In here, in this pueblo of a building on a low-rent stretch of Natural Bridge Road in North County. Don't see too many white people outside from in here. Nope. Not on this corner. Might see a couple, though. There's a bus stop right out there. So the bus driver, maybe the bus driver white. Never know. Goin' west? The bus'll stop right in front of that soul-food spot -- what's it called? That one, with the boarded-up window and the Plexiglas around the counter. If you got the time, ol' girl in there'll dish up half-a-pound of cheeseburger and a can of Pepsi for less than $2. Can't even finish it, it's so big, but she'll wrap the other half up before the bus gets there, without you even askin'. Bus Stop Café, that's what they call it. And this barbershop, it's slapped up right next to it.
This barbershop, where haircuts are the means of salvation, and barbers clip their way out of purgatory. Where ghosts of black power, their countenances etched on the wall above -- Malcolm, Martin, Elijah, Nelson, they're all here -- can look down and even smile as they watch a self-proclaimed vessel of God named Leroy go about conducting what he describes as "organized chaos." Where yo'-mama ribs are flung with gusto from booth to booth by a street-hardened gallery of barbers, and where there's a Bible in the bathroom. Windows tinted dark, straight ghetto-style with glossy black vinyl tacked up on the inside and unedited hip-hop piping interminably through bookshelf speakers, Leroy's Barbershop quietly, fluidly -- so quietly, now, that some of the barbers themselves don't know it -- doubles as a waystation for young men, for the shop's young barbers, says this vessel of God, this 43-year-old vessel who proselytizes his God-given message clad not in a flowing tunic but a rumpled sweatshirt. But La La knows it. So do Monte, Marlon and even Little J-Cool.
Because it's in here where Dirty D stays undefeated in chess; where 'Dre's stopped slangin' and started rakin' the big cheese legally ("I didn't make this money the wrong way," he says, "and I don't gotta worry 'bout the po-lice pullin' me over, and if the po-lice say, 'Where you get it?'"); where Marlon's got a broker's license to go along with his love of hip-hop; where Brent's taking a full load of classes at Forest Park; where Montes determined to stay out of prison; where La La sagely opines on everything, animate or inanimate, in the barbershop.
"Well, Marlon ..." La La ponders for a moment the barber to his right. Patiently preparing for an epiphany, he draws his whirring clippers away from the half-trimmed crown below him. He's got it: "Marlon, he the type of person who'll go to the library and spray some fart spray at the front desk. He'll spray some fart spray real strong, and he ain't gonna say nothing. He'll think that's really cool. Marlon'll love something like that." It's in here where the barbers be flossin' with gold caps on their teeth and tats on their arms, but it's in here where Leroy'll make sure they also be flossin' with some good credit.
"Wash my dishes, yeah, that's right, wash my dishes," crows La La, leaning back, satisfied, as he allows Glenny Baby to swirl the overturned dominoes once again around a card table that's jammed between Leroy's booth and the wall. There are 10 booths, occupied by 11 barbers who wander in and out sporadically during the day, at Leroy's. Seems as if the quieter barbers are lined up to the left -- Dirty D, Brent, Little J, Chico. Livenin' up the right are 'Dre, Glenny, Leroy and La La, though Big B, who holds down the rear, and Marlon and Monte, buffers between Leroy and La La, are the patches of sane ground on the right side.
La La's systematically picking apart Glenny in some bones, and he's intent on letting Glenny, and anybody else within earshot, know about it: "You didn't know I was rollin' like that, did you?" La La's just won $2, the reg'lar dominoes payoff here at Leroy's. La La's got a pistol tattooed across his brawny forearm, with "Li'l La La" (his pops is the real La La) the banner on a supersized trigger. "It doesn't mean I'm violent," he's quick to clarify. "It just means don't pull that trigger."
Leroy plucked La La from the street 'bout six years ago. He only owned two clippers -- a master and liner -- but La La figured he could throw down a barber chair or two in his basement and start his own shop. He ran into Leroy at the Bus Stop Café next door and politicked 'bout prices for the chairs. By that weekend, Leroy'd set him up with a booth at his shop -- sanitizers, texturizers, combs, picks, the works. That's how it flow at Leroy's. The man don't advertise -- for barbers or patrons. It's ear to the street, word of the mouth, here at Leroy's. 'Dre got a booth by talking to Chico. Little J got a booth by talking to Leroy. Chico, well, Chico's Leroy's cousin. Glenny got a booth after peepin' the clientele slidin' in at Leroy's.
