When the pandemic forced a locked-down nation to rely on kitchen-scissor-wielding family members for grooming, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. got a call from Joe Quattrone.
“He heard I was at the Capitol, and he said, ‘Look, I’m going to come up and do your hair,’” the New Jersey Democrat said. “I thought he was joking.”
In those early days, lawmakers and their skeleton staff feverishly worked on pandemic relief packages as most stayed home. But not long after the call, Pascrell heard a knock on his office door.
On the other side was Quattrone, or “Joe Q,” as it says on his business card. He had a full set of barbering tools and was ready to give his longtime friend a trim.
Quattrone, 88, has been a presence on the House side of the Capitol for more than a half-century, but next Friday he will hang up his shears for good. He’s retiring and moving to North Carolina to be near family.
“What can I say? I’m going to miss it. But it’s time for me to go after 51-and-a-half years,” said Quattrone. Lately, his health has declined, and his wife, Rita, died last year after 65 years of marriage. Her picture still sits on the counter next to his chair.
The House barbershop has always been more than just a convenient place to squeeze in a quick haircut. It’s one of the last bipartisan spaces on the Hill where people can retreat from the outside world. As they lie back under their capes, some even put away their phones.
The barber’s chair, much like a barstool, can be a confessional, a psychiatrist’s couch or just a quiet contemplative space, but the barber hears it all.
“From the moment I met him over 25 years ago, he was the source of information,” Pascrell said. Quattrone never betrayed a client’s confidence, but he could read the mood at the Capitol and always seemed one step ahead.
The pair still talk often, though their conversations typically have nothing to do with politics. Instead they meander through food, family and the past.
For those who know Joe Q, his retirement will be the end of an era — and changes have already been creeping in.
The dark wooden walls of the shop were once covered with photos of its high-profile customers. After it was remodeled last year and reopened in January, the photos are mostly gone.
“I kind of liked the warmth of the old wood,” said Jeff Suggs, who’s cut hair in the booth next to Quattrone for the past four years.
The retired firefighter, who also moonlights as a photographer, said he learned patience from his shopmate and adopted his “fuggedaboutit” attitude on stressful days or when they have tough clients.
The affable Joe Q, a snappy dresser who wears a trademark smock over his dress shirt and always has a comb in his pocket, has cut the hair of everyone from Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush to the tradespeople who keep the Capitol running. Ford continued to visit after he became vice president, and his family invited Quattrone to attend his funeral when he died.
“A little guy, coming from a family of farmers, from nothing — I’ve got a job with the most powerful people in the world,” he said. “What a pleasure and an honor to serve here.”
Quattrone was born to an agricultural family in a small town in the Calabria region located at the “toe” of Italy’s bootlike peninsula.
He came to the U.S. as a teen in the early 1950s and found work with his family in Ohio. He served in the military and moved to Washington, taking odd jobs at restaurants and construction sites. After an injury, he took a friend’s advice and enrolled in barber school.
That turned out to be his calling, and he worked in barbershops at the Pentagon and Andrews Air Force Base before starting at the Capitol on March 2, 1971. He remembers the exact date clearly — he was supposed to start the day before, until members of the Weather Underground set off a bomb in a Senate bathroom.
Back then it cost a cool 75 cents to get a cut from one of the dozen or so barbers who worked at several locations across the complex.
The House privatized those shops in the mid-1990s, and now just one remains. On the ground floor of the Rayburn Building, a trim starts at $20 and the clientele is overwhelmingly male. There used to be a House salon catering to women, but those seeking blowouts had to go elsewhere after the contract was terminated over a decade ago. (On the Senate side, taxpayers still subsidize haircuts at a shop in the Russell Building.)
The House barbershop will continue without Quattrone, but it won’t be quite the same. On a Tuesday in early August, he sat in the shop eating a panettone and sipping coffee, waiting for potential clients to come in.
Business has been down for the past several years, he said, attributing it to the pandemic and the lingering popularity of remote work. But even on slow days, he has as many visitors as clients stopping by, ready to chat or sample the food he brings from home, like his famous homemade sausage, Italian cheese or pasta.
“Where ya been?” Quattrone exclaimed over the buzz of his clippers when Dave Miller walked into the shop. The former Architect of the Capitol employee was visiting colleagues, but no trip was complete without popping in to see if Joe Q was still around.
“I’m retired,” Miller said with a smile.
“I’m on my way out too,” Quattrone said, briefly turning away from his trim of William Wadsworth, an operations director for Rep. Mary Miller (no relation).
Miller said he still has fond memories of the shop’s Christmas parties, when the barbers would ply their colleagues and clients with food.
“Italian people don’t need a reason to have a party,” Quattrone said as he dusted off Wadsworth and sent him on his way.
When Quattrone walks through the Rayburn Building and hears his footsteps echo in the halls, it feels like home to him. He helped pour the terrazzo floors during his time as a construction worker, he said.
And that sense of comfort is mutual for some of his clients.
“It’s a warm, embracing place where you put the politics aside and you just enjoy some good company with a friend who’s been around for a long time,” said Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who sometimes sneaks away to the shop to get a trim.
“You can always run down there and count on Joe to be there with a friendly smile,” he said.
Scalise said they’ve covered a lot of topics since he took office back in 2008, like their shared Italian heritage and tomato sauce or pasta recipes.
And when Scalise spent months in the hospital in 2017 after a shooter opened fire on a Republican baseball practice, Quattrone was among those who came to visit. He showed up ready with a barber kit.
It was a touching moment, Scalise said — not just because he needed a haircut, but because it gave him hope. Washington is a rough and tumble place, but it reminded him that some people value relationships built over time.
“More than the profession, it’s the friendship that I’ll miss,” Scalise said. “He’s earned his right to retire, and I wish him well, but we’ll miss the friendly face that Joe represents.”