Chapter 4 – A White-Ass Dude Visits a Black-Ass Barbershop
Back when I’d been employed at the O’Shaughnessy family hose & fitting dynasty smack-dab in the ‘hood of Cleveland at a position my homeboy and his old man had been kind enough to hook me up with, I worked in the warehouse alongside a pair of dudes named Kevin and Dave under the supervision of Kevin’s brother, Dan. Occasionally accompanying us had been the J-Man – the half-black, fifteen-year-old cousin of my buddy Tim.
Although most of the time we’d all been busy crimpin’ hose and pimpin’ hoz, on days when business was slow, we’d all hang out and shoot the shit to make the workday pass by a little quicker. Since we were all lowbrow guys, the conversation always seemed to drift towards objectionable topics. On one not particularly hectic morning, Dan and I had been deeply involved in a discussion on the subject of pubes.
“So,” I began as Dan taped up a box, getting ready to send some hose fittings out via UPS, “last night after work I shaved my pubes into a Ziploc bag and mailed ‘em to the boss’s son out in Singapore.”
“I went home after work, went for a jog, got all sorts of sweaty and shaved a bundle of long red pubic hair into a Ziploc bag labeled ‘Super Mega Happy Fun Pubes’ and mailed ‘em to Tim Jr. out in Singapore.”
“You’re a madman,” he asserted while putting the finishing touches on his package. “Why? What’s the reasoning behind this?”
“No reason in particular. But uh, yeah dude, they were so sweaty too – the bag had a buncha pubic condensation in it ‘n’ shit,” I laughed. “Wish I could see the fuckin’ look on his face when he opens that shit up.”
“Is that even legal? How much does something like that cost to send halfway around the globe?”
“It cost like twelve bucks and is legal – in the states at least it is. I’d originally wanted to shit in a box and mail it out to him but in my online research I learned it’s considered a biohazard or something. But, yeah, hair’s okay though. Maybe in Singapore where being gay is illegal they might test the DNA of the pubes, find out they came from a dude and execute Tim for being involved in homosexual activities. I don’t know, man.”
He just laughed as he walked over to the cart where we’d leave boxes for UPS pick-up. From there he looked back at me and said, “I’ve got a pube story for you too.”
After Dan had gotten done sharing the gruesome details of a pube-trimming accident he once had which’d involved a snipped scrotum and a bloodied bathroom floor, I grimaced and attempted to change the subject. Since hair had still been on my mind…
“Yeah, so, uh, I was thinkin’ of gettin’ a haircut pretty soon – the hair on my head, that is. Ya know, since I already got a ‘smoothie’ downstairs as Dave would say.”
He gave me one of those “yeah, so what – why do I give a shit?” kind of looks and I felt the need to follow up with something relevant and/or mildly entertaining.
“You ever venture across the street to get your hair did over at the Superfly Barbershop?”
“Have I ever gone into the Superfly Barbershop for a haircut?”
“Yeah dude, and maybe even made an afternoon out of it by popping in next door afterwards for a bite to eat at Soulway Sandwiches – ya know, the place that blatantly stole Subway’s logo and menu while barely changing the name?”
“No,” he smiled, “I’ve never ventured into either.”
“No? After all these years you’ve been here?”
He shook his head.
“You think if I were to walk in there, they’d even have any idea how to cut a white boy’s hair?”
“Hard to say. But I do have a fascinating story about the difference between white and black man hair if you’d care to listen.”
I relayed my interest and told him to go ahead.
“Okay, okay,” he paused momentarily to gather his thoughts. “So, this story takes place back in the late eighties when a few friends and I decided to go to an Ice Cube and Too Short concert at a place called The Front Row in Mayfield Heights. The fact that this story stems from talk of a barber shop and includes Ice Cube is purely coincidental.”
“Alright,” I laughed.
“Now, The Front Row had a capacity of, I don’t know, say about three-thousand people maximum, right?”
“And for this particular show, the place’d been totally packed. Out of the three-thousand-plus there, I’d say that there were maybe a total of about six white people in the entire crowd – us included.”
“Damn, you guys must’ve stuck out like uh…like a bunch of white people at a gangsta rap concert.”
“Yeah. Exactly. So, when we arrived at this place there was security everywhere and to get in the front door of The Front Row, they were patting everyone down, taking away guns, taking away knives, taking away whatever people had on ‘em. I’d never seen so many weapons in my life. I mean, this was the 1980s. Sure, they have that sort of security all the time nowadays but nobody anywhere had that type of shit back in the 1980s. This was the first I’d ever seen of it.
