Her hands skillfully snipping a customer's locks, hairdresser Annieres Perez nodded as two clients waiting for their turn discussed the state's new law to curb the sale of a homemade alcoholic beverage called the Nutcracker.
Signed into law by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 19, the legislation is aimed at plugging loopholes that several barber shops in Washington Heights have exploited to sell the Nutcracker to underage high-school students.
But the possibility of greater police scrutiny around barber shops doesn't worry her, Perez said. "The law will probably help the hair salon industry here," she said.
Many hair salon owners and employees in the neighborhood are convinced that the law that appears to have their industry in its crosshairs could actually boost their business.
The law may help end a stigma associated with the neighborhood's hair salons, they argue. "The hair salons here are known for the skill and style on offer. By eliminating the 'Nutcracker perception', we could get new customers," said Lilo Pana at his hair salon near the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and 182nd Street.
Existing customers who liked the Nutcracker will still come because "everyone needs a haircut," he laughed.
An alcoholic cocktail laced with fruity flavors, the Nutcracker was originally sold in bodegas but the idea was then picked up by some barber shops. Barber Alfonso Ramirez, who said he once flirted with the idea of selling the beverage, claimed others who took the plunge benefitted from an "almost 25 percent" increase in profits.
A series of violent clashes, including a mini-riot that after last year's Dominican Day parade between police and youth believed to be high on the ‘Nutcracker,' focused the glare of elected representatives and law enforcement agencies on the drink. But the law didn't allow revocation of a hair salon's license even if was found to be selling the Nutcracker to underage customers.
"That's why the new law was needed. Our children were at risk. That was unacceptable," said Guillermo Linares, state assembly man from the neighborhood.
The new law not only hikes the punishment – both the fine and the jail term – for selling alcoholic beverages to those younger than 21, but also allows the revocation of a barber's license if he is found either manufacturing or selling alcoholic drinks without a liquor license. The legislation comes into effect 120 days after the Governor signed it.
But the police are hoping to gain a head-start by starting -- right away – to monitor barber shops for customers walking out with a cup potentially carrying the ‘Nutcracker,' the neighborhood precinct's commanding officer said.
"We will maintain courtesy, professionalism and respect – that's the New York Police Department's motto. But it would be best if hair salons came forward and cooperated with us," said Deputy Inspector Barry Buzzetti, in charge of the 34th Precinct.
That's acceptable to hair salon owner Belkis Olivo, who argued that increased police presence on the streets may also provide a boost to her business. The neighborhood under the 34th Precinct has since last year witnessed a 23 percent increase in crime complaints, including gruesome sexual assaults and knifing incidents.
"A strong police presence on the street near my shop would in fact give customers confidence to come in late in the evening too," Olivo said.
But not everyone shares in her optimism, and there are skeptics who don't think it will be easy to implement the new law.
Armando Broncas, who works at Abraham Barber Shop on Broadway, cited the underground sale of alcohol during the Prohibition era. "Did it end alcohol consumption? No. People found underground ways to sell it and made huge money," he said.
Noel Jackson, who works as a barber at All Star Hair Salon at the corner of 186th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, said he feared visible police presence – and possible entry into barber shops – could scare customers. "People don't like it, they get scared you know," he said.
But Robert Jackson, the city councilman from the neighborhood, insisted that "clean" barber shops had nothing to worry about. "The only ones who should be worried are those who are in the wrong. And they should be worried," he emphasized.