah spent most of his free time playing basketball. His step-father, Paul, is a Vietnam War veteran. His mother, Anoalani, was the CEO of her own business, (he wouldn’t say what it was). Both of his parents are now retired, and according to Elijah, sit at home and watch the stock market. While his parents have offered a small amount of direction for his business ambitions, a lot of Elijah’s entrepreneurial spirit comes from his godfather, Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Seafoods, a Boston-based seafood restaurant chain.
“Super humble dude,” Elijah said. “Super dope. The way he carries himself, I look up to him a lot.” Elijah said that while he doesn’t speak with Berkowitz daily about business, he still remembers one interaction. “I remember when I was 13, I get to go to his restaurant in Boston,” Elijah said. “I was visiting and I got to pull up on him. It must have been some Congressman that was sitting with [Berkowitz]. I just got to chop it up with them.”
Elijah remembers the worst haircut he ever received. In the sixth grade, a lot of his classmates were getting designs shaved into their hair. He wanted one too — a star. So, he asked his parents, who said yes, and off they went to Great Clips, a chain that didn’t exactly specialize in the hair of African American kids like Elijah. The barber must have not had much experience shaving stars into kids’ heads and took a Sharpie marker and outlined the shape on Eljiah’s head, then shaved around it. “The issue was when I showed up to school the next day,” Elijah said. “And everyone was asking me, ‘Why do you have a goldfish on your head?’ After that, I learned my lesson. I know what it is like to get a really bad haircut.”
The winter break of Elijah’s freshman year at USF, he was back home with his family and was bored. He started looking at YouTube videos of haircutting and decided to try it out. “I bought all the materials off of Amazon,” Elijah said, which he remembers costing around $300 to $400. His brother Jimmy, who was 12 at the time, was his guinea pig. “Although the cut, in total, took about 5-6 hours, after I realized I truly had a passion for the art because it felt as if I lost track of time while sculpting,” Elijah said. “I was very hesitant in terms of the strokes of my clipper and the steps that I had to take. I had to double check everything because I wasn’t sure.”
I wouldn’t be able to really know who Elijah was until I got a cut from him myself. So, I went on Instagram (his account is called “artbyewest”) and tapped on the “Book” link.
At 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, I walk over to Elijah’s dorm room and sit in the lobby. It’s all professional. He comes down, greets me and we walk to the elevator where we eventually reach his room on the sixth floor. The dorm is about 10-feet by 12-feet, with bunks in a corner on one side. Where Elijah and his roommate sleep is really an afterthought: Elijah’s shop takes up about 60 percent of the room. The chair where the client sits, a FlagBeauty Hydraulic Barber Styling Chair ($199.99 on Amazon) is close to the dorm’s window where there is a striking view of San Francisco’s skyline. When I say striking, I really mean it. All of San Francisco’s largest skyscrapers are visible from the barbershop. It’s the first thing I see when I enter Elijah’s room.
I sit down in the chair and Elijah throws a cape — the proper word for the plastic-y cloth that covers your body during a cut — over me and says, “So, what are you thinking?” My hair was a mess. It sort of resembled a more toned-down version of Jonah Hill’s hair in Superbad. I tell Elijah it’s his choice, go for what he thinks is right. He nods and says, “That’s my favorite. Let’s tackle this.”
He starts off by gently brushing my hair with a comb while a robotic-looking device that sits about shoulder-height to me blows steam onto my face. There’s a vast arsenal of haircutting tools to feast my eyes on as I sit in the chair: multiple sets of clippers with varying guards, all kinds of scissors and as well as a container that sterilizes them, a straight razor, beard trimmers, brushes to wipe away pesky hairs on your neck, gels, pomades, creams, hair sprays, beard oil, aftershave, black face mask goo, exfoliants, a microwave to warm up towels, a professional vacuum device that’s specifically for sucking up hair on the floor after a cut, the robotic looking device that turns out to be a machine to open up your pores. There’s even a makeshift “waiting room” area where the next customer sits — a couch with a small footrest that acts as a barrier between where Elijah sleeps in his bunk (not that much, he says) and where he does his cuts.
Before even putting a pair of scissors to my hair, Elijah starts to dab the face mask goo on my cheeks, nose, and forehead. Even though I signed up for the basic cut, Elijah offers all the extra perks that aren’t part of the option I chose. “We can temporarily open up your pores to clear the debris,” Elijah says as he’s applying the mask. “That’s what I did with the steamer, I opened up your pores. Now, with the black mask, I’m going to extract all the debris.” As the goo hardens, Elijah turns to the clippers and attaches a 5-inch guard to it and starts cutting away. We’ve decided together that he’s gonna do something not too short but not too long, right in the middle. He sprays some water on my hair and combs it more, eyeing it carefully from all angles. Elijah switches over to scissors while a guy, who presumably lives on Elijah’s floor, walks into the room.
“I need advice from you about facial hair,” the guy says to Elijah. “It’ll come in,” Elijah assures him, referring to his beard. He recommends using beard oil. “We’ll talk,” Elijah says, all while remaining focused on the haircut.
