With the buzzing of a razor the only sound in the room, the staffer sitting in the barber’s chair thought he’d strike up a conversation with the man cutting his hair.
“How long have you worked here at the Capitol?” the staffer asked.
“40,” Joe Quattrone replied nonchalantly.
“That’s a long time.”
Since his first day on the job, on March 2, 1970, Quattrone has become a fixture in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. “Joe Q.,” as he’s affectionately known to his loyal clientele, has been there far longer than most Members. Only four — Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and David Obey (D-Wis.) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) — came to the Capitol before him. But Quattrone’s status as a Capitol Hill legend hasn’t gone to his head. Even with the walls around him covered with photos from Members of Congress, military leaders and Hollywood stars thanking him for his services, the 75-year-old remains humble.
“I love my job,” Quattrone said. He is dressed in his usual uniform, with a red smock covering a shirt and tie. “It’s an honor for me to serve some of the most powerful people in the world.”
Growing up in a little town in Italy, Quattrone thought he might become a barber someday, although he never dreamed it would be for America’s elected officials. He hails from Reggio di Calabria, where his family farmed. Born in 1935, he was a child when Benito Mussolini was in power. His oldest brother moved to America in the late 1930s, and after turning 18, Quattrone moved to Steubenville, Ohio, to join his brother and to work in his restaurant. Italian farm life wasn’t for him.
“I came here to make my life better,” he said.
He became a naturalized citizen and joined the Air Force shortly after he arrived in 1953, serving for more than a year before returning to the restaurant business.
In 1960, he came to the Washington, D.C., area on what was supposed to be a short trip. He liked the area, so he moved here with his wife, Rita, to help with a friend’s restaurant. He picked up construction work on the side.
While doing some construction work in 1965, he fell and hurt his back. Unable to do any physical labor, a friend suggested he go to barber school.
It didn’t take much convincing. He needed something to do while he got better.
The career ended up sticking. He worked for a small barber shop before landing a job at the Pentagon’s barber shop, where he worked for a couple of years. He then cut hair at Andrews Air Force Base. While he was there, a position opened up in the House of Representatives barber shop.
Quattrone contacted Rep. Wayne Hays, his Congressman from Ohio, and Hays helped him land the job.
On March 1, 1970, the day he was supposed to start his new job, a bomb went off in a women’s bathroom in the Senate. With all the chaos, it was decided he should start the next day.
Quattrone hasn’t left since, though times have changed. In 1970, each of the House office buildings, as well as the Capitol, had barber shops. There were 16 barbers employed back then.
Today, there are only two barbers besides Quattrone, and there’s just one barber shop, in Rayburn. Their jobs were privatized in 1994, and they now work on commission.
While those aspects of the job have changed, for Quattrone, the most important one hasn’t: He still gets to meet and talk with people every day.
Over the years, he’s become close with several Members. For years, he cut President Gerald Ford’s hair, when Ford was the House Minority Leader and vice president. He remembers cutting Ford’s hair just days before President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“He had no idea it was coming,” Quattrone said.
They remained close, and Quattrone attended Ford’s funeral in 2006.
On a recent morning, Rep. Bill Pascrell came into the shop, and the two sat on a bench sharing news of their respective Thanksgiving weekends. Quattrone explained that Pascrell is like a brother to him.
Pascrell, the grandson of Italian immigrants, came to Congress in 1997. In the years since then, Quattrone has become more than the man who cuts his hair while the New Jersey Democrat is in Washington. The two smiled as they shared stories of going to picnics at the White House and visiting the Embassy of Italy.
“We’re family,” Pascrell said.
Pascrell describes the barber shop as a saloon and Quattrone its head bartender.
“You don’t get a drink, but you get a lot of good advice,” he said. “You come in a lot of times just to talk.”
Another Member who frequents Quattrone’s chair is Sen. Mark Kirk. The two met when the Illinois Republican was an intern in the office of Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.). Quattrone recalls the young man who came in to get his hair cut, and a hint of pride enters his voice.
“I was one of the first people he told he was thinking of running for Congress,” Quattrone said. “He’s now a Senator, can you believe it?”
Kirk calls Quattrone an “absolute institution.”
“He’s touched so many lives — just look at the pictures on the walls,” Kirk said. “You ask about each one, and you get a story. He’s one of the crown jewels of the House.”