“Now, if I remember correctly, Too Short was the headliner and Ice Cube was scheduled to play right before him. Unfortunately though, before we got to see Ice Cube, we had to sit through the opening act. And the opening act was a performance by this guy named D-Nice.”
“D-Nice? Never heard of him.”
“Yeah, well, that’s probably ‘cus he sucks.”
“Oh god, he was terrible,” Dan stressed. “You see, The Front Row had a rotating stage that would just go round and round so everyone in the crowd gets to see the performance the same way.”
“Wouldn’t that make the entertainer all dizzy ‘n’ shit?”
“Well, maybe, I don’t know. But the point is that when this guy picked up the mic, he was booed from every which way the stage’d faced. Right from the start, he didn’t stand a chance. It was so loud in there that he literally could not sing or rap over their booing – not that he could sing or rap that much to begin with which is why they’d been booing in the first place.”
“So, did the crowd get violent?”
“Nah, not especially. But everyone had been yelling ‘Fuck you!’ and ‘Get off the stage!’ and things like that. And during brief lulls in the booing, D-Nice would continuously try to begin his set with the line, ‘Yo yo, my name is D-Nice,’ and the whole crowd would begin again with the MF-ing. It was pretty wild.”
“Yeah, sounds like it.”
“Yeah, so D-Nice eventually quit trying to do his act but had no intention of giving up the microphone and instead started using his allotted time to cuss out the crowd. He’d yell shit like, ‘Hey, fuck y’all! I don’t care. I’m up here gettin’ paid, motherfucker! Fuck it! My name is D-fuckin’-Nice and I am gettin’ paid!’”
“Wow. Lucky for him everyone’s weapons had been taken away at the door, eh?”
“Damn straight,” he agreed. “So, while all this shit had been goin’ down, I decided to sneak off to the bathroom to take a piss before the real show started ‘cus I had a few beers before going there. And when I got up to the men’s room, it was completely empty except for these two guys who’d been hangin’ out in there, checkin’ themselves out in the mirror.”
“Yes, black dudes. One of the guys was like six-foot-ten and the other maybe a whole foot shorter. They were both wearing these full-length, brown fur coats and they both had these hairdos that were like – it’s so hard to explain – I wanna say like an old school, early James Brown type of hairdo.”
“Like jehri curls?”
“No, no, no. Not jehri curls. I really can’t describe it any better than I just did. They were like…they were like shiny tidal waves of hair – they looked like wigs, but they weren’t – that were held in place by several gallons of hairspray. It was the strangest sight I’d ever seen walking into a bathroom. I mean, my brother’s a white guy with three-foot-long dreadlocks so I thought I’d seen it all but, ya know, I gotta say, I’d never seen anything like what these guys had before or since.”
“So what then, you just whip out your embarrassing Irish wiener in front of these huge black dudes in that dimly lit bathroom?”
“Yeah, I had to go so I went. But afterwards, when I was washing my hands, I looked over at the guy who’d still been checking himself out in the mirror at the sink next to me.”
“Which guy? The big guy?”
“No, the big guy never talked. He just stood back in the shadows observing everything which made the situation all the more strange. But uh, since I was feelin’ good at the time with a few drinks in me, I looked over at the little guy and said, ‘Wow! Can I touch your hair?’ And he immediately jumped back the way Bruce Lee would when getting into a fighting stance, looked me right in the face and shouted ‘Can I touch yo’s!?’”
“He said it with that much enthusiasm?”
“Yeah, almost like he’d been hoping that I’d ask him all along.”
“So, what’d ya do?”
“Well, I fucking touched it. That’s what I did!”
“Oh my god. What’d it feel like?”
“It was like superglue – a rock hard, plastic, molded, sticky helmet of hair. It was disgusting but, at the same time, looked totally awesome.”
“Gross, yeah. It was gross,” he agreed. “So uh, then it was the guy’s turn to cop his feel. So I leaned in and put forth my red Irish mop for this black dude to touch in that scummy bathroom at that Ice Cube concert and he reached out, ran his hand through it and recoiled with this bizarre expression on his face. ‘Man, yo hair feel like a girl!’ he shouted.”
“Yeah?” I laughed. “Please tell me this story ends with you two making out and the big guy masturbating there in the background.”
“No, thankfully it didn’t. But at that point, goliath emerged from the shadows and both the fur coat clad gentlemen started walking at me and backed me up into the corner. Then the little guy was like, ‘Where yo seats at, man,’ and the big behemoth just stood there lookin’ ready to open up a whole case of whoop-ass on me.
“And uh, not knowing what to do, I just kept backing up and nervously whimpered, ‘Yeah, I’m in the seventh row, you guys should come check it out.’ And as they just kept coming at me, my intuitive ticker said, ‘Hey, it feels like time to get outta here’ and I ran out that bathroom as fast as I could and found my way back to my seat.”