And that's how Leroy likes it. He likes his customers steady, but he steady likes to know 'em by name. He likes to have youngsters scampering about his shop; they're his hair collectors, busily pushing brooms a good foot-and-a-half taller than them; the payback's free linings and impunity to be at Leroy's. He likes to be businesslike, but he likes to know who won the last video game. He'll shush his babbling barbers. "Y'all freestylin'," he'll say. "Y'all freestyle too much." And then he'll freestyle himself, pulling a one-liner -- "We used to have a fight, but then a barbershop broke out." And the chattering picks up again.
"Hey, hey," calls La La to no one in particular. Little J and Chico look up from their booths directly across La La's. 'Dre pokes his head from around his booth at the front of the salon. All three are smirking, waiting for the punchline. Always slick (back in the day, a 12-year-old La La, with a little false advertising, a little cajoling and some raggedy clippers, bartered haircuts for candy with his 'hood's candy lady), La La throws a sly tilt of his chin up toward Glenny, who's strolling by. "What do a chicken look like with its beak cut off?" Muffled snickers. Snorts. Glenny only catches the tail end of the jibe. "What, y'all talkin' about me?" asks Glenny, indignant. "I look better than all y'all. Shoot, I don't know about you niggas, but I'm comfortable with my appearance." Primly straightening his shoulders, he walks off. Snickers and snorts no more; now it's uninhibited mirth at Glenny's expense -- until, from the back, Leroy's low monotone helpfully, if not correctly, notes that La La might in fact resemble Desmond Tutu.
Glenny, though, just has it rough sometimes. He's 34, significantly older than the other barbers at Leroy's; his hip-hop sag is a virtual no-show; he rarely wears jeans; the cuffs of the slacks he does pimp don't even scuff the floor; he deals with being called "Pops" periodically; he's thinking marriage; and he was gobbled up by Little J just the other night on a PlayStation football game.
Unlike Glenny, most of Leroy's barbers began at the barbershop in their late teens. But, like Glenny's own "Glenny Baby," nicknames are the standard here at Leroy's. And, if a barber don't already have one, or two, or three, either Leroy or La La is more than happy to oblige. 'Dre, Marly Marlo', Dirty D, Monte, Chico -- these are some of the more accepted monikers. Butt-Nekkid Barney and the Beard are a couple of the many still floating that have long since been rejected by ungrateful recipients.
Glenny knows he's the exception. He's only been at Leroy's one year. "Leroy, he get mad at me a lot," says Glenny, rolling his eyes. "Talkin' about, 'Man, I shouldn't have hired an older dude.' He don't think I wanna listen to him. I listen to him; I learn a lot from him. Matter of fact, whenever I get in the situation where I can open my own shop, I'll follow a lot of his standards. So I can never say I never learned from him."
Leroy, he has a way of making people listen to him. Perched on his booth amid the steady drone of buzzing clippers and barbershop pleasantries, his rounded chin heavily balanced on a supporting hand, Leroy deftly plays the South Asian mullah who nods off as his pupil recites Arabic verse and then, seamlessly, snaps to attention as soon as he detects a glitch. And if you're the cause of the glitch -- a customer harassing a barber, a barber covertly establishing a personal clientele, a street peddler (accepted visitors at Leroy's) too free with the customers -- you're next in line for a one-on-one conference at Leroy's booth. More often than not, he'll call you over by your name; if he doesn't, then you're a "Sister" or a "Soul Brother."
Skinny 'Dre -- Leroy calls him Skinny to distinguish him from the other shorter, stouter 'Dre up front -- is nervous. It's his first week at Leroy's, he's never managed his own business and he's stressin' the $50 weekly booth rent he owes Leroy on Friday. Leroy recruited Skinny 'Dre to help out Big B as an extra twister in the shop, and, even though the slender barber's already voicing his desire to find another gig, Leroy ain't about to let him go.
It's conference time.
Leroy's at the booth, Skinny 'Dre in his sights. But this ain't no man-to-man. It's coach to rookie, KRS-ONE to MC No Skillz, King Henry II to his son. Skinny 'Dre's jittery, an untamed colt. Glancing up, down, he scrutinizes the kinky hair clustered on the floor, mumbling his complaint from the side of his mouth. Don't work.