It isn’t unusual for someone to just walk into Elijah’s shop. As I sit in the chair, I see a bustling center of activity, with customers sitting on his couch waiting for their cut and friends of Elijah’s walking in and out of the room. One time, when I was just hanging in the room, two women who live across from Elijah hobbled in. “They’re in here all the time,” Elijah said. “They’ll talk to my clients.” One of the women, Isabella Alvarez, was apparently in the room for seven hours the day before. She’s gotten a haircut from Elijah once. He’s a “great therapist,” Alvarez said. “We come in here and spill,” the other women, Xenia Mangiliman, adds. “He de-stresses [us]. Says facts.” Elijah is, after all, a psychology major. “People tell me I have a really calming voice,” Elijah said. He indeed does. Elijah is intensely inquisitive about my life, too, when I interview him. Sometimes, it seems he is the one interviewing me. Elijah constantly asks me questions about my goals and my life, and I forget that I’m the one supposed to be asking the questions. At certain points, I have to steer the conversation back to him.
But his soothing words, which are usually pieces of advice or reassurances, are part of an important and much-needed service that is hard to find in a city like San Francisco, a place where black clients can come in and know their barber will understand their needs. “That’s the number one thing,” Elijah said. “If you’re black and you come in here, that’s the number one thing I’m getting. I hear them complain, ‘There is no one in this city that can cut black hair.” And if they do, they’re charging 100 or 50 dollars.” Elijah’s prices are fairly affordable compared to the rest of the city. His basic haircut is $30, which includes a fade or taper on your hair, the styling of your hair, a straight razor cut and eyebrow fixing. From there, the cost increases to $60 for the “Complete Package – VIP” service, which includes all of the above as well as a face mask. Elijah also does a house call for $150, where he will bring all of his equipment to your house.
Elijah first started offering haircuts in Hayes-Healy, the dorm he lived in freshman year, where his clients would sit in an ordinary wooden chair. Joseph Job, a graduate student at SF State and a friend of Elijah’s, remembers his first cut. “It wasn’t bad, nah,” Job said, who visits Elijah for a cut every two weeks. “I feel like [Elijah] listens to the advice that I’m saying. A lot of barbers, especially those that are older, they are so in their ways. They aren’t flexible in what they are trying to do. What’s kinda cool with him, even though it’s only a year in the game, he’s still growing. He’s not so stuck in his ways.”
By his sophomore year, Elijah moved to Toler Hall, where his haircutting service started to pick up considerably. The day he cut my hair was one of many. “I’m probably going to do up to 12-15 cuts [today],” Elijah says to me.
Elijah does have to share his barber space with his roommate, whose name is Nate Centeno. “This whole haircut thing?” Centeno said. “You know, when he first started, I’m going to be honest, I laughed. And now look where he’s at. Jokes on me!” Centeno, who refers to Elijah as “Eli,” says that he is a heavy sleeper and isn’t disturbed by the fact that there is a barber shop in his room. He even sleeps during some late nights cuts. “At the end of the day, I think it’s cool,” Nate says, who is from Oxnard, California. “It’s different. The way that we have it set up, we have enough space. I’ve adapted to it.” He says he enjoys the community that comes out of it. “I make friends out of these connections. So, it don’t bug me. He cleans up. Keeps everything in order.”
Elijah does tend to Nate’s hair. “It took a leap of faith for him to cut my hair,” Nate said.
The latest Elijah’s done a cut? 1 a.m. His dream person to cut? Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. Elijah loves Boston sports teams — something him and I share — since his step-dad is originally from there. (“I already know [Tatum’s] whole head, every detail. The two on top. Low tapers. I already know his cut.”). Elijah cuts almost every day, barring the weekends where he does only six. “It’s crazy. This dude has so many clients,” Job said.
“This guy’s 19. This ain’t no 19-year-old.”
USF doesn’t allow commercial businesses in dormitory rooms, according to Student Conduct Code – Section 6.8. But this won’t stop Elijah, who has big cutting plans for the future, outside of USF. On May 2, he moved into his new apartment across the street from the university on Masonic Street. This coming summer, he will be getting his apprenticeship for a barber license. The apprenticeship, California Barbering & Cosmetology Apprenticeship Learning Center Inc., is located in Santa Rosa, and it will allow Elijah to learn the ins and outs of the trade from professionals. In the meantime, Elijah has been working at Debonair Barber and Shave Parlor on Haight Street since March, where he offers clients discounted cuts. He remembers walking in one day, and a barber there had him start immediately. “A walk-in comes in, the guy says, this is on you,” Elijah recalled. Elijah says that he plans on having his own private studio in his new apartment, too, where he can bring clients in for late night cuts.
We’re about an hour into my haircut, after Elijah has shortened the sides of my hair with medium-length clippers and sculpted the top with scissors, that he finally peels off the hardened face mask. He then applies an exfoliant scrub on my face and warms up a moist towel in the microwave across from the chair I’m sitting in. He wraps the steaming towel over a hand-held massager and vibrates the machine on my face while washing off the exfoliant. He then takes a straight razor and shaves off my patchy looking beard, gets the nose hairs with a pair of clippers, and applies a stinging aftershave to my face. Elijah then sprays a protective layer of “Elegance Hair Serum” on while blow drying (this makes sure it doesn’t dry out too much, according to Elijah). He then tops it off with a pomade called “Tomb 45 Victory Fiber” and runs a comb through my hair to style it up. There is no mirror to look into the whole time during the cut, as Elijah wants to leave it a surprise.
At last, he gives me a handheld mirror and I take a look. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it was one of the better cuts I’ve had in my life with the extras he added in, the attention to detail, as well as striking the perfect balance between short and long on the cut. I shoot him a $55 Venmo and leave feeling like a completely new person.
By the end of the day, I text Elijah to tell him that I’ve received at least 10 compliments on the hair.
He responds, “That’s how it should be after a cut.”