While toiling away in the warehouse, I spent the rest of the day feeling strangely inspired by Dan’s story. Originally, when I’d brought up the idea of strolling into the Superfly Barbershop and requesting they cut the fiery red hair above my pasty vanilla face, I hadn’t been the slightest bit serious. However, after hearing my superior’s tale of interracial follicle outreach in a sleazy men’s room of a club that no longer exists, I felt the need to boldly go where no white man – police not included – had ever gone before.
That evening in the carpool home from work, I mentioned my plan to Kevin who initially laughed but then told me it might not be such a good idea.
“You know about Art McKoy, the guy who owns the Superfly Barbershop, don’t you?”
“Yeah, well, not too long ago – on Christmas Eve, I think it was – the police kicked down the door to that barber shop and Art McKoy was arrested for moving pounds of heroin and cocaine out the backdoor of the place. I don’t think I’d go in there if I were you.”
“Ahh, okay,” I thanked him for the heads-up that strangely made me wanna go even more.
The next day, I showed up at work fully ready to utilize my lunch break to walk across Euclid Avenue to hit up the Superfly Barbershop. Since I was so pumped for my adventure, that morning I decided to share my plans with Dave and a salesman named Ken who worked up in the office that’d been temporarily hanging out with us in the warehouse.
“What the hell?” Dave said. “You got a death wish or something?”
“Yeah,” Ken chimed in as he messily snacked on chips that crumbled onto the floor which he’d leave for us to sweep up the way he always did, “they’ll probably slit your throat with one of the shaving razors or something.”
“C’mon,” I replied, “that’s bullshit.”
“Whatever, man. I personally wouldn’t step foot in a homey barbershop but it’s your life, so you can do whatever you want.”
Although I didn’t really believe a word they said, I was still a bit shaken by the negativity and felt it wouldn’t hurt to try and get at least a little moral reinforcement before blindly delving into the unknown. So, a little later on in the morning as I’d been putting together a hose assembly in the back of the warehouse, I attempted to get some support for my lunch hour quest from my buddy Tim’s younger cousin, The J-Man.
The J-Man’s a dude who liked to narrate his every move at the warehouse in a droning, Roscoe Dash style rap voice as he neglected to carry out nearly every task he was assigned. When he wasn’t talking about smoking weed or trying to trick his coworkers into looking at raunchy homemade porn clips he’d pulled up on his cell phone, the J-Man would often regale anyone who’d listen with tales of his degrading sexual exploits.
“Yeah, right now I got this real gullible bitch,” he once told me. “I make her suck my dick from behind.”
“What!?” I laughed. “That’s ridiculous. How does that even work?”
“Well,” he replied, “I just kinda bend over, bend my dick backwards and make her suck my tip while her nose is all up in my asshole.”
Even though the J-Man wasn’t the ideal person from whom I could’ve gotten the support I felt I needed, I was pretty desperate at the time and decided to ask him to tell me that there’s nothing wrong with a white guy going to a black barbershop.
“Naw, man. That ain’t cool,” he informed me. “They wouldn’t let you in my barber shop.”
“What? What the fuck?” I asked. “Why not?”
“Ya know, ‘cus everyone there’s always talkin’ about young niggas breakin’ in their houses and shit.”
“So what?” I said. “I don’t hafta say anything. What, I can’t listen to talk about motherfuckers breakin’ in houses and shit? Why’s that?”
J-Slice just shrugged in what I interpreted as a nice way of saying “because you’re a fuckin’ honky.”
After the chat with my perverted little coworker, I started thinking that maybe going to the Superfly Barbershop wasn’t such a good idea after all. At the same time, however, I’ve never been one to back down after telling a whole mess of people that I’m gonna do something out of the ordinary. I was left feeling torn.
In order for you, the reader, to gain a better understanding of my dilemma and to show you exactly what I’d been getting myself into, I feel it’s necessary to tell you a bit about the neighborhood surrounding the Superfly Barbershop.
Near the intersection of Euclid and Ivanhoe on the border of Cleveland and East Cleveland sits a hoard of factories – many of them now closed – where the city’s industry once thrived. Not too far off is a residential neighborhood on the suburban side which I’d pass through every day on the way to work. Chock-full of blocks lined with century-old grandiose homes, the area – according to my coworker Kevin – had been developed by Rockafeller way back in the day.