"Man, this Leroy's." Leroy's already exasperated. "People know me. You know what's wrong? You ain't got the work ethic. Look, here's a measuring stick: Glenny don't even like me; that nigga hates my guts." Glenny, who pays $125 for booth rent, looks up from his fade job and grins. "But he knows the money here. Why don't you try two weeks, and if you don't think you gonna make it, then quit." Skinny 'Dre still looks tentative, so Leroy shifts into second gear. "Your daddy lie to you when you was young?" he asks. Now Leroy's a therapist, gauging Skinny 'Dre's inner child. Skinny 'Dre nods yes. "You don't trust other black men? I'm not your father, man. I ain't got no reason to lie you. You gotta let that go to move forward in life. See my new Suburban outside? Fifty dollars ain't shit. How you think I worry about $50?"
Skinny 'Dre begins to bob his head confidently; his blue Yankees cap, tilted loosely to the right, jiggles with his movement, as if doubly affirming his understanding. But Leroy isn't finished: "Where's La La?" He raises his head. "La La, tell this dude about $50." La La, jivin' with a friend, coolly pulls up a chair, spins it around, sits down, leaning on the backrest. Now he's got Skinny 'Dre in his sights: "You want me to be sympathetic with you, or you want me to be real?"
"You gotta take that and wipe your ass with it. Fifty dollars ain't shit. It ain't nothing. It's gonna work out, man. Look at that picture up there." La La points to one of the dozens of snapshots taped to the bathroom door: a younger La La, with hair, clubbin' with Leroy. "Leroy, he took me to the clubs. I wasn't nothin' but 19."
So much on my mind that I can't recline
Blastin' holes in the night 'til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale the vapors from the bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke, retrace the skyline
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I can't take it y'all, I can feel the city breathin'
Chest heavin', against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving
-- Black Star, from Respiration
Leroy sighs; he's got so much on his mind. Usually it's smaller things, things related to the ordinary cotton of this task he has, this task of organizing chaos. So many little things, like convincing Skinny 'Dre he can run his own business, that he doesn't need to work for anybody else. Like preventing La La from hamming attention from a dreadlocked cameraman, at Leroy's to film a St. Lunatics commercial (members of the St. Lunatics used to work at Leroy's, and Nelly's still an occasional customer). Like making sure Little J puts enough money toward his heating bill. Like wondering where Dirty D has run off to.
But today this man, who has changed so much in the 10 years since he opened his barbershop, today his mind's drifting. He's been from the bottle to the Bible. He's loved the little pipe; now he loves his chewing gum. He's shape-shifted from a portly barber once consumed by his own animosity toward whites to a portly businessman now consumed by charting his own destiny. He's a more tolerant man. "I used to be a big gay-basher," he says, "and now I figure sexuality has nothing to do with intelligence." He gives people a chance. And so, today, his mind is drifting. Because it's people he's thinking about, today. Good people.
Today there's a whiff of something other than the usual lunches of chicken wings and Chinese noodles at Leroy's. Annette Green's funeral is today, and, as at Dylan's lyrical café from "Tangled Up in Blue," there's revolution in the air, here at Leroy's. He can't stop thinking about Annette. She was shot by the police less than a mile south of the barbershop. She was good people, he says, real good people; her family used to come by the shop. Quietly, Leroy has been beckoning his barbers toward his booth. One by one, he's been asking his barbers to ante up some money for Annette's family. Nothing much: $5, $10, even $2. Some contribute, some don't.
Then, money sealed in a sympathy card signed by barbers and customers in the shop and boxes of Popeye's Chicken and sodas stashed in the back of his Chevy Suburban, Leroy, with La La in tow, pulls around the barbershop and heads down Kienlen Avenue toward Annette's family reception at Wellston's community center. It's nothing but a five-minute drive. "That's where I saw my first person get kilt," he points out stoically as the Suburban cruises by a Taco Bell. Developers paid his mother about $1,500 to move out of her rundown home on that corner. "We was movin' up in the world," he says.
At the reception, Annette's friends and family -- there are a few hundred -- are milling around everywhere. Inside, lunch is being served cafeteria-style. Leroy and La La know more than half the people at the center. La La recruits some friends, deposits the food in the kitchen and begins gabbing. Leroy looks on. "Look at La La, he feelin' it," Leroy says. "He wants to stay. I want to stay, too, but I can't. Just have too much other stuff to do."
Less than 20 minutes later, the two are back outside the barbershop -- barber and barber, a vessel of God and a child of God. Leroy shakes his head. "I wished I coulda stayed," he mumbles. "I wished I coulda stayed." Then slipping back inside the barbershop, the barber with things on his mind vanishes into the tint of the windows.
So much on my mind that I can't recline ...