This part of East Cleveland – a town where recent mayors have been caught in cross-dressing and corruption scandals, respectively – had once upon a time been an extremely affluent area that’s now no more than a shit-stain on the map that boasts little more than crater-sized potholes, buckling sidewalks and waist-high lawns that sit in front of busted-ass homes which, in a few cases, are in such disrepair that front porches have somehow managed to detach themselves from their host structures entirely.
Furthermore, it seems that scrappers have exacerbated the situation by stealing the gutters and any other pieces of metal off anything within reach, leaving several homes and businesses stripped down to a shameful nakedness. Even the copper dome atop the old Warner and Swasey Observatory wasn’t off limits to these crafty thieves, as I’d noticed that more and more of it seemed to go missing throughout my seven months working and living in the area.
One day while getting a ride to the warehouse from my coworker Dave, we’d been driving past that observatory when he called my attention to a totally bent-to-hell lamppost on the side of Taylor Road.
“Hey,” he said while pointing through the windshield, “you see that pole over there?”
“Yeah,” I responded, “what about it?”
“I was on my way to work one day and as I checked out the rearview mirror, I happened to see the car behind me swerve outta control and crash right into it.”
“Yeah. So I slammed on the brakes, parked my car up here on the side of the road and ran back to see if the guy was okay. And as I approached the car, I couldn’t see in through the windshield because it’d been completely covered in some sort of white liquid. I had no idea what it was so I ran up to the driver door, ripped it open and found this sloppy middle-aged black dude in a total haze. And then I looked up on the dashboard and sitting there had been a bowl, a spoon and a whole shitload of Cocoa Puffs spilled all over the place. Turns out the white stuff covering the inside of the windshield had been milk. The fuckin’ guy had been trying to eat a bowl of fuckin’ Cocoa Puffs while driving and crashed into a pole because of it. How ridiculous is that?
“So I’m like, ‘Holy shit dude, are you alright? You want me to call for help?’ And the guy just looks at me with milk all over his face and shirt and a nice little gash on his forehead and the only thing he has to say for himself is, ‘Don’t call the po-lice.’”
Of course, cereal-eating accidents aren’t the norm in the area but drugs are and for the credibility of the human race, I hope they played a major role in leading that driver to make such a dipshit decision.
One of my jobs at the warehouse had been to keep the surrounding area clean and while carrying out this never-ending task, I got a pretty good feel for what’s popular in the ‘hood. It seems that no matter how neat and tidy I’d leave the outer edges of Shamrock Hose & Fittings at the end of one day, by the next morning there’d be countless shattered bottles of generic moscato, errantly discarded tallboys of malt liquor and ridiculous amounts of White Owl blunt containers strewn about the property. Dave told me that during one of his clean-ups, he found an empty forty of King Cobra containing a half-smoked blunt that’d been extinguished in the jizz-filled reservoir tip of a used condom.
On some mornings when we’d get to work around eight o’clock, there’d already be customers lined up outside the shop waiting for us to open so they could get their hoses repaired and get on with their day. One morning, there’d been a car parked right in front of the door and I figured it was just another early-bird customer awaiting service. After we’d parked and walked up to open the shop for the day, however, we’d come to realize that the dude who’d been standing adjacent his car near the entrance already had everything he could ever need.
As his woman sat in the passenger seat of his ride holding his baby – I assume it was his, but I can’t be sure – and another little rug-rat hopped around in the backseat, my man’d been rollin’ a fat-ass blunt on the hood of his car which he’d moments later sparked up to start his day off right. Naturally, he’d thrown the White Owl container down on the parking lot and left it there for us to clean up which is cool and all – I can deal with it – but, for the sake of his family’s safety, I just hope that he didn’t have any Cocoa Puffs in the car.
Now, those stories are alright, but when it comes to tales of drug abuse in the ‘hood of East Cleveland, no anecdote I’d heard out there – and I’d heard plenty – compares to the one in which Dan, the warehouse manager, had stopped off at a local donut shop with plans of bringing a box of morning treats in for his coworkers.
“So I went into the shop and I was standing behind a few people in line and the whole time this woman in front of me was shouting at everyone – shouting at the people in front of her, shouting at the employees, just shouting for the sake of shouting. It was absurd. And when she finally got to the front of the line, I’m not even sure she knew why she was there. She just kept shouting and waving her arms and acting like a total asshole. And as she’s berating the poor girls behind the counter and flailing about, I noticed something had fallen out of her pocket. I looked down and what could it be other than a little baggie full of crack.”
“Oh snap. She was a crack bitch?”
“Oh yeah, she was a crack bitch. So I bend down and pick up this little bag of crack and start tapping her on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me ma’am…’ I said real politely but loud enough for everyone to hear. ‘What!?’ she snapped as she turned around ready to tear my head off. And I just held the bag up for everyone to see and said real loudly, ‘…but ya dropped your CRACK!’
“And then she got all frustrated and embarrassed then grabbed the bag from me and ran outta the shop, screaming nonsense. Might’ve been one of the best lines I’ve ever said though. ‘Excuse me ma’am, but ya dropped your crack,’” he smiled. “That’s East Cleveland for ya.”
So there you have it. That’s East Cleveland. It’s the exact opposite of the sheltered little xenophobic bubble of a cracker-ass neighborhood I grew up in on Chicago’s northwest side. I’ll admit that the idea of walking into a black-ass barber shop in this type of neighborhood had me on edge, but I’m all about stepping out of my comfort zone because, these days, I feel it’s the only way for me to grow as a person. Like Mark Twain once said, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” In suit, I stuck to the plan and went off to face my fears at lunchtime.
After taking the block-long walk from Shamrock Hose & Fittings, I arrived at the front door of the Superfly Barbershop, took one last breath of semi-fresh ghetto air and stepped into the unknown. Inside, two barbers worked on two customers. One of them, a middle-aged man, stopped cutting to look over at me.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yeah, I uh, I was wondering if you could straighten me up for Mother’s Day?”
“Alright, why don’t ya take a seat,” he used his clippers to point at a couch near the front door. “I’ll be with ya in a minute.”
Once I’d sat down, I began to ease up and feel more comfortable in my own skin. Much to my surprise, there was no barbershop banter touching on risqué topics as I’d seen in the movies. There were no bricks of heroin or cocaine being dealt, there was no talk of “young niggas breakin’ in houses” as the J-Man had prophesized and there certainly wasn’t anybody trying to slit my throat as Dave and Ken had imagined there’d be. Truth be told, it all seemed so eerily…so eerily normal.
From the checkered tiles on the floor up to the alternating colors of the ceiling fan’s blades, the storefront’s interior had been heavy on the stereotypical red, white and blue barbershop theme. On each side of the counter had been two very large statues of black panthers – the animals, not the social activists – which sat beneath a red, black and green Pan-African flag. Adjacent the front door had been a bulletin board which’d had dozens of photos tacked on it of professional athletes gettin’ their hair done and some other shots of the craziest etchings that’d ever been carved out on site.
As the radio pumped throwback jams on 93.1 WZAK, I ended up zoning out while watching the perpetually sunglass-clad Horatio Caine of CSI: Miami solve crimes in silence on a muted television. During this time, the female barber finished working on her customer and left for lunch. Soon enough, the other customer was out the door as well and it was my turn for a tune-up.
“What can I do for you today, young man?” the dude asked as he strapped the over-sized barbershop bib around my neck.
“Just cut it down and shape it up?”
“You got it,” he said before getting right down to business.
As I sat in front of the wall-sized mirror watching the barber do his thing, I took the time to appreciate how pimped-out this dude really was. Unlike any barber I’d ever seen before, this guy had been wearing a white suit jacket on top of a maroon turtleneck, beige khakis and a white beret to top it all off – not to mention the gold bands around his knuckles and the two rings on his left ear keepin’ all the haters jealous.
“So,” he began while pinching a lock of my hair with his left hand and snipping at it with his right, “you’re gettin’ your hair cut for Mother’s Day, huh?”
“That’s right,” I said, even though I wouldn’t be seeing my birth-giver on that particular holiday. “Don’t wanna be lookin’ like a slob for mama.”
“We gotta look good for our mothers,” he stopped cutting for a second to look at me in the mirror. “It’s important that we periodically let them know we takin’ care of ourselves.”
I agreed and he grinned, revealing unto me a single gold tooth which gleamed from the forefront of his smile.
As far as personal conversation goes, that was pretty much the extent of it. In fact, the only other thing that he said during the cut was, “You like me to taper the back?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” I said even though at the time I had no idea what that meant. “Taper away.”
The man was a master of his craft – a perfectionist whose refusal to let a customer out the door looking anything less than superfly was a testament to the standard of quality the shop’s name represents. Watching this man hop back and forth as he frantically snipped at individual strands and gracefully twirled around the wire of the clippers the way a member of The Pips might while providing back-up vocals at a Gladys Knight show, I totally lost track of time.
Thanks to the way he’d given his undivided attention to every last hair on my head – mustache and beard included – this was easily the most time-consuming haircut I’d ever gotten. Having spent close to an hour in the hot seat, my delayed post-lunch return must’ve made my co-workers assume I’d been killed as they’d predicted. Nevertheless, I left the Superfly Barbershop sporting the best haircut I’d ever gotten, looking almost as fresh as the dude who’d lined me up.